- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

Forget Madonna, J.Lo and Britney when you have Broadway stars Dixie Carter, Bea Arthurand Elaine Stritch belting out musical-theater favorites with matchless passion across a makeshift stage.

“Look at Me, I’m Twenty-Seven,” Miss Carter, the youngest of the trio, teased as she opened the Whitman-Walker Clinic’s “Divas of a Lifetime” benefit at the Mayflower Hotel Wednesday night with a hilariously vamped spoof revealing the true ages of various entertainment-world luminaries.

Perhaps because she was celebrating her 65th birthday that night, the “Designing Woman” of sitcom fame couldn’t help turning the rest of her gig into a sentimental journey as well, with “I’m Old Fashioned” and “When the World Was Young.”

Miss Arthur, at 81 the grande dame of the group, appeared tall and strong as she maneuvered onstage in a black velvet pantsuit singing, “What Can You Get a Nudist for Her Birthday?” and the old Tom Jones hit, “The Chance to Sing” in her trademark husky growl.

Miss Stritch followed with a catty monologue about her legendary hits and flops, love interests (“I dumped Ben Gazzara for Rock Hudson; you all know what a bum decision that turned out to be”) and battles with “demon drink.”

She drew a few titters from the audience after revealing that President Bush “gave me a hug and thanked me” after she congratulated him for being a “recovering alcoholic” at a recent White House reception.

As always, Miss Stritch’s trademark frenetic energy enraptured the audience, but never more so than with her closing selection, “I’m Still Here,” a Stephen Sondheim number from her Tony-winning one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”

“I decided I was not going to wait another 20 years to sing it,” Miss Stritch, 78, said to laughter and ovations.

The mood was merry and clearly was intended to be at an event billed as “A Celebration of Life,” but that didn’t deter organizers from making sure Whitman-Walker’s message got through.

“Many people would not be alive today if it wasn’t for our donors,” said Billy Cox, board chairman of the clinic, which provides medical, psychological, legal and food-bank services to thousands of people living with HIV and AIDS in the area.

The presence of D.C. Council members Adrian Fenty, Phil Mendelsohn, Harold Brazil, Linda Cropp, David CataniaandCarol Schwartz underscored the importance of its services to the epidemic’s most vulnerable victims, more than 90 percent of whom survive on less that $12,000 per year.

“Whether it is food, housing, drug treatments or just holding the hand of someone who is dying, Whitman-Walker is there,” Mrs. Schwartz said.

A. Cornelius Baker, Whitman-Walker’s executive director, was elated that the sold-out event raised an estimated $600,000 from private donors, but voiced worries about the “huge cash crunch” caused by increasingly lengthy delays in reimbursement from public funds for patient services.

“We’re constantly waiting for millions of dollars from the federal and District governments,” he said. “We just can’t afford to carry them for six months.”

Kevin Chaffee

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