The Crowd: SCR takes center stage at gala

There was a time, not many years ago, when Orange County was the cultural stepchild of Los Angeles. Boy, have things changed. Today, on many fronts, the O.C. leads the charge in such areas as the performing arts, visual arts, healthcare and scientific advancement, and all the while enjoying a standard of living that is enviable worldwide.

The proof of Orange County's cultural achievement was displayed Saturday evening at a first-class event marking the golden anniversary of South Coast Repertory. The 50th celebration unfolded on the grounds of the theater in Costa Mesa, which was the vision of two men who began their journey in San Francisco in the early 1960s as young actors wanting to follow their dream of creating a lifelong career in a business that takes no prisoners and has no mercy.

Martin Benson and David Emmes left San Francisco and landed in the O.C. at a time when it was still mostly a rural, agrarian-based economy, only beginning to show the signs of mid-20th century prosperity in a new age. The asphalt on the 405 San Diego Freeway had barely dried, Henry Segerstrom as a young man was busy laying the foundation for his future empire, and the Irvine Company still had herds of cattle grazing on the hillsides.

But the two actors from the city saw the region as the perfect fertile ground to build their dream. First, even though the population was small, there was money in the county, and it was money in the hands of men and women who had a sense of cultural destiny. Second, there was absolutely no competition.

So, South Coast Repertory, which began with other names long forgotten, was born in the garage of one of the founders' home and in its infancy was a theatrical company that lived out of the back of an old station wagon.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary gala, the romantic stories of decades past were shared with more than 400 of Orange County's most influential citizens, who came together on this one night, dressed to kill, to tell the world that the O.C. is every bit the cultural adult as is its sister city 55 miles to the north.

The crowd arrived at South Coast Repertory exiting their cars as valets whisked them away to enter an elegant al fresco arena carpeted in gold and hung overhead with billowing ivory silk awnings.

Acrobatic women, known as the Taittinger girls, hung in shimmering gold leotards from the rafters, teasing the guests as they entered the party while wait staff in crisp black and white uniforms passed hors d'oeuvres on silver trays offering the signature cocktail of the night, a pomegranate martini sprinkled with gold dust and rimmed with sugar. For those preferring the bubbly, Taittinger Champagne flowed.

The gala evening was created by the unstoppable honorary chair Julianne Argyros, who was arguably the belle of the ball, dressed in a couture gown of multicolored splashes of color on a white background, cut low and flourished with a ruffled train at her heels.

Argyros, joining her husband, the former ambassador to Spain, George Argyros, as well as a contingent of the Argyros grandchildren, addressed the gathering and said, "From the time I was 5 years old, I always wanted to become an actress. I love the stage and have a close personal affection for the theater in general. At a certain point in life, I had to face the fact that I did not have the talent to become that actress, but I have been fortunate enough over the years to share great joy being associated with South Coast Repertory theater."

The success of the night also belonged to three extraordinary women, who along with Julianne Argyros, raised more than $1 million net in support of the repertory's mission. Vice chairs Bette Aitken, Sophie Cripe and Yvonne Jordan were arguably the power trio that made everything happen.

Following the cocktail reception, the crowd was ushered to the Segerstrom Stage for a formal presentation, which was also an intimate tribute led by SCR board chair Damien Jordan.

Major donors and past individuals in SCR leadership roles were introduced, including Henry and Elizabeth Segerstrom, Sally Segerstrom, Sandy Segerstrom Daniels, Steve and Susie Perry, John and Mary Tu, Trish and John O'Donnell, Barbara and David Cline, Timothy and Jean Weiss, Elaine Weinberg, Wylie Aitken, Robert and Nadine Hall, Tod and Linda White, and Paul Folino, to name only a few.

The tributes and introductions were followed by a commissioned performance by Chicago's famed Second City comedic troupe. The satirical review by four talented young performers captured the essence of the SCR journey from its roots of invisible stature right up to its present status as one of the finest regional theaters in America.

The presentation of tributes was capped with two extraordinary gifts. Both were surprises even to the SCR staff. A hush fell over the audience seated in the Segerstrom Stage as Julianne Argyros shared that she and George and the Argyros Family Foundation would donate an additional $2 million, bringing the evening's total raised to $3 million net.

If that was not enough, following the cheers from the crowd, Folino, the chairman of Emulex, a major SCR donor for whom the theater complex is named, stepped up to the microphone and told the crowd, "I have had my name on this theatrical complex for the past 11 years and on the occasion of this golden celebration, I feel the most appropriate gift I can give is to have the theater renamed in honor of Martin Benson and David Emmes." Both gentlemen sitting behind Folino grabbed their hearts.

Dinner was served under the night sky supervised by David Man, executive chef from Palm Terrace Catering at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach. An impressive four-course menu began with caviar followed by a cup of vichyssoise. A second course of Chilean sea bass was followed by tenderloin of beef on potato cake and then a decadent dessert of chocolate salted caramel mousse cake. Wine parings were generously provided by the Bluewater Grill.

Following dinner, patrons were invited into "Club Argyros" for dancing until dawn accompanied by a late-night feast that included such fun foods as beef sliders, truffle popcorn and milkshake shooters.

Glamorous patrons supporting the night included Maralou and Jerry Harrington, Socorro and Ernesto Vasquez, Mary Beth Adderley, the beautiful Barbara and Alex Bowie, Elizabeth and John Stahr, Marilyn and Tom Sutton, Dee and Larry Higby, John and Anne Wortmann, Gregson Hall and Michelle Ultimo. Supreme sponsorship of the night came from South Coast Plaza and Mikimoto jewelry company.

THE CROWD runs Fridays. B.W. Cook is editor of the Bay Window, the official publication of the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach.

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