WALNUT CREEK -- Heads up to "Stars to the Rescue" headliners Bruce Hornsby, Bob Weir and Michael Cavanaugh -- when word gets out that Animal Rescue Foundation Executive Director Elena Bicker can belt out Don McLean's 8 1/2-minute "American Pie" verbatim,
former Major League Baseball manager and ARF founder Tony La Russa may add her to the bill.
But for now, Bicker will remain one of the hundreds of under-the-radar individuals involved in producing "Comedy Night" and "Stars to the Rescue," the nonprofit organization's two largest, all-important annual fundraising events, held each year at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center.
Comedy Night (this Friday night) packs a wallop of comedic talent. National and local stand-up comedians line up -- and Bay Area laughmaster Mark Pitta (again on the roster this year) is known to pull some fancy maneuvers. Last year's 11th-hour talent grab, Robin Williams and Dana Carvey, nearly blew the roof off the downtown auditorium, Bicker said.
"Mark had adopted an ARF dog, then a cat. He's also a friend of Tony's, so he arranged for (Williams and Carvey) to swing out to Walnut Creek," Bicker said.
This year, Pitta will be joined by Brian Copeland, Allan Havey, Kathleen Madigan, Suli McCullough and Karen Rontowski.
"Stars to the Rescue" (Saturday night, Jan. 4) rolls out the heavyweights 24 hours later. This year's bluegrass, rock, pop, didgeridoo, hornpipe and vocals lineup will save hundreds of dogs and cats who can no longer be kept in area animal shelters. Bicker is particularly pumped about Cavanaugh, who sparked her inner rock star at a recent ARF event. But her fondness for pop classics doesn't blur her true focus.
"These two events support our operating budget," Bicker says. "They're critical. Every time our truck goes out into the community, they can only pick up what fits into our facility. They can look at 100 dogs, but if we only have space for 20, that's all they can bring back."
In 2013, ARF programs impacted the lives of 14,770 animals. Even so, Bicker said the phones ring 200 times a day, and saying "no" is painful.
"Right now, we're full of puppies and kittens, which is usually indicative of spring," she says. "Pet overpopulation is a serious problem, and actually, most people don't realize two-thirds of our income comes from individuals. We have star power, but the reality is that our average donation is only $30."
The "star power" -- namely, La Russa -- works its magic for the two post-New Year's celebrations.
"During Tony's long career in professional baseball, he's had the privilege of meeting celebrities," Bicker said in explaining how big-name performers are attracted to participate each year. "They're friends of Tony's. We don't pay any of them. What the entertainers appreciate is that we do labor-intensive work through volunteers. Their performances earn money for us because 87 cents of every dollar goes to saving lives, not to event planners."
And ARF's four-star Charity Navigator rating, a marker indicative of a charity's financial stability and sustainability, adds cachet. "Only 3 percent of all charities nationwide get the four stars we've been given," Bicker boasted.
Comedian, writer, television and talk radio host Copeland won't be toting his miniature dachshund or his pug, but he will preview new material from his upcoming show at San Francisco's Marsh Theatre. "Tony and Elaine La Russa are dear friends and I've been doing these shows for ARF for over 20 years," Copeland wrote in an e-mail. "The work that they do on behalf of all of the neglected animals in the Bay Area is vital. I never tell them 'no.' "
ARF's operating budget has grown since 1993, when Bicker began her journey from puppy foster guardian to marketing staff member to executive director.
"The fight to raise funds stays the same, but we're doing more good," she says.
Educational programs have expanded to include more than 500 kids last summer and a new initiative to waive all adoption fees for members of the military re-entering civilian life has helped place more than 100
cats and dogs since its inception in June. Bicker says locating La Russa, now that she can't simply check the St. Louis Cardinals schedule in the paper -- is tricky. "Everybody thought he retired, but he all he really did is switch jobs. He's in charge of instant replay (for Major League Baseball), so he actually travels more now than when he was with the Cardinals. He's a moving target, but he's never more than a cell phone call away."
And on two nights in early January, the soon-to-be-inducted MLB Hall of Famer will be laughing and tapping his toes with his favorite people: longtime friends and animal lovers.
Stars to the Rescue XXIII