“Got a minute?”
I knew Gloria Zigner’s voice from hundreds of previous, and welcome, interruptions. The door to the editor’s office at Orange Coast is almost always open, but for decades, and through a succession of editors, it has been open extra wide for Zigner.
Since 1992, she has been the magazine’s eyes and ears on the county’s charitable-events circuit. While also running her own successful public relations business, she has written tirelessly about philanthropy, month in and month out for decades, celebrating the people who make Orange County a kinder, gentler place. She has outlasted every editor who ever sat in my chair.
Zigner takes a seat facing my desk. “I think I’m going to retire.”
My left eye twitches. Zigner has more than earned the right to step back. She wants to spend more time with her husband, Irv Goldberg. And even the energetic Zigner will concede that she has slowed a bit. But in that moment, I’m not thinking about all of that, or about how much she means to the magazine, and to the county. I’m thinking purely of myself.
To those outside the local media and business communities, Zigner’s name might not be familiar. She came to Orange County from Bakersfield more than 50 years ago and quickly established herself in the world of local public relations, offering herself as a gracious connection between businesses and organizations and the sometimes adversarial reporters and editors who cover them. She has the rare ability to navigate both worlds with ease, and knows a good story when she hears it. Zigner built a solid roster of clients, and even survived a difficult chapter in 1992 when an employee embezzled much of her company’s money.
“As far back as 1969, when I was at Cochrane Chase & Co., Gloria was already legendary,” wrote San Clemente-based PR and marketing consultant Bill Koelzer in a 2011 LinkedIn endorsement of Zigner. “We studied what she did, how she did it, and emulated her when we could. When I was a rookie, I would ask her how to do something for my clients, and she’d take time to tell me. She’s so generous that way.”
Peggy O’Donnell, a photographer and long-time Zigner collaborator on the charity circuit, recalls one of Zigner’s early Orange County gigs. “She won the contract for promoting the OC Fair,” she recalls. The fair’s theme that year was a salute to pigs. “It just seemed so innocuous considering what she eventually became.”
Zigner built Gloria Zigner & Company using intangible assets such as charm and discretion. A recent Internet search turned up testimonials that include phrases such as “Miss PR of Orange County” and “the PR queen of O.C.” Long before she was associated with this magazine, she was quoted extensively in a 1987 Orange Coast story titled “High-Powered Lunching.” The piece noted that a booth at her favorite French restaurant, the now-closed La Biarritz in Newport Beach, featured a brass nameplate with Zigner’s name on it.
Former Orange Coast Publisher Ruth Ko recognized Zigner’s skills and asked her in the early 1990s to chronicle Orange County’s lively charitable events scene. For years, her work appeared beneath the label “Zignature” and set a standard for what became a ubiquitous feature in local magazines.
“Gloria always had a memory like you wouldn’t believe,” says Ko. “She had a link to just about everyone. If she didn’t know a person, she knew somebody who did.”
Since 1997, one of Zigner’s most visible roles in Orange County has been as founder and executive producer of the CHOC Follies, an annual fundraiser she puts together with the help of director John Vaughan, music director Douglas Austin, and choreographer Lee Martino. The Follies typically features a cast of about 100 local business, civic, and philanthropic leaders who act, sing, and dance to raise money for Children’s Hospital of Orange County. The show has netted more than $7 million for the hospital and has become one of the county’s premier professional networking opportunities.
If Zigner locks onto you as a potential performer, watch out. After learning of Donna Bunce’s extensive musical background, Zigner recruited the business manager of what then was called the Master Chorale of Orange County to perform in the first few Follies. “The day before my first show at Chapman, I fell and severed the tendon in my right thumb,” recalls Bunce, now owner of Donna Bunce & Associates Public Relations in Newport Beach. “But Gloria was just there like a mother would be, saying, ‘How do you feel? Are you OK? You don’t have to do this.’ It was a loving-arms-around-you approach.”
Former PBS SoCal President and CEO Mel Rogers says he first met Ko while performing at the Follies. That led to a years-long trade relationship between the public television station and Orange Coast that continues to this day.
“There’s no question the Follies is a phenomenon,” Richard Stein, executive director of Arts Orange County, once said. “It’s really Gloria’s brainchild. She conceived it and has driven it over the years to be a tremendous unifying force for the community.”
Tim Dunn, public relations director for Segerstrom Center for the Arts, says Zig-ner’s “purpose in all of her reporting and relationships is for the good of the community and various organizations. There’s a strong sense of philanthropy in her work.”
Official honors have been bestowed, too. In September 2012, Arts Orange County honored Zigner’s work with the Follies by giving her the Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award for Community Visionary. And in April, the CHOC Children’s Foundation honored her as its outstanding volunteer for 2015.
All well and good. But Zigner’s retirement is, for me, a personal loss. Having her in my life has been like having an intravenous newsfeed from the front lines of the Orange County social and business scenes, or sometimes a hotline to TMZ. Her regular visits have always been the perfect excuse to stop what I’m doing, offer her a chair, and download the latest gossip.
She seems to know everything. Bunce recalls the day when Zigner casually mentioned that Chapman University President Jim Doti had decided to announce his successor in preparation for eventual retirement after a 24-year run heading the university. “She knew about it before anybody,” Bunce says. “I was flabbergasted, but then I saw it in the Orange County Business Journal the next day.”
Dunn says Zigner’s secret is her sincerity. “People trust her, and they’ll tell her things that maybe they won’t tell other people, knowing it’s never going to make print. You know you can speak in confidence, and in journalism that’s important.”
Zigner is even circumspect when she’s off the clock, offering only teasing glimpses of life among Orange County’s high society. But at times I’ve been able to steer our conversations into areas where it became clear that Zigner not only knew where the bodies were buried, but who buried them, why, and, often, with whom the corpses had been sleeping. She once mentioned a socialite spotted in a local consignment shop—but won’t give her name! She once noted that a local business titan’s wife caught him in flagrante delicto—with another man. Tell me! But her lips are sealed.
Are the stories true? Usually, and often confirmed later by other sources. But they’re never as interesting as when the often-ribald Zigner tells them. (Her advice on how to catch and keep a husband is itself legendary, if wholly unprintable.) From time to time, Orange Coast has developed her casual asides into full-fledged features, including a tale about a former Fashion Island beauty cart vendor who became a star on home shopping channels. (That July 2013 profile of Tustin Ranch’s Ron Cummings is at orangecoast.com/butwait.)
Lucky for us, “retirement” for Zigner simply means she’ll slow down, not disappear. She’ll continue to contribute to the county’s charitable events coverage as part of pages produced by Orange Coast’s promotions department, and we’re sure she’ll remain on the front lines of local philanthropy for many years to come.
Which means she’ll remain a vital part of the magazine, an occasional presence in our offices—and an always-welcome guest any time she knocks.