Variety Club Follies

How the curtain came down -- for the time being -- at the "show biz" charity

Elizabeth "Lele" Brown's daughter was born prematurely, and the young mother soon found herself shuttling in and out of hospitals and doctors' offices, immersed in a world of sick and suffering children. Her daughter was a "near-miss SIDS baby," as Brown puts it, who nearly died in her crib twice in one night and subsequently required hospitalization on and off for a year and a half. Gradually, the child recovered, and today is a healthy four-year-old. But the experience left a thankful Brown feeling that she had an obligation to give something back to other children who were hurting.

When a friend suggested she volunteer to help a charity, the Variety Club, throw an Easter party for handicapped children, Brown jumped at the chance. After spending an afternoon with the kids at Tiki Island near Galveston, Brown cried half the way back to Houston.

"This really moved me, and I wanted to be a part of it," she remembers. "I wanted to help make differences in these children's lives."

That's the stated purpose of the Variety Club, an international organization with more than 70 chapters in 20 countries. Stateside, it's known as the "show biz charity," particularly in New York and California, where actors and entertainers are mainstays of the local chapters. The chapters are called "tents," and each tent has its own individual programs aimed at helping needy children.

Houston's chapter, known as Tent 34, was founded in 1949 and has specialized in providing artificial limbs, wheelchairs and funding for a neonatal center at Ben Taub Hospital, among other programs. For Lele Brown, who had endured her own personal ordeal with an ailing child, it seemed an ideal cause to embrace.

Brown applied for the job of assistant to Tent 34's executive director, Laura Rowe, and was eventually hired. But six months later, as she sat in the Variety Club headquarters nervously eyeing a private detective combing the phones for wiretaps, Brown realized there was a lot more than charity work going on in the Kirby Drive office.

A number of people familiar with Tent 34's operations say Rowe had confided to them that she had engaged in a long-term romantic relationship with the Variety Club's board chairman, John Nau III, the head of Anheuser-Busch's Silver Eagle Distributors. According to club sources, Rowe said she brought in the investigator to secure the office's phone after Nau's wife had discovered the relationship.

(When asked by the Press whether she had had a romantic relationship with Nau, Rowe dismissed the question as "ridiculous" and refused to address the subject. The Press repeatedly left phone messages asking Nau to discuss Rowe. Eventually, his secretary at Silver Eagle Distributors responded that Nau, "after some thought," decided not to comment.)

The nature of the relationship between two married people occupying key positions at the charity turned out to be only one of many issues that eventually tore Tent 34 wide open. Its fundraising gala planned for later this year and its radiothon for homeless children would be put on hold. And its big-name board -- including media executive David Saperstein and restaurateur-developer Tilman Fertitta -- are still split into bickering factions, polarized around the strong-willed, charismatic Rowe.

Rowe is gone -- she resigned her $63,000-plus-bonus position under pressure from the club's executive committee two months ago -- but she's a long way from being forgotten at the local Variety Club.

A prolific fundraiser with a pronounced taste for the highlife, Laura Rowe seems to excite passions from all who've had more than passing contact with her. While a group of male Variety Club board members maintain an almost slavish devotion to her and have vowed to return her to her position, another faction -- including Variety Club International vice president Fred Friedman -- can't wait to erase Rowe's shadow from Tent 34.

"The cancer has been removed from the local chapter," declares Friedman of Rowe's forced resignation. He's recommended that the new regime at Tent 34 hire a big-firm auditor and lawyer to help get its house in order.

To Lele Brown, a call from an elderly Pasadena woman to the Variety Club following its last radiothon provided an unforgettable counterpoint to what she saw transpiring at the charity. The woman asked for "Miss Laura," says Brown, and then explained that she was on a fixed income but was so moved by the Variety Club's efforts that she was going to send $5 a month to the chapter. She ended the call by saying, "God bless you."

The call left Brown feeling uneasy. The assistant to "Miss Laura" had watched with growing frustration as Variety Club money was poured into expensive lunches hosted by her boss while wheelchairs donated by Compaq Computers sat at the club's headquarters, undistributed to their intended recipients. Brown said nothing then, but she has plenty to say now that she has left the charity.

"People like this woman, who's sending all she can in an envelope, did not send this money for lunches in fancy restaurants and excessive spending," says Brown. "It was meant to go for the children."

Brown's not alone in that assessment. For years, the local Better Business Bureau has rated the Variety Club's performance as unsatisfactory for spending too much on administration and fundraising and not enough on charity.

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