Celebrity presence has always been an essential part of the game at Los Angeles charity events, but this fall organizers may have outdone themselves. Consider:
George Clooney will be honored at the Carousel of Hope Ball.
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and comedian-actor-musician Steve Martin will speak on behalf of artists Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman, respectively, at the Hammer Museum's Gala in the Garden.
And if that's not enough star power, pop supernova Katy Perry has signed on to perform.
In the high-stakes game of charity fundraisers, where one night's take can exceed $1 million and on occasion top $3 million, gala organizers are clearly making it a priority to line up A-listers to honor, present, emcee and entertain.
This makes sense, especially in Los Angeles. After all, Hollywood's royalty is part of the greater community too. But does such luminosity make a difference to the bottom line? Most gala organizers say they already have a base of support, but, yes, the celebrity factor is meaningful. Especially now, given the ever-present attention to celebrities on the Internet and the popularity of social media that allow celebrities to tweet their every move and passion to loyal followers.
David Morehouse, assistant director of donor relations at the Hammer Museum, whose Gala in the Garden is scheduled Oct. 6, says most of the guests buy a table because they love the Hammer. But he agreed celebs are a draw.
"Someone might decide to come because they love Cindy Sherman or Barbara Kruger, or because Steve Martin is funny," he said. "Maybe they're fans of Rachel Maddow and they'll buy a $25,000 table." And lest anyone doubt Perry's appeal, the recording superstar has more than 25 million Twitter followers (@katyperry).
For the Los Angeles Philharmonic, there's no need to stray far for a big name — Music Director Gustavo Dudamel is a rock star of the music world. "Gustavo is world-renowned," said Joan Hotchkis, gala co-chair along with Carolyn Powers.
At the "The Philharmonic Dances" on Sept. 27, the maestro will conduct a program of ballet, contemporary and Broadway-style dancing, before joining guests for dinner and dancing.
Likewise, the L.A. Opera has its own world-renowned star, Plácido Domingo, as general director. At Ignite! A Gala Celebration on Sept. 15, guests will dine and hear Domingo sing his 140th role in "The Two Foscari" before he, conductor James Conlon and the cast head over to the "Aria" after-party, chaired by Stana Katic of TV's "Castle."
Katic's involvement is no one-time fluke. She comes often to the L.A. Opera, and gala chair Jill Baldauf said she "couldn't be happier" that the actress is taking part in this year's plans.
"People could see it was a fun party," she said, adding that ticket sales for this year's gala brought in $1 million so quickly that the committee raised its goal to $1.5 million.
"The whole media scene has changed," said Judy Levy of Levy Pazanti & Associates, which specializes in event coordination and fundraising. "Like everybody else, celebrities are committed and care and want to give back, but now they have more opportunities to let people to hear about it.... There's no down time. You can be tweeting, texting, emailing 24/7."
And Levy believes that's a good thing, saying, "Special events should be 50% money and 50% building awareness."
So what if some guests don't recognize the latest pop stars? Publicist Katy Sweet said the balance is more important. "The charity has to bring in younger people to continue to grow. Maybe some guests don't know a name, but their kids do."
Spielberg famously remarked in 2009 when being honored by the Anti-Defamation League: "What my kids will remember is that I met Adam Lambert tonight."
The whole world knows Clooney, but Carousel of Hope chair Barbara Davis said she got the idea to honor him while watching "The Descendants." She had gone to see the film with a friend, music impresario Clive Davis.
"It was so crowded in the theater that we had to take seats in the first row and crank our necks up to look at the screen. Clive turned to me and said, 'He's the person you should honor,' and I realized he was right. Here's a man who really cares — for Haiti, for Darfur. He is to be admired."
Davis recalled the "Hope for Haiti Now" telethon for the earthquake victims in Haiti, which Clooney organized in 2010, and his many other humanitarian pursuits, which have included drawing attention to the atrocities in Darfur through his television special "A Journey to Darfur" and addressing the U.N. Security Council about the conflict in this troubled region of Africa.
Davis well knows the power of having noteworthy names. Jay Leno is on tap to emcee the Oct. 20 Carousel of Hope gala, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds is set to perform, and the many gala committees include as members Brad Pitt, Barbra Streisand, Denzel Washington, Maria Shriver, Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman, Magic Johnson, Seth Rogen, Halle Berry, Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Anjelica Houston, Cindy Crawford, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas.
"Everybody enjoys seeing stars. We all do. I do," said Davis, who has raised more than $75 million for the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes since the first ball in 1978.
For the Oct. 27 LACMA gala, DiCaprio seemed a natural fit as co-chair. "He represents new Hollywood, old Hollywood, young Hollywood, and he's such a good friend of the museum," said Eva Chow, the evening's other co-chair.
"LACMA is honoring filmmakers as artists. That's the important point here," she said. "We are in Hollywood and we have the library of film, a great film program and great people involved."
Like last year's gala, this year's event, priced at $5,000 and up per ticket, is expected to attract artists from different worlds — cinema, visual arts, music — plus prominent business leaders and fashion figures. (Frida Giannini, creative director of presenting sponsor Gucci, is host committee chair.)
"Celebrities like to meet celebrities in other fields," Chow said. "All that positive energy — that's what makes a good party."
One of the pioneers in understanding how to use her high profile for a good cause was the late Elizabeth Taylor, who teamed up with Macy's 25 years ago for its Glamorama fashion fundraiser, when the department store was about to launch her first fragrance.
Patrick Smith, Macy's regional special events director, said Taylor wanted to educate people and underscore the importance of AIDS testing. Inspired by her activism, Smith said, Macy's turned its annual fashion show for its best customers into an AIDS fundraiser, which has poured $30 million into helping those living with HIV and AIDS.
"She knew her fame would carry the message across the world. There were times when she was bedridden for six months, 10 months at a time, but when September rolled around, if she could only take 10 steps in a year, she was taking those 10 steps to the podium," he said.
Today, even without Taylor, the fashion show goes on. This year's Glamorama Sept. 7 is scheduled to include Nicole Richie launching her capsule collection for Macy's Impulse; performances by singer-songwriter Robin Thicke and pop duo Karmin; and guests including Camila Alves, Ali Landry and Cheryl Burke. The night will benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles and Project Angel Food.
"Elizabeth definitely built the base," Smith said of what has now become a powerhouse of a show. "There are so many reasons people now come — the fashionistas, who are excited about clothes and want to see who's new on the runway, the social people who want to see who's there and the people who come for the cause."
"We can never replace Elizabeth," Smith said. "But people who were buying that $10,000 ticket are still buying them. They're not walking away because they're not getting a moment with Elizabeth."
Olivier covers the Los Angeles party scene at SocietyNewsLA.com.