As any regular viewer of Entertainment Tonight, E! Entertainment Television, or CNN's ShowBiz Today knows, there seems to be a star-crammed charity event in Los Angeles every day. Actually, there seem to be about five of them. The ritual is now utterly familiar: hundreds of celebrities in tuxes, sequins, and weird designer frocks savoring the high life in order to save the world. Putting on these events has become a nearly scientific exercise, as well as a major industry. Most event planners know exactly whom to invite, whom to honor, what to serve, how to hustle donated ice sculptures, where to toss the party, and how to lure the media. To learn the tricks of the carriage trade, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY interviewed dozens of charity organizers and guests and milled around at several recent blowouts, ranging from a sit-down dinner honoring Ginger Rogers to a fashion show/luncheon for Ed Begley Jr. to a ski outing thrown by Steve Kanaly (Dallas).
Although celebrity benefits are hardly new, the calculus of the events has changed in recent years. It turns out that even the events that look unconscionably lavish usually have their own internal financial logic. Party planners maintain that a certain level of glamour and ostentation is actually essential. Otherwise, attendees might take their sequins elsewhere. It's very competitive out there. ''Without any stars, you're reduced to society coverage,'' says Howard Bragman, head of Bragman & Co., Beverly Hills publicists. Some critics at fledgling relief groups, however, growl at the glitz, although they are loath to go on the record because they need the money that the stars bring in. They say that celebrity benefits can be hypocritical displays when attended by wealthy people who couldn't care less about the causes but show up just to have fun.
Nonetheless, the extravagant dance of producing a Hollywood charity gala probably does more good than you might think; roughly $162 million was raised at such benefits last year alone. And the L.A. Social Service Department says that, on average, a generous 64 cents of every dollar taken in at local fund-raisers goes to the charity versus the 60-cents standard used by the National Charities Information Bureau, a watchdog group. [Note: At times, fund-raising statistics are subject to the same accounting magic and wishful thinking as tax returns and movie studio profit statements.]
Many celebrities, though, merely serve as charity figureheads (''Show me a humanitarian and I'll show you a guy without a television series,'' Ed Begley Jr. recently cracked at a benefit in his honor), and some groups headed by entertainers are less than stellar successes financially, to put it charitably. For example, Dionne Warwick's AIDS organization, the Warwick Foundation, has been plagued by money woes since its creation in 1988. A November 1990 article in the Los Angeles Times said that Elton John severed his ties with a group called Athletes and Entertainers for Kids because his $25,000 donation never reached the family of AIDS victim Ryan White, as intended. The California attorney general nd the city of Los Angeles also penalized that charity last year for failure to file required financial disclosure reports.
The Ginger Rogers benefit, a March 1 black-tie dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel for the Friends of Childhelp, which assists abused children, provided a microscopic view of the Hollywood charity scene. While eight TV camera crews filmed, fans applauded the arrival of Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Donald O'Connor, Monty Hall, Cesar Romero, Bea Arthur, Phyllis Diller, Ann Miller, Red Buttons, and that ubiquitous ballhopper, Mr. Blackwell. Not a young, hip crowd to be sure, but a great draw for the media, with far more than the requisite three ''good names'' it takes to attract the likes of Entertainment Tonight. A promise of three good names also induces other celebrities to show, since one of the first questions a charity invitee asks is: ''Who's going to be there?''
As is customary, the celebrity guests at the Rogers bash didn't have to pay for dinner ($250 to $1,000 a plate for mere mortals), which featured butterfly salmon pâté with caviar and peppered chateaubriand with port wine glacé. ''Comping'' the stars is worth it, say observers of the party scene: Big names add cachet to an event and make it more likely that donors will come back next year.
Picking a ''fresh'' honoree, somebody who hasn't been feted lately, can also help pack the house. The 79-year-old Ginger Rogers is one such ''under-honored'' personality, says actress June Haver MacMurray, chairwoman of the benefit and wife of Fred. ''At first, Ginger said no,'' she says. ''But then I sent her a big package about Childhelp. That convinced her.''
Having corralled Rogers, MacMurray's real work began. She hired Events Unlimited to help organize the do and send out 4,800 invitations. Then she began asking everyone she knew to volunteer their help. Andy Williams, Toni Tennille, Rich Little, and Donald O'Connor agreed to perform for free. A video retailer friend donated table favors 450 videotapes of assorted Ginger Rogers films. The Beverly Hilton Hotel supplied a huge ice sculpture shaped like a dove plus a suite for Rogers. Above all, five supporters of Friends of Childhelp contributed a total of $125,000, underwriting the cost of the dinner, which netted $400,000.
It's easy to see how such arrangements can yield a nice profit for a charity. But sometimes the benefits of a benefit are not so obvious. Consider the Steve Kanaly Invitational Celebrity Ski Classic for the March of Dimes, held a few weeks ago at Bear Mountain, a two-hour drive from L.A. Staring at his free Polish sausage, baked beans, and Michelob Light, celebrity guest/ skier Joe Spano (Hill Street Blues) asked with a smile: ''How does this raise money?''
The answer goes something like this. At the Kanaly shindig, some 150 patron racers paid $250 apiece for two days of skiing with B-list stars like Lorenzo Lamas and Britt Ekland. Sponsors such as Marker (ski gear) and Hawaiian Tropic contributed more than $50,000 in cash. A raffle and auction brought in another $42,000. Sales of T-shirts, pins, and programs yielded $4,000 more. With a gross of just over $140,000, the event netted about $100,000.
Why do celebs attend so many benefits? Clearly, many like combining good works with pleasure. ''That way I can give something much more graciously,'' says James B. Sikking (Doogie Howser, M.D.), whose appearance at the Kanaly Invitational marked his third consecutive celebrity ski trip. Other motivations include guilt, friendship, networking potential, image rehabilitation, and the need for adulation or, at least, recognition.
Often, however, the rewards are more tangible: Celebrities may get fairly valuable freebies just for showing up. Each star at Kanaly's ski classic, for instance, got a free ski jacket, ski poles, boot bag, sunglasses, and assorted personal care products. Estimated total retail value: $400. ''Celebrities love freebies, no matter how rich they are,'' says Rita Tateel, president of Celebrity Source, a matchmaker for charities. ''I've seen some of them scramble over Nike sneakers. When I told one star we were out of her size, she called four times the next week to see if her pair had come in.''
Every now and then, a well-intentioned fund-raiser, like someone representing local schools, boldly tries to raise money without glitz or goodies. Frank Johnson, the Price Waterhouse accountant in charge of tallying the Oscar ballots, thinks such benefits are a great idea. But he concedes that when he gets an invitation to such affairs, he seldom attends. And the charity doesn't get his money.
Some celebrities show up at more Hollywood benefits than others. Leading the pack is Cesar Romero (The Joker on TV's Batman), who, charity insiders say, would attend the opening of a tuna can. Other regulars:
Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry
These are the charity events the stars love to attend:
The Carousel Of Hope Extravaganza
Chaired by billionaire oilman Marvin Davis and his wife, Barbara, to benefit the Children's Diabetes Foundation
The AIDS Project Los Angeles Annual Dinner
Big with young celebs and rock stars. Madonna always shows.
The Pediatric AIDS Foundation Time For Heroes Luncheon
Chaired by Elizabeth Glaser; an AIDS victim and wife of actor Paul-Michael Glaser
The Cedar-Sinai Medical Center Women's Guild Annual Movie Premiere
Popular with older stars
The Environment Media Association Annual Benefit
Last year, EMA and the Rainforest Foundation threw a concert featuring Sting. EMA's bigwigs: Norman Lear, Ted Danson, Goldie Hawn, Billy Crystal.
MOST DESIRABLE GUESTS
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver
*Borderline Shut-Ins, Unlikely To Attend