- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Do you remember when rock was young? When kids sipped milkshakes instead of booze, rap was just something your schoolteachers did to your knuckles, and "Elvis the Pelvis" was the raciest thing on television?

If you do, or wish you did, the Best Friends Foundation's annual Rockin' in the U.S.A. gala at the Marriott Wardman Park was the place to be Saturday night for a nostalgia-steeped evening that enthusiastically revived the '50s with Hula-Hoops, chewing gum, yo-yos and even a performance by the still rockin' and still very weird Little Richard.

The piano-banging musical phenomenon, perhaps best-known for his hit single "Tutti Frutti," emerged onstage late in the evening, outrageous as always with long jet-black hair, thickly applied eyeliner and all-white pants, cape, sequined shirt and boots. "I am the beautiful Little Richard that you have heard so much about, 70 years old and still lookin' good," he announced (he's actually 69) before shaking the ballroom with a thunderous rendition of "Good Golly Miss Molly."

More than 600 guests paid a minimum $350 apiece to attend the benefit, which raised more than $1.1 million for the Best Friends Foundation one-third of its annual operating budget from such high-profile supporters as Rep. Constance A. Morella; Solicitor General Ted Olson; British Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer and his wife, Catherine; Jim Kimsey and Queen Noor; Frank and Marcia Carlucci; journalists Tim Russert and Chris and Kathleen Matthews; and America Online chief Steve Case. Notable absentees were few this year but included Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his wife, Alma (she's a founding chairwoman), who were in Palm Beach, Fla., for the wedding of Jane Lauder, daughter of cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder and wife Jo Carole .

Elayne Bennett, wife of family-values champion Bill Bennett, founded the Best Friends organization 15 years ago to promote a "character-building curriculum for adolescent girls with messages of abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol." The upbeat "just-say-no" program, which has expanded to many schools in Washington and throughout the country, focuses not only on abstinence, but on safety, self-esteem, good nutrition and the value of friendship as well.

How do the 1950s fit into all this? Mrs. Bennett explained that although politics may have been divisive and ugly, the music was unifying.

"It appealed to everyone black, white, yellow; they all grooved to it. It was decent." The party, she added, was not so much about those storied years as it was about "capturing your youth."

Plenty of baby boomers seemed to be doing just that, judging by the poodle skirts, neck scarves and ancient leather bomber jackets that were pulled from the mothballs for the occasion. Mike Connors sported his original varsity sweater from 1958, a slightly soiled red-and-white artifact festooned with swimming and basketball medals. "I sewed them on," said his wife, Julie. "We were high school sweethearts."

Philanthropist Catherine Reynolds wore a white jacket and pants decorated with the words "sexy," "cute" and "romance" in cursive pink letters. She underwrote the entertainment, which meant paying for headliners Little Richard, the Shirelles, Ray Peterson and Bobby Vee, although certainly not for Mr. Bennett, who stepped up onstage later to sing an earnest rendition of "Suzie Baby" with Mr. Vee.

After a surf-and-turf meal unremarkable enough to stoke appreciation for the culinary progress of the past half-century, Little Richard appeared onstage with a dramatic flourish to offer up old chestnuts such as "Blueberry Hill," "Boney Maroney" and, of course, "Tutti Frutti," all randomly punctuated by "Woo, I'm a scream," "Shut up" and other trademark exclamations.

Guests crowded the dance floor, happily gyrating to music that only sounds better the older it gets.

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