Patron committee co-chairs Gayle and Fred Palmer with Variety child Kaci

In 1928, a heartbroken mother abandoned her 3- week-old baby at a theater in Pittsburgh, with a note that read, Please take care of my baby, her name is Catherine. I can no longer take care of her, I have eight others. My husband is out of work. She was born on Thanksgiving Day. I have always heard of the goodness of show business and I pray to God that you will look after her. Upon discovering her, 11 entertainers founded a charitable organization called Variety Club. For five years until she was adopted, the girl stayed at the homes of producers and actors—including her favorite, ‘Uncle Walt,’ who we all know as Walt Disney.

Four years later in 1932, a branch of the Variety Club opened in St. Louis, says CEO Jan Albus. The local organization, now known as Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis, is celebrating its 80th anniversary during Variety Week, whose flagship celebration is Dinner with the Stars. This year’s event takes place April 28 at the Peabody Opera House. The evening begins with a VIP reception, followed by dinner and a program emceed by Joe Buck. The highlight of the night is a performance by Diana Ross.

The event also honors the Variety Man and Woman of the Year: Michael Neidorff, chairman and CEO of Centene Corporation, and civic volunteer Thelma Steward. For the first time, the event’s costs are being completely underwritten by World Wide Technology, Centene Corporation and the David Steward family, which means all proceeds will directly benefit Variety’s programs, Albus says. As another first, Young Variety will be included in the Dinner with the Stars, with the Night of the Rising Stars reception in the Kiel Club. As tribute to the 80th anniversary of Variety St. Louis, as well as the construction of the Peabody that also began in 1932, the theme of the night will be Art Deco.

Patron chairs for the event are Gayle and Fred Palmer, and event chair Marilyn Fox is celebrating 15 years in that role, Albus notes. “She’s been very important to the overall success of this event. Since she’s been chairman the money raised has quadrupled, and she’s a complete and wonderful inspiration to everybody.” Fox also has quadrupled the size of Variety Adventure Camp, which gives children with all types of disabilities the opportunity to experience summer camp. “They rock climb, swim—incredible things you wouldn’t think a child with a disability could do,” Albus says.

Variety Week kicks off on Saturday, April 21, with the Runway Lights fashion show at The Chase Park Plaza. The event, emceed by Fox 2’s Mandy Murphey, features the complete line of New York designer Carmen Marc Valvo. “It’s very exciting and unusual to have a major New York designer come to St. Louis for a major runway show,” Albus notes. Thelma Steward is chairing the event for the third year. The week continues on Tuesday, April 24, with call-a-thon for kids on Fox 2 and KPLR. That Wednesday, all Imo’s restaurants are donating 10 to 20 percent of their sales to Variety.

The funds support all of Variety’s programs, which include partnership with 80 local agencies serving children, Albus says. Along with providing medical equipment, Variety works to further the children’s lives in terms of education, recreation and socialization. “In December each year, we give away 300 bicycles to children who have never had one before, including at least 30 that are custom-made based on a prescription,” she says. “They would seem to be recreational, but they are also therapeutic.”

Tables of 10 for the Dinner with the Stars event may be purchased for $35,000, $25,000 and $15,000 at the Diamond, Platinum and Ruby levels. Individual tickets may be purchased at the Patron and Gold levels for $1,000 and $500, respectively. “Dinner with the Stars is like a Broadway show, with a lot of music and dancing— and that’s even before Ms. Ross comes out!”