Paul Newman Celebration
Credit: Evan Agostini/AP

The invitation to “kick back and raise a little hell” echoed throughout the night at “A Celebration of Paul Newman’s Dream,” the fundraiser for Newman’s Serious Fun Children’s Network (formerly Hole in the Wall Gang Camps). Indeed, it was one of the Oscar winner’s favorite refrains. Though Newman passed in 2008, his wife, Joanne Woodward, and daughter Clea Newman Soderlund have carried on his philanthropic legacy, which started with Newman’s Own in 1982 and extended in 1988 to the network of summer camps for children with serious illnesses.

Last night’s benefit at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall was full of big names — including Jake Gyllenhaal, Tina Fey, Elvis Costello, Trisha Yearwood, Jimmy Fallon, Paul Simon, and Josh Groban — but the night was really about the kids, who came from all over the United States and as far away as Israel, Italy, and Ireland. (Serious Fun has 28 camps and programs in more than 50 countries around the world, helping more then 380,000 kids in the last two decades.)

Gyllenhaal had his own memories of King Cool: “What I remember about Paul Newman is that, I was a kid who grew up knowing him more than anything as being on the cover of a salad dressing bottle,” he laughed. “As ironic as that might seem to so many people, it actually is something I think he cared about more than his acting career…. He devoted so much of his life to this [charity].”

Throughout the night, the kids took the stage to share their talents and their personal struggles with sickness. In a particularly touching pairing, one camper — whom Gyllenhaal had heard had a reputation as “the next Adele” — performed a soulful piano rendition of Rascal Flatts’ “I Won’t Let Go,” as another camper intermittently told the story of his life-changing experience of going to Florida’s Camp Boggy Creek and meeting his best friend, who ultimately lost his battle.

There was as much emphasis on Fun as there was on Serious: Tina Fey read a 30 Rock-ready letter from a camper’s mother, Jimmy Fallon teamed up with “an amazing super-stud of a kid” (Alfie Bautista from Camp Korey in Washington state) for some shtick, and Josh Burger got a standing ovation for his story about attending and then volunteering as a counselor at The Painted Turtle camp in California (which inspired him to become a motivational speaker and resulted in him wearing a sequined dress and a pink wig thanks to his mischievous campers — “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”).

The night opened with Trisha Yearwood’s take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and ended with a rousing performance of Katy Perry’s “Firework” sung by the campers and NaTasha Yvette Williams from The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on Broadway. For a man with eyes as blue as the bluest sky, it seemed a fitting tribute.

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