Johnny Depp didn't show, but his willowy Winona Ryder was there, as fresh and sweet as an organically grown tomato. C&W singer k.d. lang cried. Rock goddess Chrissie Hynde spoke about deer hunter hunting. And Elliott Gould danced until he was drenched in sweat.
There may have been a herd of stars, but no meat and very little leather in the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel ballroom Saturday night for the $250-a-head People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals 10th anniversary Humanitarian Awards Gala. The only fur was on two pups: Helmut, a fluffy white Maltese sitting in the lap of David Cohen, a guest at the front table; and a scrawny, nearly blind Chihuahua named Choncita, the companion of PETA co-founder and national director Ingrid Newkirk.
The rest of the 300 guests were compassionate "bunny huggers," as cartoonist Berke Breathed calls them. People who believe, as PETA co-founder Alex Pacheco put it, "that animals don't belong to us. Not to eat. Not to wear. Not to experiment on."
"Saturday Night Live" cast member Kevin Nealon -- an occasional salmon eater but "only when it's over $17" -- was the evening's master of ceremonies. Nealon's new at this; his wife of one year, Linda, is a vegetarian and animal rights activist who works in New York shelters.
"She's slowly converting me," he said. "I don't eat many dairy products. I've cut out all leather, except for a few leather sneaks still lying around the house. But I think of all the cows they had to kill to make my shoe -- size 13. That's a whole cow!"
Newkirk opened the evening by inviting the guests "to put out of our minds the suffering of animals and have fun."
A New York dance troupe called Le Masquerade began the evening by posing on the dance floor in white costumes that looked like something out of "Alice in Wonderland." As the guests moved from the reception into the dry-ice smoke-filled ballroom, they were grabbed, one by one, by the dancers. Instantly, the music switched from eerie synthesizer to Madonna's "Vogue."
"This must be a new kind of party," observed lang. "A '90s party. Vegetarian menu and disco dancing before the first course."
This was no ordinary vegetarian dinner, though. Melon soup with fresh berries and roasted pine nuts. Sauteed potato and corn cake with carrots, green onion and black beans on spinach with carrot-dill sauce. Then, a palate-cleansing orange and Campari sorbet.
"I was so interested in what we'd be eating tonight," said guest Christal Laine, aspiring vegetarian and non-fur wearer whose mother named her after Christ Almighty. "I'm sure it's not always this tasty."
Next, a potato tart with leeks and tofu. Giant ravioli filled with ratatouille and shallot confit with red bell pepper sauce, a salad with heart of palm and jicama, and heavenly desserts. It was a vegan meal: no meat, no dairy products. At the end of the evening, Willard executive chef Peter Schaffrath received a standing ovation.
In between courses, awards were handed out.
lang, a vegetarian who doesn't eat eggs but does eat butter and owns very little leather clothing -- a belt, a pair of hiking boots and dress shoes, all secondhand -- caused quite a stir this summer by starring in a pro-cow commercial for PETA, in which she declared, "Meat stinks!"
The applause was so passionate that when lang got up to receive her Humanitarian Award, her eyes filled with tears.
"This is the first time I've sat down at an awards dinner and haven't had to choke down a baked tomato," she said in a trembling voice. "I'm thankful for that."
Pretenders lead singer Hynde, a vegetarian since 1969 who will eat eggs "when they are in a cake,"wasn't wearing a stitch of cowhide Saturday night. "I still have some leather trousers," she admitted. "It's a throwback to when I used to hang out with guys with motorcycles." She took a long drag on her cigarette. "I'm vain. I like to look as cool as possible."
Hynde flew in from London just for the dinner. But even though she was suffering from jet lag, she decided to get up early Saturday morning and go deer hunter hunting in suburban Maryland.
"I spoke to some of the bow hunters," she said. "What they said was, 'Hell, I'm going to take it home and eat it.' Like that makes it okay. I don't know. Maybe they see me as a stiff."
Scruffy-looking River Phoenix, a vegan who at age 8 was traumatized watching fishermen kill their catch by bashing it on boards of nails, was introduced by actress Brenda Vaccaro as one of today's finest young actors. She listed all of his film credits, including his Oscar-nominated role in "Running on Empty" and the PETA public service announcement he made this summer.
Earlier, Phoenix explained his philosophy on eating meat: "We're kidding ourselves if we think we can go on surviving on a Neanderthal diet."
Some other award recipients were hair care product master John Paul Jones DeJoria of John Paul Mitchell Systems and Leslie Grunberg of Benetton, who both run companies that do not allow product testing on animals; rock musician Tom Scholz of the group Boston, "a garden-variety vegetarian" who bought his shoes at Payless for $8 because he won't wear leather; Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's, who has been arrested on occasion while protesting for animal rights; and Berke Breathed, who supported the cause in his cartoon strip "Bloom County" but couldn't attend Saturday night. He sent a faxed message instead, which was read by his wife. "I feel like one of those celebrity dorks at the Oscars who sends a balding executive producer to accept his statue because he is on location. I would have killed to be there tonight, but the truth is, I am on location."
There was a silent auction that featured such goodies as a fake fur by Giorgio Armani and a lifelike fake orangutan. There was a raffle, at $100 a pop. Laguna Beach resident and actor Elliott Gould, the party animal of the evening who is "just beginning" to work on becoming a vegetarian and who had a braided leather bracelet on his right wrist, won a week's vacation in a luxury condominium in Dewey Beach, Del. To close each of these award and raffle breaks, the crew of Le Masquerade came out in various costumes -- cute sailor suits for the MGM musical theme, spandex workout suits and Tenexed ducktailed hair for the "Grease" number -- and got the guests dancing again. They had to work up an appetite for yet another delicious course.
Impish beauty and actress Winona Ryder came, sans her love, heartthrob actor Johnny Depp.
"I'm here on behalf of my cat," Ryder said sweetly. "She was a British shorthair who I'd had since I was a little girl. She recently passed away."
Ryder is "working on" becoming a vegan.
"I don't ever eat meat. I don't like eating anything that was ever alive. I do have some dairy, but am trying to cut back. I'm only 18, you know."