All photos by Jay.
Everything Chinese is hot these days -- the culture, politics, food and art. The world seems obsessed with this huge, Asian nation as the sleeping giant awakens and roars. I have been to China proper several times in the '70s for movie matters and found it fascinating, fun, unhygienic and flavorful. Regretfully my long-time friend Sidney Shapiro died in Beijing last month; he was a young Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn who went there in '48, stayed to raise a family and become a citizen, and was my main contact with the nation. I have been to Hong Kong many times for leisure, primarily for the joys of eating huge portions of the greatest cuisine on earth. I am never without the 100-year old sacred jade Buddha around my neck for "joss," good luck. It has worked wonders for me. Yet it was an unexpected pleasure to receive an invitation to attend the magnificent Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday evening to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year, The Year of the Sheep. The incomparable philanthropist Wallis Annenberg, whose generosity allowed her namesake building to be, was honorary chairperson while my friends Linda May and John Bendheim were co-chairs. What startled and pleased me was that it was to be an evening of Chinese music, something which you don't often see and hear in these environs. Yes, I have gone to the Disney Hall to hear the tempestuous pianist Lang Lang, and have seen several Chinese soloists there, but that's it. I was informed by the invite that the show would honor Eva Hsieh, founder and designer of Eve by Eve's of Beverly Hills, which I assumed was a fashion house. There was to be a concert and then an Imperial Dinner, all proceeds benefitting The Wallis. As my Huffington Post readers well know, I will and have gone to the ends of the earth for a good Chinese dinner, so of course I was in.
Chinese drummers greeted the guests at the entrance.
Co-hosts Linda May and John Bendheim at the cocktail party.
...where Chinese music was played on a classic instrument.
My program told me that the concert featured the world-renowned pianist, Rueibin Chen (he was the inaugural soloist at the Wallis) with his traditional Chinese instrumental ensemble, L'Ensemble du Ciel, who would be performing on the traditional Chinese instruments of Pipa, Gaohu, Erhu, and Chinese Bamboo Flute. Along with them would be Madame Sun Ping, reigning grand dame of the Peking Opera. (Note: It's called Peking, not the newer name, Beijing. I prefer the former.) I have attended a few Chinese operas in my time, usually interminable raucous events of sing-song music which lasted far too long, often for hours. (Side note: The father of restaurateur/artist Michael Chow --Mr. Chow's -- was a celebrated star of the Peking Opera 'til he was deposed during the Cultural Revolution.) The black tie event would start with a festive cocktail party, then move to the luminous Bram Goldsmith Theater, then upstairs to the Jim and Eleanor Randall Grand Hall and the Promenade Terrace. (Side note: Bram Goldsmith was the long-time chairman of my wonderful bank, City National, which just this week was acquired for many billions by the Royal Bank of Scotland. I do love Scotland but hope they have enough sense not to tamper with the world's best bank now being so ably run by the genial Russell Goldsmith. Don't know Jim Randall but curiously enough for many years he and I shared a traveling manicurist, Virginia Andrews, who also did Lew Wasserman and the Zanucks.)
Jerry Magnin is the Chairman of The Wallis.
As a lusty older bachelor I was pleased to note that in addition to being sponsored by jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels, the event would feature models dressed by haute couture honoree Eva Hsieh. On that evening I learned that Eva's husband was inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist and USC trustee Ming Hsieh. The event was spectacularly produced by Ben Bourgeois, who also did the inaugural gala in 2013. I must note that I am thrilled by the new spirit of creative programming shown by the Wallis since a woman named Patti Wolf came aboard as Interim Creative Director and Jim D'Asaro from the New York City Opera came here as Interim Producing Director. Hey Chairman Jerry Magnin, I hope they stay and are no longer 'interim' as they show great imagination in the new programming.
Booty Call -- posing with the models for Van Cleef and Eve.
The jewelry was exceptional.
As we arrived at the magnificent Wallis on this tranquil Saturday evening, a retinue of Chinese drummers met us at the door with a thundering crescendo, a happy omen of the music to come. The cocktail party in the Promenade tent lasted about 90 minutes, and I greeted so many old and new friends as I consumed a vast assortment of Chinese delicacies from caterer Wolfgang Puck's behind-the-scenes kitchen. (One of the only inadequacies of the Wallis is that they didn't plan for a proper large kitchen when building it, but Wolf is only down the street at Spago so he handled the cocktails and dinner sensationally.) I greeted the ever-charitable couple Richard and Gloria Pink and was interested to hear that Pink's Hot Dogs would be opening next week in Honolulu and even the Philippines (in partnership with Republique restaurateur Walter Manske, whose wife is from that country.) I embraced Deborah Borda, the President of the L.A. Philharmonic, and complimented her on the sensational current season with Dudamel.
Madame Sun Ping performed excerpts from an opera.
We all moved into the Bram Goldsmith theatre and I was delighted to see the man himself being helped to his seat, while I spotted the wonderful philanthropist Ms. Annnenberg in a front seat, The former Mayor of Beverly Hills, Vicky Reynolds, responded to my admiration for her London-bought gilded jacket; the woman sitting beside me introduce herself and I learned that her grandfather was composer Julie Styne; I told her that his writing partner, Bob Merrill, had been my best friend. ("Funny Girl" was one of their hits.) The lovely real estate magnate and co-chair Linda May, along with John Bendheim, welcomed us all by saying that it was truly an honor to launch a new tradition with this Lunar New Year celebration bringing the cultures of East and West together. "We're thrilled to transport our audience to Imperial China....but without the jet lag." (.. and without the squalor and smells.)
Ming and Eva Hsieh on stage before the music.
They then brought on Ming Hsieuh to introduce his lovely wife. Then he Peking Opera sequence commenced. Mercifully, it was a fairly brief but entertaining performance of an excerpt from The Drunken Beauty by Madame Sun Ping. Following that pianist Rueibin Chen played an Ode to the Yellow River and several other numbers. After the brief intermission, Rueibin brought on stage his chamber group, L'Ensemble du Ciel, four talented instrumentalists from Taiwan playing traditional Chinese instruments, three stringed and one flute. At dinner afterwards, a long-time subscriber to my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter, Roger Berg, told me that all Chinese music consists of only five notes, which explains the high-pitched limited quality of the music. Actually, I found myself enjoying the haunting romantic quality of many of the numbers, and they did two raucous encores, one of which had the audience clapping to the music.
Famed film producer Arnold Kopelson wearing Chinese garb.
We then adjoined to the dining area. Some of the bigwigs were isolated in the vestibule which had once been the lobby of the old post office, but the majority of us were at festive tables on the Promenade. Wolf's minions served a three course dinner, not particularly Chinese but delicious. A cold string bean salad, short ribs with exotic veggies, and a savory napoleon-like cake and sherbet. My tablemate on my right said that she draws a cartoon for the Beverly Hills Courier every Friday, and now I will look for it. Anther woman at the table teaches classical harp, and we discussed our mutual harpist friend Corky Hale. Roger Berg told hilarious stories about Jack Benny and George Burns. Lots of wine was consumed and a good time was had by all. I bid goodnight to co-host Linda May by saying Xin Nian Hao (Happy New Year) and said that I was alrady looking forward to next year's Chinese New Year party. Went home and dreamed about Chinese food and Eva's models. Today I am off for a Chinese dim sum lunch at Shanghai Rose in Studio City. Can never get enough of that delicious Chinese food!
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