Women of Chapman’s 35th ‘Christmas at The Ritz’ Luncheon Nets $320K for Chapman University

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Table setting for Christmas at the Ritz / photo by Chris Trela

Chapman University has several impressive support groups, but perhaps none as impressive as the Women of Chapman, a 50-year-old Chapman University organization that raises funds to provide the students of Chapman University with a richer education experience.

The group’s primary method of raising funds is its annual “Christmas at the Ritz” holiday luncheon, so called because for many years it was held at the famed Ritz Restaurant in Fashion Island.

Unfortunately, The Ritz closed its door in February of 2014, heralding the end of an epicurean era but not the end of “Christmas at the Ritz.”

Christmas at the Ritz co-chairs Donna Bunce and Kiki Rhynerson / photo by Chris Trela

The Women of Chapman moved their event to the Fashion Island Hotel for several years and for 2021, to the Balboa Resort, the site of the 35th anniversary of “Christmas at the Ritz” held on December 11.

More than 300 people attended the event, and they were excited to be there—the event had been cancelled in 2020, so this was the first time in two years everyone was together.

Lisa Argyros, Grand Patron Julia Argyros, Dodge College Dean Stephen Galloway, Wendy Hales, Brenda St. Hiiaire / photo by Tony Lattimore and Peggy O’Donnell

The event began in the ballroom foyer, with greetings from Santa Claus, spirited Dickens carolers, a champagne and martini cocktail reception, and real-life toy soldiers and snow sprites helping to set the scene.

Once the ballroom doors opened, revelers found their way to their tables and savored the first of four courses executed by the Balboa Bay Resort’s new Executive Chef Prabeen Prathapan: The Ritz Egg, a classic dish from the Rigtz Restaurant.

The Ritz Egg / photo by Chris Trela

Guests also raved about the wild mushroom cappuccino soup, the red wine braised short ribs and Chilean sea bass, and the luscious chocolate bombe for dessert.

As always, the ballroom was adorned with festive red linens decorated with the event’s signature nutcrackers and fresh pine greenery, with red and gold accents shimmering in the soft glow of votives.

The signature “Christmas at The Ritz” wreath, prevalent on the invitations and programs, was the main focus hanging in front of a beautiful red velvet backdrop, along with shimmering gold and silver trees gracing the stage.

Christmas at The Ritz Co-Chairs Donna Bunce and Kiki Rhynerson receiving recognition from immediate past Christmas at the Ritz Chair Barbara Eidson / photo by Tony Lattimore and Peggy O’Donnell

Co-Chairing the 35th anniversary year was Kiki Rhynerson and Donna Bunce, who thanked their 33-member committee for making the benefit so successful. Joining the receiving line with the co-chairs was Women of Chapman President Laura Baratta, Chapman University President Daniele Struppa, his wife and Chapman professor Lisa Sparks, and Board of Trustees Chairman Park Kennedy.

Honored in abstentia for the anniversary year were Charlene Prager, wife of the late Ritz Restaurant owner Hans Prager, who passed away in 2021, and Dori di Kruif, who were both instrumental in establishing the fundraiser.

Chilean Sea Bass / photo by Chris Trela

As the story is told, when Dori asked Hans Prager, co-owner with Charlene of The Ritz Restaurant if the Women of Chapman could hold a fundraising luncheon at the restaurant, he suggested the first Saturday in December for a Christmas lunch, and the tradition was born.

It was Dori who coined it “Christmas at The Ritz,” and who chaired three of the first 10 fundraisers. Hans and Charlene were intimately involved with Christmas at The Ritz from the beginning. Even after Hans passed away, Charlene continued as a committee member and event chair.

Charlene’s brother and sister in law, Michael & Teresa Baker, were recognized at the 3q5th anniversary luncheon.

The “Christmas at The Ritz” past chairs were introduced and brought to the stage, where they each received customized Christmas nutcrackers. Past chairs attending included Sandy Chiles, Catherine Thyen, Mary Dell Barkouras, Martha Green, Leslie Cancellieri, Joan Riach-Gayner, Donna Bunce, Marci Hollander Sorensen, Adrienne Brandes, Kathy Hamilton, Barbara Eidson, Donna Bianchi, Kim Smith, Karly Brown, Laura Baratta, Mona Lee Nesseth, Sheri Nazaroff and Kristin Martin.

Chapman University President Daniele Struppa / photo by Chris Trela

Chapman University President Daniele Struppa greeted the guests and stated “Thanks you all for you tremendous support. Thank you from our students, because of your engagement out students have a much richer experience. One of my favorite places to go on campus is the new Keck Center Women of Chapman Gallery, which honors some of the greatest women scientist in the world. Students are enriched by what they see.”

Struppa added that “I say this every year: this is my favorite event. People say I’m sure you say that to everyone. Yes I do, but here I mean it! This is my favorite event. We are here to celebrate, everyone is excited. I like the atmosphere. Merry Christmas, thank you for your friendship and your support.”

Committee member Jodi Salerno, St. Nick’s Picks contributor Suzan Paek, committee member Youngsong Martin / photo by Tony Lattimore and Peggy O’Donnell

Chapman University students roamed the room selling opportunity drawing tickets, and the live auction drew many bidders. The ultra cocktail parties for 40 guests for $1,500 sold 13 times, and an ambrosia maple wooden bowl carved by Chapman President Emeritus Jim Doti sold for $12,000 to WOC member Kay Burra.

Also happy was Julia Argyros, who won the original Georgeana Ireland oil painting from her Love Series called “Love in Pink.”

Two Ritz dinners for 10 sold with former Ritz Chef Arthur Shegog at the helm, and four cashmere with fox trim capes sold. Mary Murfey was delighted to win the Wm Harold Jewelers diamond hoop earrings.

Underwriter Kim Smith, Kim E. Smith, Gail Robson / photo by Tony Lattimore and Peggy O’Donnell

The event netted nearly $320,000 for Chapman University. The group has raised more than $9 million over the years through “Christmas at The Ritz” and is completing a $1 million pledge to the Keck Center for Science and Engineering and to the Harry & Diane Rinker Health Science Campus

The “Christmas at the Ritz” committee included Donna Bianchi, Jane Bigcas, Leslie Cancellieri, Janet Curci, Cynthia De Baun, Donna Di Bari, Barbara Eidson, Robin Follman-Otta, Lisa Hallaian, Kathy Hamilton, Michelle Highberg, Donna Hood, Sue Hook, Christina Johnston, Lauren Johnston, Judy Jones, Melinda Kartsonis, Eve Kornyei, Mikey Lares, Kristin Martin, Youngsong Martin, Donna Miller, Mary Murfey, Sheri Nazaroff, Mona Lee Nesseth, Kimberly Oswald, Toni Redman, Kathy Ruvolo, Jodi Salerno, Pam Selber, Marci Sorensen, Christina Sullivan, Susan Tuttle, and Chapman Liaison Joy Flynn, Manager of Support Group Programs.

Major Underwriters: Grand Patrons ($25,000) Julia & George Argyros and Sally Segertrom (not present); Esteemed Patron ($15,000) Whittier Trust with Arlo & Marci Sorensen; Honorary Chairmen ($10,000) -Shannon Argyros, Laura & James Baratta, Janet L. Curci, Laura Khouri & Michael Hayde, Joann Leatherby, Ruth Ann Moriarty, Mary Murfey, Patricia Podlich and Ronna & Bill Shipman. Producers ($5,000) Mary Lynn Bergman-Rallis and John Rallis, Sue & Gary C. Grant Foundation, Rusty & Bill Hood, Shelly & Steve Hupp, Cheryl Lentz, Joan Riach-Gayner, Smith/Walker Foundation/Kim Smith, and Felicity & Don Sodaro; Directors ($2,500) Donna S. Bianchi, Donna Calvert, Leslie & Dino Cancellieri, Cynthia DeBaun, Donna Janes, Lauren & Christopher Johnston, Suki McCardle, Rebecca & Carl McLarand, and Sheri Nazaroff & Mark Whitfield.

Chocolate bombe dessert / photo by Chris Trela



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