Friday, October 18, 2013

Wallis's world: The Annenberg heir launches Beverly Hills performing arts center with glamorous gala

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October 18, 2013 | 4:55 pm

Posted by Danielle Berrin

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If Wallis Annenberg hadn't become famous for her philanthropy, she'd have become famous anyway for her parties.

The billionaire heiress to father Walter's publishing fortune - who at one point counted TV Guide and Seventeen magazine among his holdings - has none of her father's business ambition but soundly inherited his public beneficence. With an added flair for fashion, art and culture.

With the launch of the latest public work to bear their name - the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, soon to be known as simply, The Wallis - the Annenberg heiress has proven she isn't merely standing on the shoulder of a visionary giant, but has become one herself.

Two city blocks in Beverly Hills were closed last night to make way for a gaggle of glamorous guests out to celebrate the center's grand opening, including Eli Broad, Vanessa and Jacqui Getty, Gia Coppola, Ed Ruscha, Jodie Foster, Charlize Theron and rock-star couple Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale -- to name a few. "This," one prominent Jewish philanthropist and million-dollar donor gushed, "is an A-list party."

But the belle of the ball was really Wallis, who without much fanfare has expanded her father's emphasis on education and media to include the arts, environmental activism, social justice and animal welfare. And in recent years, she has quietly championed a number of public works in Los Angeles that have made it a more admirable city.

In addition to running the family foundation that built the Annenberg Schools for Communication at UPenn and USC, the Annenberg Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City, the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica and countless other communal initiatives, Wallis offered the lead gift to build a swanky, state of the art theater facility at the historic Beverly Hills Post Office, transforming the place that once processed Tennessee Williams's letters into a place that could also stage his plays.

The onetime brick building has been boldly restored in bronze and marble, as glamorous and gleaming as the thousand guests that poured out of luxury cars and into the grand Roman hall, where Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo set up a "pop up" shop where guests could buy architectonic stilettoes and golden clutches as costly as a piece of art.

"They're saying this line is Old Hollywood," one of the sales attendants told me, "but I think it's more Andy Warhol."

Old meets new might have been the theme of the evening, where the Post

Office built in 1933 under FDR now swarmed with stars and celebrities and

ladies tasked with policing party PR. Was that Demi Moore looking over-Ashton beatific in a beaded blue backless? And the young Camilla Belle in a peach chiffon princess dress cozying up to her ex- (Jonas Brother) Joe Jonas? And can you believe Slumdog sensations Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto still seem happily ever after? It's so un-Hollywood! Smile for the cameras, now.

Way back when, Humphrey Bogart mailed his letters here and Fred Astaire

danced in the lobby. On this night, live performers floated above the valet line on springy stilts, dancing in the wind to a show of light and sound. And in the backyard promenade terrace, separating the post office from the new theater (historic building rules prohibit any new construction from touching the old building, nor can the new addition be taller, which set the theater below street level) LA's high society sipped champagne and scotch to the strummings of a mariachi band while women dressed as Spanish-styled eye candy swished through the crowd in canary colored costumes and giant floral headdresses. So many warm bodies and only hors d'oeuvres sat cold; as "Girls" creator Lena Dunham recently tweeted in the words of her designer pal Zac Posen: "If you want to be left alone at a Hollywood party, just stand near the food."

After cocktails, guests were ushered in two shifts to accommodate the large crowd, to the adjacent Goldsmith Theater (named for Jewish Federation machers Elaine and Bram Goldsmith, who, along with Annenberg and the City of Beverly Hills, donated $5 million or more to the center) for an original performance recounting the history of the post office.

Told through the letters of its grand old patrons - Martha Graham to Aaron Copland, Groucho Marx to Woody Allen, Tennessee Williams to Texan stage producer Margo Jones (on the eve of opening her own regional theater), the 30-minute show featured surprise cameos from Kevin Spacey, Diane Lane and John Lithgow, and offered a sneak peak of what's to come, including Broadway musicals, contemporary dance, ballet and orchestral soloists.

But it was the street dancer Lil Buck, who stole the show, dancing to an Ave Maria violin solo the way Michael Jackson might have danced had he known ballet. Call it ballet-hop.

And that was only Act II.

"Are you as fond of being with 1,000 of your closest friends as I am?" one gentleman whispered to another as guests poured out of the theater and into the block-long tent erected on Crescent Drive where Wolfgang Puck served filet mignon and truffled risotto.

Wallis sat at the front, at table 43, with actors Charlize Theron and Tim Robbins and former studio chief Sherry Lansing. Next to her, she kept a vacant seat, where a rotating cast of characters came to charm and celebrate her throughout the evening.

Dinner was followed by a Ferragamo fashion show, featuring a flock of phlegmatic models so thin they looked pre-pubescent. Then, the young Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who sounds like Pavarotti but looks like a Michelangelo performed a stunning set of opera ballads that made even the beautiful and talented seem a little dull by comparison.

Wallis promised world-class culture and even before the center's official opening in November, she delivered.

Goodbye Old-guard Annenberg. Hello, Wallis.

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