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After spending the better part of two decades shunning the limelight, Doris Day decided the time was right to make a public appearance. The occasion: her 90th birthday party in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
The legendary entertainer was the surprise guest of honor at her own celebration last Friday, an event that benefited her beloved Doris Day Animal Foundation. Although more than 175 fans were invited from all around the world to celebrate the milestone birthday, there were no plans for Day to actually attend, according to sources close to the actress.
Day's die-hard fans make an annual pilgrimage to Carmel's Cypress Inn (which she has owned since the 1980s) for her birthday weekend, even though they know their chances of actually seeing the screen icon are slim. Friday marked her first official public appearance in over 20 years.
But not even the night's volunteers had any idea Day would appear until moments before the doors opened.
Flanked by her closest friends and a small security detail, and dressed in white and sporting her signature bob, the "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" star walked into the room without any fanfare. Stunned attendees began to cry, others jumped up and down and hugged each other. As Day made her way to her seat, fans surrounded her, singing her most famous song, "Que Sera, Sera," followed by "Happy Birthday."
"I can die happy now!" exclaimed one fan, who traveled from Philadelphia. "I never thought I could meet her. She has meant so much to me, through my whole life. This [traveling to the event] was the best decision I ever made!"
Peter Marshall — of "Hollywood Squares" fame and a big Day fan — emceed the event. After the crowd was seated, he kicked off the festivities by introducing a video of Day's nearly 75-year career. The hour-long retrospective included clips from "Jumbo," "Romance on the High Seas," "Pillow Talk," and her personal favorite film, "Love Me or Leave Me"; there were romantic scenes with Rock Hudson and James Garner; and her greatest songs, including "Sentimental Journey" and "The Way We Were," with a special section showing her singing with all her leading men.
The audience roared approvingly as her 1989 Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille speech played, and Day uttered the line, "I really need to come back to Hollywood more."
The video tribute also included birthday well wishes from a number of celebs.
"I got there first, Doris," joked Betty White, who shares Day's passion for animal rights. "Please have a happy happy birthday and thank you for all you do to help the animals we love."
"It's such a great pleasure for me to be able to say [happy birthday] to you," said Robert Wagner. "What you have always done has always been from your heart. You're a very special lady and this is a special time for me to be able to here and say to you, 'Happy birthday'!"
As the retrospective ended, Marshall jokingly quipped, "We have to follow that?" He then took the stage with singer Sue Raney to perform a medley of Day tunes.
Day refused to leave until she greeted every attendee, gamely shaking hands, giving hugs, and posing for photos.
According to a souce close to Day, the actress asked fans to donate to her Doris Day Animal Foundation in lieu of gifts. There was also a live auction featuring items signed by Day and her celebrity friends like Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney, with a bespoke Stella McCartney bag attracting heated bidding.
Day, who has devoted her post-Hollywood career to the foundation, was thrilled that her 90th birthday party exceeded her goal of raising $90,000.
"There is so much work still to do to rescue animals, and to inform people about the importance of spaying and neutering their pets," she said.
Day's credits include "Calamity Jane" (1953), "The Pajama Game" (1957), and Alfred Hitchcock's 1965 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the latter of which spawned the Oscar-winning "Que Sera, Sera."
While she has shunned the spotlight for decades, she did release "My Heart," an album of covers in 2011, her first collection of new recordings since 1965.
Though the Motion Picture Academy has repeatedly offered her a Lifetime Achievement Award, she has consistently turned down the honor, preferring to stay at her coastal enclave. But given her appearance at her birthday bash, perhaps she'll have a change of heart in 2014.
As Day likes to tell friends: "Never say never."