Oscar Viewing Party Tug of War?

Roger Neal’s new Oscar Party has begun a tug of war with Norby Walter’s long established Night Of 100 Stars Oscar Party over attracting “name” stars. However, Neal insists, “there’s enough stars to go around,” while Walters says he could care less about competitors.

Lou Ferrigno (who starred on TV as The Hulk '77-'82) with Roger Neal at the publicist/manager's gifting suite. Ferringo has RSVP'd to attend The Night of 100 Stars on Sunday.

This week, Hollywood publicist Roger Neal held his 20th annual Academy Awards gifting suite, or “beauty and couture suite,” as he calls it. The two-day event, held at an upscale hotel in Beverly Hills, attracted award nominees, A-to-Z list stars, publicists, stylists, hangers-on, costumed characters, preening starlets, photographers and media of all sorts.

They all jammed into a penthouse suite to gawk at tables full of trendy stuff from purses to dresses to jewelry that merchants and fashion houses had paid up to $12,000 each to present to the stars. They did this with the hope that some Oscar glitter would rub off on their brand, and that their bags, blouses and jewelry might be worn at the Academy Awards. The scene also included free manicures, a huge Expresso station, a bar, and a multi- tiered Oscar-decorated cake, adding color to the buzz.

Neal believes his sponsors get value for their money. “They pay a fee to be in our high end suite,” said Neal, “because of the stars, the nominees, the stylists, the media coverage I get before, during and after. It’s a very economical way for a brand to get tons of exposure and get connected to stars. That could cost them up to $500,000.”

Neal lists Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, and Mira Sorvino among the stars who have walked the red carpet carrying branded merchandise discovered at his gifting suites (often by the star’s stylist).

Now Neal is expanding. This Sunday, for the first time ever, the 54-year-old publicist and personal manager is hosting an invitation-only Oscar dinner and viewing party at the Hollywood Museum (once home to Max Factor cosmetics). He hopes it will become an annual event.

“The Roger Neal Style Hollywood Oscar Viewing Dinner Party” will take place around the corner from the Dolby Theater where the Academy Awards are being held. But it’s still a world away from other higher profile Oscar parties, even Neal admits. “I could never compete with Elton John or Vanity Fair or the Governor’s Ball,” said Neal, “nor do I want to. I don’t compete with anybody. I’m not trying to copy anybody. I’m just trying to do what I do and have a really good time.”

He may not want to acknowledge it, but Neal’s party is similar to another Oscar viewing party that has been going on for a quarter century, the Night Of 100 Stars. This party, held at the Beverly Hilton, is put on by retired agent Norby Walters each year. Walters attracts dozens of “classic” stars to his event where a small number of tickets are sold to the public for $1,000 each (or $25,000 for a VIP table). The event’s main underwriter and title sponsor is flamboyant Finnish-Canadian clothing designer Peter Nygard once again.

This year, the event expects first time guests Vince Vaughn, Prince Michael Jackson, and Cloris Leachman, along with a bevy of returning stars.

In its earlier days, Walters’s efforts supported the Martin Scorsese Film Foundation (which preserves old movies), the Actor’s Fund, and other charities. However, after some bumps in the road, it is now just Norby’s big annual party, as the New York Times detailed in a Feb. 24 profile of Walters. Read here.

Neal insists his party is different than Walters’ party, because his is all about philanthropy. “There’s a lot of viewing dinners around town,” said Neal, “but mine is with a purpose. It’s for charity.”

For 2016, his main recipient is The John Ritter Foundation for Aortic Health, a non-profit created after the TV comedian suddenly died in 2003. It is run by Ritter’s charming widow, actress Amy Yasbeck, who was on hand at Neal’s gifting suite graciously promoting her cause.

Yasbeck, who starred on the sitcom Wings, said Neal approached her about putting The John Ritter Foundation in the spotlight this year at his gifting suite and dinner. “I had heard about his fabulous parties and how he helps entrepreneurs and artists,” said Yasbeck. “He asked if I would like to have The John Ritter Foundation highlighted at this and at his fashion Oscar soiree.”

Actresses Amy Yasbeck (widow of John Ritter) and Charlene Tilton (who starred on Dallas '78-'91) supporting The John Ritter Foundation at Neal's gifting suite

Some others that Neal will honor at the dinner are New York-based actor Paul Sorvino, 1961 Oscar winner George Chakiris, former child star Margaret O’Brien (who won an Oscar in 1944), and actress/activist and three-time Oscar nominee Diane Ladd and her non-profit Art and Culture Task Force. Other beneficiaries include the Andy Transplant Foundation and Safety Harbor Kids.

Neal said he has about 80 stars from the past and present coming to the party, and he reached capacity two weeks ago. Still, some of the stars Neal had hoped to attract declined because they are going to Walters’ party out of loyalty and perhaps a bit of fear.

“There is another Oscar viewing party in town that will go unnamed,” said Neal diplomatically. “I can’t confirm it but they have been trying to take a few stars from me that were coming to my dinner and saying, ‘If you go to his, you’re not going to come back to mine.’ That’s a rumor I heard.”

Walter’s publicist Edward Lozzi said his client has never commented on Neal’s viewing party, which he predicted will have problems because of traffic congestion around the Hollywood Museum. “Norby Walters has never said, ‘If you go to another Oscar party you can’t come to ours,” said Lozzi. “He couldn’t care less about other Oscar parties.”

Neal actually worked with Lozzi on Walter’s event for a few years when the Night Of 100 Stars first started, drawn in by his then client Milton Berle. “Once I had my Oscar suite,” said Neal, “I couldn’t really help them out any more.”

But Neal says, “Look, there’s enough stars to go around. This town is filled with stars.”

The ultimate Oscar confection from Mary's Cake Shop in Huntington Park, CA at Neal's gifting suite

It was the stars in his eyes as a child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio that Neal said brought him to Hollywood. “My dream was to come out here and be in show business,” recalled Neal.

He started in the mailroom at MGM thirty-five years ago, making deliveries in the Thalberg Building to the executives and assistants, saying hello to everyone. He told a publicist there, “I said I want to help create stars.” “I want to do publicity, management. I’m a PR guy.”

She suggested he start his own company. His first client was Burt Ward, who played Robin on the 60s pop culture TV hit Batman.

Neal was based in Orange County for years, but he is now headquartered in Studio City. His clients include mostly production companies, events and a couple of performers. He manages Carol Burnett Show favorite Tim Conway and Shari Belafonte (daughter of Harry Belafonte), one of the stars on the ABC soap opera General Hospital. Neal also packages shows and currently has the stage version of Driving Miss Daily On the Road, with former Dallas star Charlene Tilton set to take over a starring role in April.

In 1996, Neal was representing shoe designer Stuart Weitzman when a party planner in the same office complex – the once high flying Ted Kruckel - suggested doing an event which became one of the first gifting suites. Neal has been doing it every year since.

“It costs a lot of money to produce the suite here,” said Neal, “because I’m feeding everybody, there’s a bar, the cost of the location.”

Now there will be more bills to pay with his Sunday night black tie sit-down dinner for 250 people. The event, adorned with nine big screen TV’s, will be catered by former White House chef Kurt Erhlich and his Celebrity Gourmet, served by uniformed waiters wearing white gloves.

Neal’s primary funding is from “presenting sponsors” like Taiwanese production company Datang International and its U.S. partner Desert Rock Entertainment. Also, The Hollywood Museum, run by museum founder and president Donelle Dadigan, will be co-presenting the event.

After the show, attendees with a perfectly guessed Oscar ballot will be entered into a drawing for prizes that include a $10,000 vacation at a medieval Castle in Ireland.

Neal will tell you his payoff is just being able to throw events like these. “When I was five years old, all my life growing up, if you asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d say ‘I’m going to Hollywood. I’m going to be in show business. I want to work with stars.’ Now I do this for a living and I feel very lucky.”

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