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Joining me at Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 40th Anniversary Candlelight Concert were, from left, chair Betty Huang, former chair Ruth Ding, and vice chair and former chair Dee Higby

Joining me at Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ 40th Anniversary Candlelight Concert were, from left, chair Betty Huang, founding committee member and former chair Ruth Ding, and vice chair and former chair Dee Higby

I remember performing with the Orange County Master Chorale, later the William Hall Master Chorale, at the inaugural Christmas Candlelight Concert, as it was initially called, in the vacant Kresge five-and-dime at what was then the Orange Mall. Later dubbed the “Million Dollar Concert in a Ten-Cent Store,” the vacant space was transformed by use of candles (there was no electricity) into an elegant ballroom with Carmen Dragon conducting the OCMC, the Trinity United Presbyterian Chancel Choir and the Glendale Symphony in a great holiday program.

Ruth Ding remembers it too. A member of the founding committee who later chaired Candlelight, Ruth recalls husbands of chorale members pouring champagne and using borrowed Christmas decorations from Bullock’s and Buffum’s (remember those stores?) to hide the ugly facility. Needless to say, at this year’s 40th anniversary celebration, she was all-smiles. “It’s fantastic!” Ruth opined.

With Candlelight Concert Chair Betty Huang at the helm, it was decidedly a “red” evening. With the 40th wedding anniversary designating ruby as the gemstone of choice, Betty asked the past chairs and committee members to wear red. And, red they wore!! There were pomegranate martinis and ruby red velvet table covers, and past chairs like Joan Riach Gayner wearing a stunning red Carolina Herrera gown that she wore 25 years ago chairing a Los Angeles Philharmonic ball.

Huang, her Vice Chair Dee Higby and the committee decided to bring the 400 guests to the gala affair through the Center’s Arrival Gardens (a first!), with the red carpet curving past the Costa Mesa-based Sonora Elementary Bell Choir before entering Segerstrom Hall’s second-floor lobby. The festive Veuve Clicquot Champagne and caviar bar reception (the over-the-top caviar bar was compliments of the Center’s Founding Board Chair Henry Segerstrom and his wife Elizabeth)delighted all.

Once again, the theater was transformed into a magnificent dinner palace with tiered table seating built over the orchestra seats. Linda Young’s Elite OC Productions carried out the original candlelight theme with thousands of white twinkling lights illuminating the massive walls of the interior, suspended from the ceiling via whimsical chandeliers and brightening the stage area on either side of a huge “40,” denoting the landmark anniversary. The white orchid and hydrangea centerpieces were the perfect contrast to the red velvet table covers, and the Piaget signature stemmed pink rose at each table setting was the piece de resistance. Its fragrance was enchanting.

Speaking of Piaget, they were the holiday gala’s presenting sponsor, with Piaget President Larry Boland and South Coast Plaza boutique manager Mark Gavranovic attending. They were thanked by Center President Terry Dwyer, looking spiffy in a red bow tie along with Center Board Chair Larry Higby, who welcomed everyone to the time-honored event. “The vision of those men and women, led by (the late) Tom Moon, to hold a holiday event to raise money to build a new performing arts center for Orange County is one for which we are enormously grateful,” Higby said. “Forty years later, here we are, immensely enjoying and celebrating the fruits of their labor.”

In a darling highlight, 15 of the past Candlelight chairs joined 30 students from the Center’s “Six Days of Broadway” program on stage to sing a medley of carols. The gourmet dinner, catered by Patina, was top-notch, as were the accompanying wines, and the chocolate truffle bar offered scrumptious confections all-round. Oh, and lest I forget, this Candlelight offered the very first silent auction – two surfboards autographed by the Beach Boys and donated for the occasion by Deborah and Larry Bridges. In a surprise turn of events, Deborah won one of the surfboards and past Center Board Chair Mark Johnson won the other.

The legendary Beach Boys brought everyone to their feet and created a jam-packed dance floor when they took the stage singing their oldies but goodies, culminating in their signature “Surfin’ USA.”

Kudos to everyone who made it happen! The best news? The net proceeds exceeded $1.4 million, a record for Candlelight. Tom Moon would have been most proud!

Selected photos by Doug Gifford