Sometimes it pays off to be in the right place at the right time. At “Dazzle,” the annual gala to benefit Young Audiences New Jersey, I happened to be standing at the top of the stairs talking with Larry Capo, executive director of YANJ, when who should arrive just at that moment but honorary chair Kevin Spacey. What do you do when a major Academy Award winning actor is standing right in front of you grinning with that multi-million dollar smile? Well, you simply stick out your hand, smile, and say, “Hello, nice to meet you, I’m Jamie Saxon.” (I also sucked in my stomach violently and stood up ultra-straight, which is my approximation of trying to look like a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman.) Then Larry Capo introduced himself, and one of the two friends Spacey brought with him revealed she is a former Rider student and had had Capo for a professor way back when.

As the VIP crowd in the Cosmo Club, one of three night clubs created in the spirit of the Golden Age of ocean travel in the Chauncey Conference Center of ETS, parted to make a path for Spacey, the air really did take on a different quality. Something electric and otherworldly, and a little bit breathless. As Spacey and friends took the table in front of the stage, where guests had already enjoyed the smooth voices of the award-winning a cappella troupe Ball in the House and tap-dancing by the Tap Team Two, Capo stepped up to the mike. He revealed what was clearly no secret to anyone there, that this was YANJ’s largest benefit ever (315 guests), and that proceeds from the gala ($70,000) would go to support the programming of YANJ, which reaches 700 schools in all 21 counties, and some 475,000 children. “Since math isn’t my strong suit, I’ll tell you that’s 33 times the number of people who live in Princeton and seven times larger than Super Bowl attendance,” Capo said. He acknowledged ETS, which underwrote the entire event, then Spacey took the mike, to a roaring standing ovation.

“Could I have the house lights up?” Spacey asked. “I like to see who I’m talking to.” Spacey said he didn’t hesitate to accept YANJ’s offer, as “a chance to come home to New Jersey, the state I was born in.” His mother gave him this sage advice: In order to have a successful life, become rich in values and education. Another reason he so quickly accepted the YANJ invitation, he said, is because “I know how life-changing it can be for a young person standing on a stage. At age 13 I attended a workshop with Jack Lemmon. And I cannot tell you what it meant to me. Twelve years later, I got cast as Lemmon’s son I ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night.’ He taught me more than any book I could have read. I was fortunate to do three more films with him.”

Today, Spacey continued, “I still have to pinch mself to fully accept that this kid from South Orange ended up the artistic director of the Old Vic [in London]. I fully appreciate what a lucky dog I am. Part of why I’ve turned my focus to the Old Vic is because I know the difference it can make in a young person’s life when they are given the opportunities to do workshops. I was just another student with a handful of dreams. Whereever the Old Vic goes — such as Sam Mendes’ production of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or the Old Vic production of ‘The Normal Conquests’ [opening on Broadway on April 23] — our educational opportunities go with us.

“Theater workshops require participation and an emotional investment. If it weren’t for school programs like YANJ bringing similar opportunities to other young people, they wouldn’t be candidates for our encouragement. The arts must be supported. Culture brings the excitement of our lives — the words of a great writer, a sonata by Mozart, the brilliant interpretation of a character by an actor, the countless images on celluloid and the stories they tell. Countries may go to war but culture unites us. The arts inspire and uplift us. The arts enrich the next generation and contribute to interpersonal communication. What we can rely on is our inspiration and our passion.”

After making a pointed jab at certain members of Congress who tried to thwart a mere $50 million for the arts out of a $700 billion stimulus package, Spacey warned: “We abandon the arts at our peril. The question is not what can the economy do for the arts but what can the arts do for the economy? Look at the financial contributions of the arts. After all, it’s show BUSINESS!”

After thunderous applause, the ultra-generous Spacey volunteered to repeat his speech for the rest of the guests in the Kasbah club, who had been dancing to the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of world music masters Spirit Ensemble. My last glimpse of Spacey was at the Kasbah Club’s front table, enjoying the belly dancers from the Mosaic Dance Theatre. And then, like an apparition, he was gone. But the party rocked on for several hours. There’s nothing like a little stardust to set an event on fire.

For more information visit www.yanj.org.

P.S. If you’re wondering how YANJ got Spacey in the first place, it was marketing director Coby Green Rifkin’s idea to write to 25 New Jersey-born stars via their agents. Three replied: two no’s and Spacey’s yes.

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