12/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
THE CURTAIN WAS ABOUT TO GO UP AT THE SHRINE Auditorium in L.A., and backstage the giddiness was reaching its peak: Will Smith giggled with girlfriend Jada Pinkett; Sinbad sang with Stevie Wonder; and Halle Berry
chatted up Ariana Johnson and Michele Morgan, her costars in the forthcoming Tribulations. In the wings was Oprah
, in a sweeping Jacques Fath gown. "The top part isn't mine!" she whispered to a chum, pointing to the regal froth on her head.
To be broadcast on ABC on Thanksgiving, the Nov. 17 gala marking the 50th anniversary of Ebony was an exuberant cross between a family reunion and an all-star variety show, punctuated by heartfelt testimonials. An audience of 4,800 (whose tickets helped raise about $350,000 for the United Negro College Fund) heard tributes to the magazine from fans including Rev. Jesse Jackson, who said, "It's hard to imagine the deficit of esteem African-Americans would have if it weren't for Ebony." When "the media depicted us in a very negative way," he added, "it gave us a sense of our worth."
That, and a jolt of inspiration. "Ebony means the epitome of beauty, the epitome of success and richness," said Brandy, looking beautiful, successful and rich. "All that we need is to have that magazine around."