“My father, who was the funniest man I ever knew, told me early in my career to always leave my audience with something warm and meaningful at the end of the show,” said comedic legend Jerry Lewis, fronting the “Gift of Hope” annual gala Saturday night at the Island Hotel, in Newport Beach.
He continued, “So permit me to leave you with this thought. A friend in need…is a pest.”
The audience roared. It was the conclusion of a half hour of impromptu, non-stop laughter, courtesy of a man who, for more than half a century, has done at least two amazing things in life: kept the world laughing hysterically at his antics and, more significantly, as the voice of hope for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., led the charge by raising $2.45 billion in search of a cure.
This year’s event honored the association’s Man of the Year, Art Kazarian, the “Godfather of Green.” Kazarian has built a career in the waste recycling business, which has earned him a national reputation. Married to his wife, Kathleen, in 1958, he is the father of three sons, Gary, Kory and Kris.
Family and friends turned out in full force to honor Kazarian, selling out the ballroom at The Island Hotel. The evening had the feel of old Las Vegas meets Beverly Hills and a little bit of New York thrown in for good measure. Handsome gents in black tie and gorgeous gals in floor-length gowns came together to raise major bucks for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.
In the middle of the program, Frank Di Bella, the association’s Gift of Hope chairman, asked the crowd if it would be willing to donate money to send youngsters suffering from muscular dystrophy to summer camp. Since its inception in 1955, the association’s summer camp program has allowed more than 4,000 children to have a summer camp experience at some 90 camps nationwide. The association picks up the $800 tuition for each camper.
Di Bella asked the crowd to raise its hands and sponsor a camper. He told those in attendance that the major benefactor of the evening, S. Paul Musco and his charming wife, Marybelle, would match donations to a most generous $50,000. Within seconds, hands were raised and voices were shouting donations across The Island Ballroom — not just sponsoring one child, but many gave enough money to send two, four, six, eight, 10 and even 20 children to summer camp.
The generosity was mind-blowing and heartwarming. Many in attendance were members of the Nobel Vikings Men’s Charity and a fraternity known as Triple X, an Armenian social organization that contributes to local causes through year-round fundraising efforts. Major underwriters in addition to the Muscos included former Prime Minister of Yugoslavia Milan Panic and his wife, Milena, Wayne Smith, Wing Lam, Ed Lee, Mingo Lee, and Augie and Lynne Nieto.
Jerry Lewis paid a major tribute to benefactor S. Paul Musco, telling the audience that in his lifetime he has been fortunate enough to count John F. Kennedy and world renowned surgeon Michael DeBakey among his friends.
Lewis looked directly at Musco and said, “I consider you to be a friend in that same league. I am honored to know you.”
Dinner service was the finest The Island Hotel has ever served. The party began with hors d’oeuvres, including baby rack of lamb and salmon en croute, followed by a service of selected antipasto, olives, meats, cheeses and condiments tableside, a designer salad drizzled in a creamy garlic vinaigrette and then an entrée of filet mignon paired with grilled jumbo scampi in a garlic butter sauce.
One of the highlights came between courses as a young girl named Abbey Umali, the 2010 muscular dystrophy national goodwill ambassador, addressed the crowd and ended by singing “I Was Changed for the Better,” an emotional song from the Broadway musical “Wicked,” which garnered an enthusiastic ovation from the dedicated audience.
During the evening, Lewis interspersed his program with hysterical black-and-white clips dating to the 1960s of himself performing with other comedy legends Norm Crosby, the late Henny Youngman, Totie Fields, among others.
Auction duties were handled by celeb auctioneer Chuck Dryer. Master of ceremonies responsibilities were handled with style by Mike Villani. Spotted in the crowd were John Postma and Kristilyn Goff, Mike Russell, the lovely Michelle Di Bella, Dennis Kazarian, and Claire, Dick and Alex Fisher. By the end of the night, a remarkable $425,000 was raised that may one day provide the breath of life to children and adults who are the victims of muscular dystrophy.