Big Bash for Big Brothers & Big Sisters a Big Deal

Madeline Ortega with son Kenny Ortega, honored with the Walt Disney Man of the Year Award.

It was a wonderful night to put the spotlight on the “Bigs” in our lives. The Big Brothers Big Sisters organization had their annual Big Bash that celebrates making a big difference and changing young lives for the better.

There are always extraordinary honorees. Last year it was Anne Sweeney, the head of Disney Media Networks, who become a Big Sister mentoring a Little Sister. Anne was on hand again this year talking about the wonderful experience with all the “Bigs” and “Littles” mingling at the reception. I had the opportunity to proudly introduce her to my real big sister Mary Lou Krewson, my hero for all she’s done for our family.

It was also a big deal for me to catch up with Kenny Ortega, the award-winning producer-director-choreographer (with In the Heights and a Dirty Dancing remake getting ready), who was among the honorees. He said he had a gigantic family attending the event, and he was happy that his friend Jennifer Grey was making the presentation. Kenny was the choreographer for Jennifer’s iconic role in Dirty Dancing, long before she won the 11th season of Dancing with the Stars.

A current competitor on Dancing with the Stars, Ricki Lake was the evening’s special host. The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles (BBBSLA) drew other luminaries to its Rising Stars Gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Tyra Banks introduced Nancy Josephson, partner with the WME Entertainment Company, who received the Sherry Lansing Award. And Sarah Purcell honored Sandy Bilson, BBBSLA board member and guild president, who received the Legacy Award. Honorary Gala Chairs included Roy P. and Sheri Disney, plus Melanie Cook, also Steve Soboroff, and Sherry Lansing (who sent greetings from Florence).

A Big Sister, Pam Dawber told the crowd that the awards recognize individual who are inspiring and positive role models for young people. Among the notables attending were Dancing with the Stars pro Derek Hough, delightful actress Jane Graves (The Muppets), Kate Linder, Charlene Amoia, Markie Post, plus Alice and Leonard Maltin. And Lionsgate Films co-COO and President Joe Drake was there, and got a shout-out from Ortega who thanked Lionsgate for supporting the event’s big cause.

From chatting with Kenny for over two decades (from his Hull High and Hocus Pocus directing days), I personally know what a dynamo guy he is. So it was a joy to see him so thrilled to share this event with his mom Madeline Ortega when he accepted the 2011 Walt Disney Man of the Year Award. He started out by thanking the Walt Disney Company for their incredible and creative association with the films and TV productions they’ve done together. Then he shared a story about a connection with Disney that went back much further.

From l, Margie Barron, Anne Sweeney, and Mary Lou Krewson.

Ortega explained, “When my father came out of World War II he was invited by Walt Disney to come out to Los Angeles to study to be an animator. He was the son of a family that had 14 children, and he couldn’t leave his parents because they needed him. So tonight I want to accept this on behalf of my father. It’s a dream come true for our family.”

He gave a nod to the mentors and teachers in his life, saying “the men and women who took time out of their lives to nourish mine, to guide and steer and enlighten me along my way. Mentors like Gene Kelly, Raul Julia, Michael Jackson, Dawn Steele, and my father.” Page Hannah Adler was mentioned as his dear friend who inspired him and gave him a new perspective in life when she took him to a children’s hospital to spend time with the kids and their families.

Of course the man who gave us the Disney Channel’s High School Musical franchise had to talk about how he and his talented cast “were able to have set visits and premiere parties that helped fulfilled wishes of some very brave children. This was only possible because of the loving support from the Walt Disney Company. I hope the years ahead keep us in each others’ company, and that our work together will continue to inspire young people to believe and act on the words of Walt Disney— ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ And I believe that is what Big Brothers Big Sisters is all about.”