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Benjamin Epstein / Style

Basketball Superstars Open Historic Inn Amid Hoopla

December 13, 1985|Benjamin Epstein

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers, Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets, Terry Cummings of the Milwaukee Bucks, Alex English of the Denver Nuggets and Brad Davis of the Dallas Mavericks are now all on the same team: a consortium of millionaire basketball superstars who have re-opened the historic Balboa Inn on the Balboa peninsula.

The players' Balboa Improvements Ltd. bought the property for $4.2 million a year ago and poured another $1.2 million into remodeling; the hotel celebrated its grand opening Tuesday night. The group has also acquired the nearby Bank of America building and Dillman's Restaurant, sure steps forward in the Balboa renovation that began recently with the opening of the Bubbles nightclub.

Featuring massive, smooth stucco walls and red tile roofs, the five-story, multitower structure offers predominantly Spanish Colonial flavor outside and something of Southern France inside.

No two rooms are exactly alike; they were decorated by Yvonne Olivas and Kim Vrungos, both of Design 1 in Los Angeles. The rooms' nicest feature would have to be the hand-painted, antique pedestal sinks. Many have fireplaces and most feature ocean or bay views. (Room rates range from $95 to $560.) The Grill, a 125-seat restaurant scheduled to open next week, will offer seafood from the Newport doryman fleet.

The inn will be operated by Griswold's, a Costa Mesa-based hotel management firm. According to Griswold's President Ray Sanford, the 34-room Balboa Inn represents a departure for his company, which also operates a 240-room hotel in Fullerton.

"Developing hotels with outside partners is a new direction for us," said Sanford, referring to the inn's mostly tall owners. "So is doing intimate hotels. But we see that as the future for our company. We can't compete on the scale of the Marriotts. But we can compete in personal service, the hospitality and attention to details."

Thus, sherry is provided at the registration desk; robes, fresh flowers, full breakfast--not just Continental, served either in the dining room or on bed trays--morning paper, shoeshine and evening maid service are all included in the room price.

Marseille-born general manager Jacqueline Mercer, who likes to think of the Balboa Inn as "a miniature Ritz-Carlton," agreed that attention to detail will be her primary goal.

"We're looking for repeat business," said Mercer, who formerly operated her own hotel on Majorca, then was sales manager for the Marina City Club in Marina del Rey. "We'll keep records on each individual's needs, so that when they book again, we'll have a complete history."

Speaking of history, the hotel, which was built in 1930, has a colorful past: During the '30s and '40s, its guests included Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, as well as big band headliners Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers, who were the featured entertainment at the (now-closed) Rendezvous Ballroom next door.

The hotel was known for availability of liquor during Prohibition. Its Cove Restaurant featured Henry Jones, purportedly Orange County's first black chef. The old Red Car line from Los Angeles terminated on the beach just in front of the hotel.

The remodeling did result in some minor structural alterations, but not enough to affect the hotel's status as a Newport Beach historical landmark. In one luxury suite, for example--one with an oversize bathtub and an eight-foot bed--most of the lintels (tops of the door frames) have been raised.

"It's not really my room," Jabbar confided, "but it's gotten that rap. We had the space, it's a nice touch, so why not? Anyway, I like it a lot.

"But I don't like that, " he added, ducking under the one doorway in the suite that hadn't been raised.

"Now we can be dressed up in our sports clothes!" said Carol Blanchard of Orange, looking at the leathers, suedes and four-ply cashmere men's and women's clothing on display at Ellesse.

Ellesse, located in Newport Center Fashion Island's Atrium Court, also celebrated its grand opening Tuesday night.

Until now, the name has meant tennis and ski wear; Thomas Barnett III, executive vice president of the Ellesse boutique, intends to change that image.

"I think Amen Wardy does a wonderful job on evening gowns," Barnett said. "The void in Newport Beach is in 'couture sportswear.' We're going to fill that void."

A warm-up suit will run you $260, an even more haute leather cape $1,200, and furs--sports furs?--$12,000.

Barnett buys mainly from Milan.

"If you don't like Italian, you won't like us," he said. On the other hand, if you don't speak Italian, the boutique is staffed by five women who, among them, are fluent in six other languages.

The Newport Center boutique (one of two in the country; the other is in Palm Beach) is co-owned by Ellesse and Leland West, owner of Newport Imports, the largest authorized Ferrari dealership in the United States.

The store features wall-to-wall marble flooring, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, a racy red Ferrari smack in the middle and has the Orange County exclusive on the Cartier-designed Ferrari Formula Collection of watches, pens, sunglasses, small leather goods and handbags.

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