WALNUT CREEK -- When Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation kicks open the Lesher Center's doors for two annual fundraising events Jan. 4 and 5, it's not just cats and dogs who will benefit.
An expected sell-out crowd for Friday, Jan. 4's "Comedy Night" means more than 800 post-holiday slumpers will hoot and howl as host Mark Pitta MC's comedians Dana Carvey, Kevin Pollak and John Wing.
"Tony invites people and Mark uses his contacts in the industry," explains ARF Development Director Bobbe Bartlett, who can barely contain her excitement. "Dana Carvey was a surprise guest last year and for contractual reasons, we couldn't announce it early on."
But this year, Carvey confirmed in mid-December, causing the remaining seats to fly from the box office like tickets to the World Series.
"We do all of this with few resources," Bartlett says. "Really, Tony just invites the people and a staff with a few key volunteers pulls it off without a party planner."
After tickling funny bones on Friday, ARF takes a wide stride and presents Saturday night's "Stars to the Rescue XXII."
First up that night will be Broadway star Rich Hebert, who recently played the father in the touring musical "Billy Elliott" but whose resume includes television's "NYPD Blue," cable's "The Sopranos" and even stints as a car salesman and college professor.
Next, Tommy Igoe's Big Band culls 15 top Bay Area musicians from the local sound pool and Tony Orlando (returning after a previous appearance a few years ago that Bartlett says "blew the roof off the barn") promise to have even the most determined wallflowers dancing in the Hoffman Theatre's aisles.
Robin Williams, a recently announced guest star, is not only a king of stand-up comedy but a supporter of the USO and Comic Relief, an organization dedicated to using comedy and entertainment to "cure homelessness" (for people and animals alike) and forestall the conditions that create it.
Bartlett sees the 2013 events coming full circle with ARF's goals for the next several years. Although La Russa is constantly on the road as a Major League Baseball consultant (he retired from managing after leading his St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series win in 2011), a new program for military personnel was announced in July.
"We are waving adoption fees for active and retired military members," Bartlett says. "Through our Pet Hug Pack therapy teams that visit VA hospitals, we found animals bring comfort to vets in need. Vets are particularly touched by this (interaction) and we're looking to expand what we might be able to do for them in the future.
Calling it "just magic," Bartlett recalls a retired vet who recently adopted 10-year old Bailey.
"The dog had been turned in by a family who had lost their home and had to move to an apartment. He took Bailey home, cleaned him up -- you can't imagine how it has changed both of them."
ARF's nine-year old center in Walnut Creek spays and neuters 3,300 animals every year, and recently saw its 25,000th animal adoption. Still, Bartlett says the purchase of neighboring property and reconfiguring the existing space will allow the organization to grow.
"It has to be a careful thought process," she warns. "We have to hold onto our core mission -- people rescuing animals and animals rescuing people."
Among the high-end items at the silent auction on Jan. 5 are Giants memorabilia and tickets. Calling the fundraisers "significant," Bartlett says as much as $100,000 has been raised during past seasons.
If you go
There are a handful of tickets available for both the Jan. 4 'Comedy Night' and the Jan. 5 'Stars to the Rescue XXII' shows by going online to lesherartscenter.org