Our Laguna: Performers croon love songs at cabaret

Love bloomed at the Laguna Nursery's Valentine's Day Cabaret on Saturday night.

Performers crooned and warbled songs of love found, love lost, love on the rebound and cupboard love, all accompanied by pianist Saif. His grand piano was set on the main floor against a backdrop of plants, antiques and those pink and red metal garden decorations featured at the nursery.

"Anyone who wants to hear about something else will have to come another night," Saif said.

He warmed up the audience with "Making Whoopie," followed by Kathi Gillmore, who hopped on the piano in true chanteuse style to sing her first number before joining Saif in a duet.

Disneyland performer Bill Ledesma was next at the microphone. He previously worked with Saif at dinner shows, so he was right at home at the Cabaret, where folks ate, drank and in some cases chatted during the performances.

Ledesma sang "My Funny Valentine," the holiday's quintessential tune from the 1937 Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart musical "Babes in Arms."

Rufino Cabang, scion of the clan that owned the Royal Hawaiian for more than 50 years, sang "All I Ask of You" with a twist.

A veteran of "Lagunatics," Cabang got the hang of parodies: Forget the bouquets and boxes of chocolates, diamonds, a Rolex and Italian loafers was his version of "All I Ask of You."

That may not have been exactly what Cabaret regular Mary Ferguson had in mind when she requested a song from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Les Miserables."

Cabang also had some fun with "Love was Made for You and Me" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" — preferably someone with lots of money.

Ed Ramirez sang a duet with Saif, his partner for 14 years.

"And what could be more romantic than Frank Sinatra?" Saif asked. So Ramirez sang "Strangers in the Night."

Diana Morris made her first appearance at the nursery's cabarets. She sang that saddest of all love songs: "The Way We Were," from the movie of the same name that starred Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford as two people who loved each other but could not live together.

Gillmore came back to the microphone to perform "Angel of the Morning," which has hit the charts for several singers, including Olivia Newton-John and Dusty Springfield, as well as the Pretenders.

Singer Nelson Coates, a member of the Laguna College of Art & Design board of trustees, introduced his good friends Virginia and Hugh O'Brian, star of the television series "Wyatt Earp."

"He used his fame to do something that really makes a difference," Coates said.

Coates met O'Brian when he was 16 and attending a development program with Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership, a nonprofit known as HOBY, founded in 1958. More than 10,000 high school sophomores annually attend more than 70 programs presented each year in 50 states and 20 countries. Since its inception, more than 355,000 young people have participated.

The program was inspired by O'Brian's nine-day visit with Dr. Albert Schweitzer. It is based on individual potential and the choices made to realize that potential.

O'Brian, now 83, watched the Cabaret wearing a skullcap and clothing that made his wheelchair look like King Lear's throne.

"Thank you," O'Brian said of the recognition. "Send money."

Guests were greeted at the Cabaret with chocolate martinis or wine and trays of cheese, crackers and fruit.

Sally Coffey wrote the name of each guest on their glass with a nifty pen made for just that purpose — and saved a ton of dishwashing by caterer Naya Johnson.

Nursery bookkeeper Chrissy Black organized the food but had another commitment that night so she missed out on the stuffed mushrooms, wonton cups filled chicken salad, jalapeno corncakes, mini shrimp tostadas, lemon bars and cherry-topped cheese tartlets.

Nursery owner Ruben Flores — and could he have a more appropriate name — presented a white rose to the females in the audience.

The crowd was the largest ever for the cabarets that have been held since Flores bought Laguna Nursery, once known to insiders as "Pete's Place," named for long-time owner Takahashi "Pete" Kawaratani.

Among the ladies: Sande Schwarzstein, Theresa Billings, Melinda Masson and Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson, who brought 15 people to the cabaret, including Dr. Dan Hasbert, Jerry Curtain, John Gustafson and Jim Moore.

A landscape designer, Flores bought the nursery a couple of years ago. A fixture on South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, the 1 1/2 -acre retail operation was slated to be replaced with commercial storage units when Flores bought the business and brought back its original name.

It is filled with decorator items for inside and outside homes. Flores brings in pieces he uncovers on his landscaping forays in Europe and Asia.

Flores, the president of the Beautification Council, was instrumental in organizing the South Laguna Community Garden and is active in raising funds for the gardeners to buy the land they have tilled for three years.

He also conducts Sunday morning walking tours.

For more information, visit the nursery at 1370 S. Coast Hwy. or http://www.lagunanursery.net or call (949) 494-5200.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (714) 966-4618 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.

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