Hillary Clinton, special guest at Tuesday night’s SeriousFun Children’s Network Gala, knew just the right antidote for her trying political year.
“I’m looking for some serious fun,” she confessed to the crowd gathered inside New York’s Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers. “I have a big fun deficit.”
Clinton offered her services as a counselor for the global community of camps — founded by late actor Paul Newman in 1988, to serve children with serious illnesses — and her personnel suggestions didn’t stop there. “I know of a really good guy who might also fit in when it comes to serious fun. I’m all for hiring guys for the right jobs,” she added, to much cheer.
Out stepped Bill Clinton, another eager counselor volunteer. “This is one of those jobs, unlike some of them, where it helps to have experience,” he joked, before addressing his wife. “Having been counseling with you now for over 40 years, I’d be perfect for these kids because it doesn’t bother me anymore if nobody takes my advice!”
The former president went on to recall his family’s first visit to Newman’s inaugural The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut 29 years ago. “We got a great tour from Paul Newman, and it was too late for me to ask for a cameo role in ‘Butch Cassidy,’ so we actually took it seriously,” he said. “We saw so many families and so many kids have a chance to get beyond their illness, cut loose. I don’t know what serious fun means, but I know what seriously in need of fun means.”
Tom Hanks was up next. “Hey everybody, nice to see ya! Welcome to Chelsea Piers,” said the Oscar winner and longtime SeriousFun gala participant. “I was going to do a rip on Chelsea, but forget it, we’ll just move on!”
Hanks painted the picture of a seriously ill child at one of Newman’s camps (which have served over 864,000 kids and families globally): “She has the opportunity to sing at the top of her lungs, and she gets cheers and applause and a standing ovation and pandemonium and fistfights in the lobby because she was so dang good! Now, stuff like that is usually reserved for other people, but not her.”
He then tried harder to relate the life of a camper: “This august group of stuffy rich people could really benefit from one of the great traditions of summer fun camp, a good old fashioned food fight!” And in closing, Hanks relayed “the wise old man” Paul Newman’s words. “He said, ‘that you can leave camp, but camp never really leaves you.’”
What never left HBO’s CEO Richard Plepler was the influence of the night’s honoree, former Senator and Motion Picture Association of America chairman Chris Dodd, for whom Plepler worked right out of college.
“I started work for him on June 7, 1981. The Israelis had just bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak and I stayed up all night reading foreign affairs, thinking that I would have a seat at the table when I came in in the morning,” said Plepler, who felt crushed when he was ignored. But Dodd took notice.
“’Young man, may I help you?” Dodd asked, to which Plepler replied, “‘Senator, it is I who can help you, because I have an answer to the crisis in the Middle East!'” Plepler continued, “And I was let into the office for all of 90 seconds, but it was 90 seconds that cemented for me a lifelong friendship.”
When Dodd took the stage, he recalled what had happened after a 21-year-old Plepler walked into his office that day. “I said, ‘What I think you ought to do is go to the mailroom for about six months and answer some mail! And secondly, young man, we wear socks in the Senate!’”
Dodd had similarly comedic memories of Newman, who would call his office every year on April 14 (the day before Tax Day), demanding to know why he had to pay taxes when he made more money on behalf of his camp than he did making pictures. (“I said, ‘You’re calling the wrong guy, call the IRS!’ And I’d hang up the phone.”)
And while, in moving from politics to entertainment, Dodd may have traded “one group of bad actors for another,” he was generous in his praise of gala attendees Bill Clinton (“The best years of my service were with this gentleman!”), Hillary Clinton (“What a job she did on behalf of children and families!”) and Lorne Michaels (“What a great year Lorne Michaels is having!”).
“SNL” vet Jimmy Fallon — who’s raised over a million dollars for SeriousFun via his The Tonight Dough ice cream — then joined the campers for a Madonna musical number, and actress Julianna Margulies made a cameo in support of her Sarah Lawrence College classmate, Clea Newman, who’s now the ambassador of her father Paul Newman’s project.