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Tsunami benefit is a cynicism free zone

Even Bill O’Reilly got involved in NBC’s telethon for victims. By Mike Ventre

Celebrities do serve a purpose.

Most of the time, they exist for the public’s amusement. They sing, dance, act, tell jokes or just look good. Their marriages, divorces, affairs, successes, flops, trysts, secrets — their hopes and dreams — are on display, so that ordinary folks can go to them for a steady source of fascination.

Occasionally, though, something happens that applies their appeal to a grander purpose. These are the times when our interest should peak, and our applause should be enthusiastic and sustained.

On Saturday night, an impressive gathering of artists took the stage for “Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope,” a telethon on NBC for the American Red Cross’s relief efforts in south Asia. It was an event that transcends party lines and religious affiliations. It will ask the rich and poor and everyone in between to contribute.

(MSNBC is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)

And thanks to celebrities, it will make a difference.

This event included performances by Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Elton John, Nelly, Annie Lennox, Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton, Mary J. Blige, Kenny Chesney, Brian Wilson, India.Arie, John Mayer and Gloria Estefan. In addition, other luminaries such as George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Renee Zellweger, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Halle Berry, Ray Romano, Morgan Freeman and Meg Ryan will report for telethon duties.

O’Reilly gets in on the actThis meeting of the Hollywood elite is so important, even Bill O’Reilly is down with it.

Usually, O’Reilly is the grand poobah of skepticism whenever any celebrities get together to do some good. He isn’t against charitable endeavors, but apparently is dubious that all the money raised in these events gets to the needy. He was especially critical of the efforts of Clooney and others during a post 9/11 telethon and at the time openly questioned where all the cash was headed. Needless to say, that brought a heated reaction from Clooney.

George Clooney, shown February 27, sure looks suave and mature ... maybe too mature. A scene in the new film \"Ocean's Twelve\" where his buddies wonder about his age has an element of truth to it. (AP Photo/Arroyo)Arroyo / ARROYO

To O’Reilly’s credit, he’s in on this one. He received assurances from NBC that all the money raised will go to the American Red Cross. So rather than continue publicly browbeating celebs from afar, O’Reilly decided to become one of them. He participated from a TV studio in New York while Clooney does his part from L.A.

O.K., so Clooney and O’Reilly won’t stand together on the same stage, arms across each other’s shoulders like old buds, and extol each other’s finest qualities. That probably would have produced a frenzy of donations from awestruck viewers.

But the fact that they can put aside their personal grudges and political leanings and join forces in an effort to raise money for one of the worst human catastrophes in history should inspire others to make giving a priority.

Getting on the A listGiven human nature, you can never be absolutely sure there isn’t an element of self-promotion among a small percentage of the participants. When word goes out that a star-studded entertainment event is taking place on national television, there probably will be one or two performers who call their agents and insist they be included. Even though it’s about tsunami aid, to certain individuals it’s about being included on the A-list.

In this case, that factor is probably miniscule, if present at all. Stars can keep up with the glitterati in this situation merely by offering a generous donation, which many have done. And surely there will be other such opportunities to appear on behalf of this particular cause.

Most of these celebs answered the call because they want to help. It’s a good cross-section, which will widen the appeal. I don’t know that the fan bases for Mary J. Blige and Kenny Chesney overlap much, but that’s fine. There’s something here for everyone.

Overall, this had the ingredients for one of the most successful endeavors of its kind.

The tsunami didn’t hit once. It continues to hit. The death toll is over 150,000 and counting. Millions were displaced. Food and water remain scarce. The spread of disease is an omnipresent danger. Property damage is incalculable.

Celebrities answering the call is a marvelous start, yet “Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope” could have the added effect of generating similar efforts in different quarters, especially if it is the rousing success it promises to be. That translates into more money and more help for those who need it.

Celebrity watching has never been more important than it is right now.

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.