It had been a bad winter for Donald O'Connor. Stricken with pneumonia, the 73-year-old actor spent February on a ventilator and spent weeks recovering. By May, however, he'd recovered sufficiently to be part of The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, and now, on Nov. 20, he'll be feted at a gala benefit for the reopening of the El Portal Center in North Hollywood.
Best known for his sidekick role in filmdom's "Singin' in the Rain," O'Connor's most recent Broadway appearances were in Bring Back Birdie (a failed sequel to Bye Bye Birdie) and the 1982 revival of Show Boat.
The El Portal center was constructed as a movie house in 1926 -- when O'Connor was a one-year-old. According to benefit spokesperson Pegge [sic] Forrest, by 1928, O'Connor and his family were touring the vaudeville circuit, with the El Portal among the venues.
An earthquake in 1994 wrecked the movie theatre, as well as O'Connor's home. He moved to Arizona; restoration began on the El Portal, which will reopen in January 2000 as a redesigned, legit theatre venue with three stages. Artistic director Jeremiah Morris hopes to offer a world premiere, three west coast premieres and a U.S. premiere during the first season for the 400, 99 and 42-seat stages.
At the Nov. 20 benefit, titled "Celebrate the Journey," Carol Channing will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to O'Connor. Joining co-chairs Robert Morse and Maureen Arthur will be Beatrice Arthur, Patty Andrews, Carroll Baker, Joseph Campanella, Sid Caesar, Tyne Daly, Peter Falk, Kathleen Freeman, Beverly Garland, Mitzi Gaynor, Darryl Hickman, Piper Laurie, Carol Lawrence, Nolan Miller, Margaret O'Brien, Tom Poston, Carl Reiner, Doris Roberts, Anne Rogers, Marion Ross, Russ Tamblyn, Rip Taylor, Jane Withers and JoAnne Worley. Entertainment for the evening, written and directed by Jim Brochu, will include a salute to the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, featuring Morse and other original cast-members.
El Portal board president Robert Caine will receive a Marquee Award from Congressman Howard Berman for his efforts to restore the El Portal.
For information on "Celebrate the Journey" benefit call (818) 760-0964.
-- By David Lefkowitz