Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sinatra event proves smash again

Fundraiser garners about $500,000 for children's center

Just as it did 20 years ago, the Frank Sinatra Countrywide Celebrity Invitation continued - come rain or come shine - this weekend.

Golfers played Friday at Indian Wells Country Club in rainy weather, but finished Saturday with everything shining brightly.

The fundraiser for the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center netted about $500,000 from the four-day event, concluding today with tours of the Rancho Mirage facility for physically/emotionally abused children.

More significantly, the revenue puts the center's endowment over its long-time goal of $20 million to safeguard its mission of making sure no child is turned away for lack of funds for years to come.

Long-time board member Helene Galen, one of a handful of board members who have been with center founder Barbara Sinatra from the start, said, "It was a dream to get $10 million" for an endowment in the early days. "Then it was a dream to get $15 million."

The celebrity field was reduced to 55 in this 20th anniversary year, down from the 79 when Liza Minnelli performed in 1991. Barbara Sinatra said that was partly to speed up play. But Sinatra board chairman Marshall Gelfand said this year's net was about the same as last year and better than the two previous years.

The celebrities were predominantly retired athletes, but friends of Frank Sinatra such as Robert Wagner, Jerry Vale, Norm Crosby and Frankie Randall also were among the 1,000 people in the Esmeralda Ballroom.

The winning celebrity golfer was actor Bill Smitrovich, noted the galleries were small Friday because of the rain, but "they were out in bigger numbers" Saturday.

Asked for highlights in the event's 20-year history, Wagner, who has played in nearly every tournament, said, "When FS was alive - all that enthusiasm."

Co-host Dick Van Dyke received a Frank Sinatra Award for his contributions, following a standing ovation just for clips of his film and TV career, and quipped, "I swear I'd come down to party with you even if there wasn't a tournament."

Besides its mission, the Sinatra event is most famous for presenting the nation's best traditional pop singers - including Tony Bennett, Barry Manilow, Harry Connick Jr. and Natalie Cole just after she won a Grammy.

Minnelli made her second appearance memorable with a bravura stage presence, songs and stories.

She sang a song her mother, Judy Garland, made a standard and Frank Sinatra covered, "The Man That Got Away," and made it her own.

She then launched into "Cabaret," the song she said made her famous.

She said of Barbara Sinatra:

"What she's done with this (center) is ridiculous. And, I'm so proud to be part of this."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sinatra event is all about stars, not sports

Celebrity golf comes in several different forms.

There is what happens each year at tournaments like the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic hosted by George Lopez, where the celebrities play side-by-side with the PGA Tour pros.

Then there are events like the Kraft Nabisco Championship, where the celebrities show up for pro-am rounds, but once the professional tournament begins, the amateurs head to the sidelines.

And then there are tournaments like the Frank Sinatra Countrywide Celebrity Invitational, being played today and Saturday at Indian Wells Country Club. In the Sinatra, there are no pros, meaning the celebrities are the appeal of the tournaments.

Now in its 20th year, the Sinatra tournament has been unabashedly about star power and not about golf. Sure, the people playing in the tournament are trying to play their best to win the event's prizes. But few if any of the fans who will walk around the two Indian Wells courses the next two days will care if the team they are watching makes a birdie, a par or a triple bogey on a given hole.

What they will care about is the caliber of the celebrity in the group.

Crowd pleasers

Sure, fans can watch the celebrities at events like the Hope and the Kraft tournaments, but at the Sinatra the celebrities are free - even encouraged - to sign autographs and pose for pictures during the round. Part of that is because the pace of play is slower at the Sinatra, so there is a little more down time between holes for the celebrities and the amateur partners.

But part of the signing and the posing is the basic philosophy of the tournament. That philosophy is to be as fan-friendly and laid-back and comfortable as possible in an effort to attract a larger gallery to the tournament. That, in turn, will help to raise more money for the primary charity served by the tournament, to benefit the nonprofit Barbara Sinatra Children's Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.

The celebrities in the tournament also have been consistent, many playing from the days when Frank Sinatra was still involved in the tournament or who might have a personal connection to Ol' Blue Eyes. Names like Joe Mantegna, Pat Boone, Tom Dreesen, Chad Everett and Robert Wagner have become as much a part of the tournament as the Sinatra name. And the tournament is full of former athletes, like Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, Ann Myers-Drysdale and Steve Garvey, among others.

Those celebrities and more than 40 others will be roaming Indian Wells Country Club the next two days in a celebrity golf tournament that really is about the celebrities and not really about the golf.