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Debutante Ball Is Touch of Class for a Changing Area

February 27, 1986|MIKE WYMA | Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer

Last year, for its big fund-raiser, the society set of the Santa Clarita Valley held the Rocking Horse Derby. Derby-goers raced one another on toy horses equipped with wooden wheels in the name of charity.

The derby was in keeping with the Santa Clarita Valley's reputation as a holdover from the Wild West, a place where cultural landmarks include the William S. Hart cowboy museum and the Cowboy Walk of Fame, a stretch of sidewalk along San Fernando Road in Newhall inlaid with plaques bearing saddle-shaped logos that honor cowboy actors.

But the communities northeast of the San Fernando Valley are seeing an influx of young, affluent families who have a city dweller's notions of culture. So this year they put their cowboy outfits in mothballs, donned evening clothes and held a debutante ball.

"We are getting more moneyed people," said Connie Russo of Newhall, a co-chairwoman of the event. "Companies are moving in. I've been here 10 years and have seen an upper class developing."

Two hundred of these affluent, charity-minded people paid $75 a ticket to attend Saturday night's ball, which benefited Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia. Ten young women in expensive white gowns were escorted by cadets who flew in for the occasion from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"In this little valley out here we haven't had anything that's high society at all," a co-chairman of the Silver Rose Debutante Ball remarked during a rehearsal. "We're hoping that this will fill that need."

Lights in the crowded ballroom at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City dimmed, and the noise of cocktail chatter fell to a hush. Gowns rustled and jewelry flashed as people turned in their seats to watch. The orchestra struck up Ludwig van Beethoven's "Fur Elise," and a spotlight followed the first debutante as she walked onto the stage.

Murmurs of "ooh" and "ah" greeted 17-year-old Carrie Von Haase, whose white gown glowed as if under moonlight. She glided across the stage and turned to stand under a heart-shaped, rose-covered arch.

As a master of ceremonies intoned her name, Carrie executed the perfect curtsy, one she had mastered through weeks of practice. Applause filled the room. She descended the steps and was led around the dance floor on the arm of her father, who wore white gloves and a tuxedo with tails.

Then, one at a time, nine other 17- and 18-year-olds from the Santa Clarita Valley made their debuts into society.

Claudia Uribe, 17, said that, until they heard about the one being planned by the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital Guild, she and several of the others hadn't known what a debutante ball was. They were not alone. Such events generally fell out of favor over the past 20 years, perhaps being seen in the egalitarian, socially conscious 1960s as elitist and frivolous.

As Judith Martin writes in "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior" (Atheneum, 1982): "In modern times, it has become fashionable for a young woman, upon reaching the age of 18, to signify her membership in adult society by announcing that she refuses to make a debut."

The debut had become sufficiently anachronistic that it receives no mention at all in "The Cosmo Girl's Guide to the New Etiquette" (Hearst, 1971).

Many balls have gone out of business, said Russo, who has served for 13 years as choreographer for the Mary and Joseph League's debutante ball in Los Angeles and who made two debuts herself in 1971, one for Las Camadres Children's Home Society and one for the Mary and Joseph League.

"A lot of them were fund-raisers," she said, "and a lot of times they didn't make enough money for what the effort was worth. The smaller balls were struggling to get girls, so they dropped the idea and put their efforts elsewhere."

Now that the debutante ball is making a comeback, in the Santa Clarita Valley at least, so are some other refinements that accompany it. As part of its package, the hospital guild provides the young women with tutoring in hair and nail care, makeup and etiquette. Marnee Thompson of Piru was the etiquette instructor.

Question on Gloves

"We probably had four or five sessions," she said. "We went over anything that might come up at the ball or at the other functions. They all knew what to do, except maybe with the long gloves. They wanted to know, 'When do we take them off?' The only time, really, is when you're eating."

Maria Hernandez was gown coordinator. Her dress store, Chantilly, made eight of the 10 dresses.

"We told them that the gown had to be all white," she said, "and it had to be pretty without being too frilly. Some of the girls are going to wear them to their school proms."

Requirements to become a debutante were simple.

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