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The Geffen's Lotto donor

December 25, 2008 |  2:11 pm

Cynthia3 Geffen, Katzenberg, Mancuso, Moonves, Perenchio, Spielberg ... and Stafford?

The Geffen Playhouse’s board of directors is packed with Hollywood heavyweights — and one believer in the power of positive thinking. Of course, Cynthia P. Stafford, 46, intends to become a philanthropist-mogul — which may seem like a pipe dream until you learn she’s already beaten the odds big time more than once.

A decade ago, Stafford went from fun-loving single to mother of five when she rescued her nieces and nephews from foster care after her youngest brother died in a car accident. “I knew it had to be done,” she says, “so I did it.”

Last year, she struck it rich in the Mega Millions lottery. “Everyone was shocked but me. I had already begun checking out financial advisors.”

Stafford is using part of her fortune to become a patron of the arts — notably arts education. For starters, she’s made a million-dollar gift to the Geffen because she’s a fan of the Westwood theater and one of its benefactors, billionaire David Geffen. “He gives like few people do,” she says, “plus he had his own studio, both of which are what I want to do.”

Her company, Queen Nefertari Productions, has two movie projects in the works. Stafford also is traveling the world collecting art to decorate her recently purchased L.A. house  and condo in New York. (All this after setting up a financial portfolio that includes college funds for her kids.)

Stafford’s life, in short, is the stuff of reality TV. In fact, several producers have approached her about starring in her own series. “It would be about a person who has acquired all this wealth and wants to get heavily involved in the arts,” she says. Others have suggested that the high-voltage Stafford host a talk show.

“Cynthia has this incredible spirit about her,” says Regina Miller, Geffen director of development. “When she walks into a room, she just attracts people.”

Yet when she wants, Stafford can be low-key. Her first major donation to the Geffen — $10,000 sent last holiday season — was delivered online and without fanfare. “I do what feels right at the moment,” she says, “and that felt right.”

Cynthia2_3 The gift piqued the curiosity of Miller, who was further intrigued to find that Stafford had contributed to the playhouse in the past, albeit in much smaller amounts. Miller picked up the phone: “Cynthia said she had come into some money and loved our theater and wanted to support our education programs because of how important the arts were to her when she was growing up.”

A short while later, Stafford asked to join the host committee ($5,000 donation required) for an upcoming education benefit. Thus began a series of conversations in which Stafford explained that she hoped to become a philanthropist and asked for advice — and the chance to speak with Geffen.
“It was an unusual request,” says Miller, “but I thought he would want to know he had inspired someone.” While preparing a query to his office, Miller discovered the source of Stafford’s prosperity: In May 2007 she won $112 million in the multi-state Mega Millions lottery with her father, Robert Stafford Sr., and brother, Robert Stafford Jr. The three divided a lump-sum payment of $67 million.

Stafford got to speak with Geffen by phone. She also met with Gil Cates, the veteran Oscar show producer who is the playhouse’s producing director, and Frank G. Mancuso, the former MGM and Paramount chief who is chairman of the Geffen board. It was, however, Miller to whom Stafford posed the big question: “Cynthia turned to me and asked, 'Regina, what is your dream for the Geffen?’”

Miller told her she cherished the theater’s education and outreach programs. "Without an endowment, though, we would not be able to serve the numbers we wanted. Cynthia asked how much we needed, and I said a million dollars to launch a $16-million endowment. Then, the most amazing thing happened. She looked at me and said, ‘OK.’ ”

As development directors know too well, promises are not always kept. But Stafford came through with the money. Last season, she also helped cover costs for student matinees. During the summer she joined the Geffen board and became its education liaison. The playhouse’s education room bears her name. “I want to be more than a donor,” Stafford says. “I want to be part of the process.”

“That’s how Cynthia does things,” Robert Stafford Jr. says of his sister’s million-dollar move. “If she has a hunch feeling about something, 10 out of 10 times it’s true."

“Cynthia is very direct, sincere and charming,” Mancuso says. Even so, he adds, “I wasn’t sure how she would interact with the board, which is a pretty high-level group.” There was no need to worry. “From the first, the level of admiration for her was amazing.”

Whether at board meetings or galas, Stafford doesn’t seem intimidated by the celebrities, socialites and power players that such events attract. “Cynthia is very comfortable in her skin,” Miller says. “Wherever she is she fits in.”

Stafford puts it simply: “I’m not the star-struck type.”

Not to say that she doesn’t have an interest in Hollywood. During their conversation, Stafford told Geffen that she wants to run an entertainment company. She says he laid out the odds against such a venture. “He said the studio business isn’t what it used to be and that it would require hundreds of millions of dollars. I said, ‘That’s OK. I plan to do things differently.’”

Even as a child, Stafford claimed she would make it where others couldn’t. “Certain things may not turn out the way she wants, but she never gives up,” her brother says.  Stafford grew up in the South Bay, the second of four kids. (Her older sister lives in Las Vegas.) Her father was an auto wholesaler. Her mother, who died when Stafford was in her 20s, encouraged her children to appreciate the arts. In Stafford’s case, that was easy. She enjoyed the theater, museums and books. After attending community college, Stafford joined her father’s business and later went into sales.

When her brother Keith died in 1999, Stafford fought for permanent guardianship of his children, then ages 3 to 10. “The officials looked at me as a single person and asked, ‘Why would you want to change your life?’” she recalls. “I thought this was an idiotic question. ‘Isn’t this part of your system?,’ I said. ‘Stepping up? That’s what I am doing.’ ”

She won custody, although the oldest eventually went to live with his mother. “There were a lot of adjustments,” she says. “The kids knew me, but they didn’t really know me. I had to learn a lot. And I prayed a lot!”

Stafford quit her job as an educational consultant to “take on the job of mom.” She again worked with her father and received support from agencies and nonprofit programs, including one that helped with a down payment so she could move from her two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom house.

A few years ago, Stafford began to play the lottery with her father and brother. One day, they finally hit on a quick pick.

Stafford’s father has retired, at least officially; two of his grandchildren, Charmaine, 18, and Jahmil, 16, now live with him. Stafford’s brother left a career in corporate security and plans to get married next year. Stafford, her 13-year-old niece, Sigourney, and 12-year-old nephew, Qumani, share a three-story house in a gated community on the Westside.

“My home is contemporary, Old World, a little bit of everything,” she says as she relaxes on a chocolate Italian leather sofa in her living room. Displayed around her are a Robert Longo charcoal, an André Butzer oil-and-acrylic, two Egyptian “King Tut” chairs and a giant stuffed toy tiger. She admits to certain splurges — like owning five chandeliers. Her tastes are eclectic and bold, tempered by common sense. That combination extends to her business pursuits. Whether considering a painting to buy or a cause to support, she asks a lot of questions, consults with a small circle of advisors, and listens to her gut feelings.

In the midst of describing a trip to New York (“Did I tell you I met Donald Trump?”), Stafford hops off the sofa to tell Qumani, who’s in another room, to turn down his video game. He says he’s hungry. They agree to go for take-out.

What, no cook? Stafford has an assistant and a housekeeper and just found a tutor for the children, whom she’s been home-schooling. Otherwise, her parents taught her the importance of self-sufficiency. “Before we had money, the kids and I would have conversations like ‘We will do this at the time that is right’ instead of ‘We cannot afford this.’ I didn’t want my kids to believe that anything wasn’t possible.” Now, she says, the lessons are about patience and not taking things for granted.

Sudden wealth can have its downsides, as many lottery winners have learned. Stafford says she hasn’t encountered many problems — aside from unwanted pitches and pleas — or, at least, she refuses to “let anything interfere with my positive energy.”

Her portfolio has suffered what she calls “minor” bumps in the current market tumble, however she declares herself ready to launch a philanthropic foundation next year. She’s begun looking into potential projects. She mentions she just recently met people from beleaguered MOCA.

“I want to see if I can help them,” she says. “I really think I can help.”

--Karen Wada

Photos of Cynthia P. Stafford by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times

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