Theyre off to seeBy Tim Ryan
Barbi Benton stands on stage at the Blaisdell Concert Hall in a knee-length Palaka-style dress, full slip and silver glittering high heels.
Hands clasped innocently at her tiny waist, Benton bats her eyes at singer Glenn Medeiros -- aka Mr. Spam Man -- and coos, "Ohhhh, Mr. Spam Man, you're so big and strong." Nearby, singer Jimmy Borges -- the Scarecrow in this localized version of "The Wizard of Oz" -- looks a bit jaundiced in too much yellow makeup.
Oh, what a week this is for the Honolulu Symphony. The orchestra was host last night to world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma; tomorrow and Saturday the orchestra and several local celebrities are performing in Lisa Masumoto's "Da Wizard of Ah Ha's."
Benton is talking excitedly with co-stars, joking with photographers, fluffing up her dress, spinning delicately on her toes. She is one contented person.
"Every little girl dreams of being a princess; in many ways my dreams came true," she said. "I've lived a very good life. I wouldn't change anything very much."
Benton lives in Aspen with her husband of nearly 20 years, multimillionaire George Gradow. Their 25,000 square-foot house is named "Copper Palace." They also own homes in Los Angeles and Koko Head, the latter built about three years ago.
"We wanted to get out of Aspen in the off-season -- like when snow is falling in late fall, when the bicycling or hiking is not very good, and in April and May, when it's too muddy," she said.
The couple sought a "fair-weather place in the good old U.S. of A., where no one can just take your land from you," said Benton, a mother of two. "Hawaii is a perfect balance for our needs."
Now Benton is starring in "Da Wizard" as the only non-pidgin-speaking character.
"Whadaya think?" Benton says mock innocently during an "Oz" rehearsal as she curtsies.
Spam Man and Scrarecrow smile.
"Down boys," someone yells from near backstage.
Benton sings several songs in the show -- though she said, "Obviously, I'm no Judy Garland" -- and plans to update the role of Dorothy. "She's going to be very happening. It doesn't make sense to have her from Kansas when she has to understand (pidgin). Instead of calling someone a bully, I'll say 'wus'."
Benton, who spent several years working in Las Vegas singing at the Hilton's main showroom, said she misses performing. But her life has changed considerably since she married Gradow nearly 20 years ago.
"I love my family, skiing, traveling and exercising," said Benton, who with Gradow recently rediscovered the tango.
"On Valentines Day we flew in some tango teachers and had 40 of our closest friends to learn the tango," she said. "Oh, how it rekindled the fire."
Even if you know about Benton's well-publicized relationship with Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner, you may not know why she left.
"I really loved the time I spent with Hef," Benton said. "I probably would have stayed with him for the rest of my life, but he didn't want to have kids. There came a time for me when I got this incredible maternal instinct."
Benton said she left Hef on very good terms. "I still love him."
"I have a very different life with George and I love it," said Benton who clicked her heels ala Dorothy. "Aunty
Da Wizard of Ah Ha'sStarring: The Honolulu Symphony, with Barbi Benton, Jimmy Borges, Rick Hamada, Emma Veary, Glenn Medeiros, Karen Keawehawaii, Cathy Foy-Mahi, Cecilio Rodriguez and the Honolulu Boy Choir
On stage: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Conductor: Matt Catingub
Place: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: Sold out
Call: 538-8863 Em! Aunty Em! We're home!"
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