How to Throw a Hollywood Fundraiser

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While this week’s congressional bailout disaster has virtually paralyzed Washington and sent Wall Street into a tailspin, out in sunny, shiny Hollywood, they’re still doing what comes naturally: holding fundraisers for Democratic causes and candidates.

It seems every week there’s another glittering L.A. fundraiser held at a lavish hotel or private residence, featuring performances by superstar talent, flutes of sparkling champagne, exotic gourmet catering and, of course, plenty of wealthy actors, agents, managers and studio execs writing large checks.

Then there are the smaller get-­togethers, like last summer’s “Weenie Roast for Change,” in which music publicist Bob Merlis raised around $5,000 for Barack Obama’s presidential bid by serving hot dogs to hundred-dollar donors in his Hollywood backyard. (Celebrities included the R&B singer Swamp Dogg and the dorky guy who does the voice for SpongeBob SquarePants.)

“There are all different types of fundraisers, from the grass roots to the grass tops, if you will,” says Victoria Hopper, director of Women for Obama in Southern California and co-founder of the newly launched progressive firm SeaChange Communications. “But, honestly, no matter how good your fundraising abilities, if your cause or candidate doesn’t inspire people the way Obama does, you can’t do what we’ve done.” (As the wife of ’60s-icon-turned-conservative Dennis Hopper, she knows a thing or two about change.)

It’s not just Obama cruising for California cash. John McCain’s campaign often ventures into celebrity territory, most recently in late August, when a Beverly Hills fete raised $4.7 million and attracted TV stars such as Angie Harmon (“Law & Order”), Jon Cryer (“Two and a Half Men”) and Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), along with “The Godfather” legends Robert Duvall and James Caan. And McCain will make another lunge for Hollywood lucre again next month, with MGM Chairman Harry Sloan reportedly organizing a GOP fundraiser that will eventually pay for pro-McCain TV spots.

But, as McCain might say, let’s have a little straight talk here: Hollywood is the ATM from which Democratic causes and candidates make their largest withdrawals.

Last month, on Sept. 16, twin fundraisers in Beverly Hills benefiting Obama’s presidential bid raked in more than $9 million — with other estimates suggesting the total take topped $11 million. This Friday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives in Los Angeles for another Obama money-go-round, this event located downtown at the trendy Edison, a power-plant-turned-power-lounge. And next month, a major blowout is in the works with supermarket magnate and Clinton supporter Ron Burkle to fight Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriages.

Last Saturday, a group of female Hollywood political players organized their first-ever fundraiser to support Democratic senatorial candidates across the country. Raising more than $1.3 million — with 350 attendees buying tickets priced between $2,500 and $10,000 — the new group Voices for a Senate Majority says it will split the night’s proceeds among eight Senate challengers: Tom Allen of Maine, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mark Udall of Colorado, Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Begich of Alaska.

The group also delivered a virtual playbook on how to run a successful L.A. fundraiser. Here, then, are a few tips from event organizers.

Invite plenty of pols: Hollywood types love to mingle with Washington types, so be sure to have lots of local, state and national candidates attending. For the Voices event, five of the eight Senate challengers, including Franken and Shaheen, mingled with the crowd. (The other three stayed in D.C. for the Wall Street bailout negotiations.) California’s own Sen. Barbara Boxer opened the evening’s program by addressing the importance of winning the additional Senate seats, noting how filibusters are often used to buck crucial policy initiatives.

Any Kennedy can be crucial: The coolness quotient of every Hollywood fundraiser rises exponentially if a member of the Kennedy clan — especially Maria Shriver — attends. Progressive icon and Air America radio host Bobby Kennedy Jr. received a standing ovation Saturday night after he gave a short speech about the world’s current view of American values and how international opinion had changed dramatically during the Bush administration.

Put on a show: Even for a small cocktail party, keep an acoustic guitar handy, in case James Taylor or another attendee decides to strum an impromptu tune. The Voices fundraiser offered an elaborate lineup of A-list talent, from singer-comics Steve Martin (picking at his banjo during three songs) and David Letterman foil Paul Shaffer (updating “Eve of Destruction”) to actor-singers including Jennifer Garner and Diane Keaton (the latter closing the event with an emotional rendition of “God Bless America”). The evening’s most uncurbed enthusiasm was reserved for Larry David, who got big laughs when he riffed about the differences between his family’s lifestyle and that of the Kennedys’.

Boldfaced names are gold: If you want mentions in the Hollywood trades, make sure studio execs and writer-directors show up. The Voices event, for its part, drew Larry (“The Big Chill”) Kasdan, Ed (“The Last Samurai”) Zwick, Jim (“Broadcast News”) Brooks, J.J. (“Lost”) Abrams, Sony’s Michael Lynton and biographer Scott Berg. More highly recognizable names included host Martin Short, Ben Affleck, Sally Field, Barbra Streisand and hubby James Brolin, Catherine O’Hara, Dana Delany, Rashida Jones and Victor Garber.

And if you can ever get that dorky guy who does the voice for SpongeBob SquarePants, by all means, do so.

Odds and Ends

HBO began showing “Taxi to the Dark Side” this week, and if you haven’t seen this year’s Academy Award-winning documentary about an Afghan cabbie who met his death after aggressive questioning by American soldiers, try to catch it. Director Alex Gibney, previously nominated for an Oscar for directing “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” is working on a documentary for early next year about the lobbying scandals of Jack Abramoff.

With all of his “Enron” research linking Wall Street to Washington, we asked Gibney if he found any parallels to the current financial meltdown. “Oh yeah. It’s remarkably similar in many ways,” he said. “The language in both scandals was the same: ‘We’ve got a new high-yield, low-risk formula! Don’t worry; trust us! It’s complicated, but we know everything about it, so there’s no problem!’ and then, whoops, it collapses. And these firms are collapsing similar to the way Enron collapsed: There’s a lot of debt collateralized by stock, and when the stock starts to fall, then more stock has to be used to collateralize and it collapses further. Then, bingo!”

Gibney believes that former Enron chiefs and current Wall Street execs share a similar sense of entitlement, giving them the false feeling that they can use the public’s money to fund wild risks — and take in huge fees — until things fall apart, at which point they shrug and say, “What, me worry?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we comb through the detritus of this and find some of the same people involved,” he said.

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