2005 Awards

Love and Rockettes

rockettesIf you’re a boss who likes to toss your employees hams to thank them for their hard work, you might want to hide this story. On Thursday, real estate mogul Don Tarbell took the office party to a whole other level for 3,000 of his employees who contributed to the home-sales blitz in Southern California last year. First, he rented out the Pond in Anaheim for his employees. Then he flew in the Rockettes. And that was just the beginning. “Oh, my goodness,” is all one real estate agent could say when it was over. Let’s just say there was everything from an elephant to a Tony Award- winning Broadway singer to a world famous conductor to a 17-foot puppet of John Travolta.

Don Tarbell Gives His Regards by Broadway
Real estate mogul pulls out all the stops with lavish awards party for employees.

By LORI BASHEDA
The Orange County Register

ANAHEIM – The next time your boss shows up with smiles and a sheet cake to thank you for all your hard work, you might want to sit that person down and share the tale of real estate mogul Don Tarbell.

“Thanks for the cake,” you could say casually between bites. “I heard that when Don Tarbell wanted to thank his employees, he flew the Rockettes to Orange County to reproduce their Radio City Music Hall holiday spectacular.” audience

Or you could shoot for a subtler message: “I like this cake,” you could say. “Of course, I like Brian Stokes Mitchell even better. He’s that Tony Award-winning Broadway actor who Don Tarbell flew in from New York City to sing ‘The Impossible Dream’ to his employees. I heard some of them openly wept.”

Then again, you could just be blunt. “Sheet cake is disgusting. Why can’t you cough up a day off with a 54-piece world-class orchestra? That’s what Don Tarbell did.”

The patriarch of the largest family-owned real estate company in California rented the Pond on Thursday to throw 3,000 of his employees an awards party.

Of course, Southern California’s real estate blitz might have something to do with the extravaganza. Debbie Stine, marketing vice president for Tarbell, said 2004 was the “best year, profit-wise” since the company started in 1926.

But then Tarbell began topping himself even before this year. Last year he flew in “Riverdance.”

It was a year ago that Tarbell began bringing together a circle of entertainment giants to turn some ideas floating in his head into the production that unfolded Thursday.

Among those who signed on: Five-time Emmy Award winner Mark Watters, who has conducted orchestras for such affairs as the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the Academy Awards; Michael Curry, designer of puppetry and costumes for the Broadway production of “The Lion King”; and Bruce Michael, creative director of the Radio City Rockettes.

Rockettes auditioned for Tarbell’s show. So did top musicians in Los Angeles plus dozens of actors, dancers, back-up choruses and circus performers. Tarbell ran newspaper ads and raised billboards advertising the show. About the only thing different from this and any other musical was that Tarbell didn’t sell tickets. And opening night was also closing night.

Invited guests included his company’s 3,000 real estate agents plus 1,000 youth leaders (flown in by Tarbell from across the country) of the nonprofit Christian group Young Life, of which he is a major supporter.

The price tag on the party is not up for discussion. “It’s a lot of money; let’s put it that way,” Stine said, chuckling.

Two things drive Tarbell, who at 74 is a grandfather of three. First, he said, he wants to show his employees how much he thinks of them.

Second, as his wife, Betsy, told the crowd after the show, her husband is enthralled with show business. “I am living with a dreamer,” she said.

The show opens with a “rainbow chaser” named George (based loosely on Tarbell, he admits) whose wife keeps coming out to the garage to harp on him for paying more attention to his old movies and musicals than to her and her honey-do list.

Each time his wife leaves the garage, George slips back into his fantasy world. The garage goes dark and the stage comes to life with his daydream: from the Macy’s Day Parade (and what’s the Macy’s Day Parade without 30 Rockettes eye-high kicking in fur-lined Santa hot pants) to a tornado scene from the “Wizard of Oz” with the puppetry of Lion King’s Michael Curry.

When George comes across an old “Saturday Night Fever” album out in the garage, his gaze turns wistful. The next thing you know a 17-foot-tall puppet of John Travolta in a white tux is onstage disco dancing to the Bee Gees with real girls in platform heels.

Mitchell, who won a Tony for “Kiss Me, Kate,” wooed the crowd with “New York, New York.” At the end of the show he teamed up with Broadway singer Nita Whitaker to sing “God Bless America,” bringing the audience to their feet for the 10th time.

Curry said he agreed to do the private party, something he would not normally do, after Tarbell phoned him to request his services, as one Oregonian to another.

“I was impressed by his pure spirit,” Curry said.

elephantStine said her boss and his family tirelessly pursue philanthropic endeavors (like the orphanage they built for children in India). That is, when he’s not running his real estate business, or busy planning a party.

Margo Kelly said this is her first year with Tarbell. Before now, she said, work bonuses were “turkeys and hams.”

Well, no more meat for her. “Broadway in Orange County!” she exclaimed before the 90-minute show was even half over. “That’s just awesome.”

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