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Society : 'Twas a Grand Ball at The Grant Hotel

January 13, 1986|DAVID NELSON

SAN DIEGO — Little Kay Hall, a member of Mrs. Ratcliffes' dancing class, made her debut at a tea-time romp on the roof of the U.S. Grant Hotel.

She was all of 3 years old. Her forte was ballet, and when Terpsichore called, she answered. It became a memory that the turmoils and triumphs of a life filled with community work were never able to dim.

Little Kay grew up to become Mrs. David Porter, the heiress to a legacy of connections among the oldest of San Diego's Old Guard and a doyenne of local Society, the kind that really warrants a capital "S" and shows itself in public only on very special occasions. She swears that when she took those first tentative steps in her frilly tutu, she never dreamed that one day she would return to the hotel as the mistress of one of the grandest parties the city had ever seen.

But there she was at the Grant on Saturday night, resplendent in sequinned silk, enjoying to the hilt her role as Madame Chairman of The Grand Ball, a smashing entertainment that reintroduced social San Diego to the reigning dowager of the city's hostelries. Chief among her privileges and pleasures was the role of leading the first couples onto the dance floor in the hotel's newly refurbished ballroom.

The Old Guard turned out en masse to cheer her on. The New Guard showed up, too, although in diminished numbers, since the party sold out at a beyond-capacity 520 guests, and anyone who failed to get his reservations in on the double was turned away. Even the City Guard Band, looking quite dashing in red military tunics trimmed with enough gold braid to light up Cartier's window, was on hand to musically shepherd the arriving guests through the hotel's floodlighted front door.

The Grand Ball was given for the benefit of the San Diego Historical Society, but it has to be said that the party really focused on the Grant, which looked serene and stylish after its $80-million face lift. The party officially began at 6:30 p.m., but for once, very few people opted to be fashionably late. Everyone came to see--and to be seen, of course--and the crush was on by 6.

Crowds jammed both sides of Broadway to witness a scene that hasn't been enacted on that venerable stretch of pavement for the longest time. As madly whirling arc lights highlighted the stories-tall lengths of bunting that draped the hotel's front, a procession of vintage autos pulled up and disgorged glitterati dressed in white tie, tails, and the drop-dead lace-and-feather confections of the Gibson Girl age, worn as commemorative compliments to the hotel's original opening in 1910.

When Anne Ledford Evans drove up in her Brush two-seater, the band struck up the "March of the Bersaglieri," which seemed to suit Evans just fine. Patrick Abarta pulled up just behind her in a 1936 Buick "8," which he said was just like the one his father bought shortly after young Master Abarta attained the tender age of 2. Patrick said he was fortunate to make it to his third birthday; a week after his father bought the Buick, the 2-year-old experimenter introduced water to the gas tank, an action that did not sit well with Dad.

The guests streamed into the hotel with the intention of seeing as much as possible as quickly as possible. With a schedule of entertainment that called for stops on four floors, scattered from basement meeting rooms to 10th floor suites, the program called for quick thinking and quicker feet. But no one entered without first passing through a receiving line that included Grant restorer Kit Sickels and his wife, Karen, and hotel operator Terry Brown and his wife, Charlene. Scylla and Charybdis were never more vigilant, but certainly never so jovial, either.

Sickels, if truth be told, looked and sounded as nervous as a bridegroom. Although the Grant actually opened last month, Saturday night was the opening, and no verdict regarding its virtues or defects could have been more important to Sickels than that agreed upon by The Grand Ball's guest list. He ended the night with his face wreathed in smiles.

The crowd, meanwhile, zoomed upstairs and down, alternating between the penthouse suites and the basement reception rooms, where many a wise soul followed his nose to the classy vintages laid out in the wine tasting room. (Those patrons who contributed a healthy surcharge received complimentary rooms for the night; Audrey and Ted Geisel were awarded the Presidential Suite, an honor that had its amusing moments. Audrey's experiment with a bubble bath in the Jacuzzi ended in near disaster when she switched on the apparently rather powerful water jets. She says that she "shot half-way across the room," and that her gown, hanging nearby, was soaked. A portable hair dryer saved both costume and hair style.)

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