SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Historical Society has chosen "Christmas in Motion" as the theme of its annual Celebrate the Holidays exhibition, which opened Saturday with a gala patrons reception and will continue through Dec. 14 at Casa de Balboa, on the Prado in Balboa Park.
The four previous "Celebrate" exhibits have centered on the holidays as observed at the hearths of some of the area's more prominent families and celebrities. The scenes, or "vignettes," as the society prefers to call them, consist of interior decorators' idealizations of rooms in which such "Celebrate" patrons as Mayor Maureen O'Connor and San Diego Charger Charlie Joiner might choose to serve the Christmas feast or open presents. Some vignettes are personalized by the use of furnishings or artworks borrowed from the patrons; others create a mood evocative of the patron's personality or profession, but embody it in an imaginative setting that would be highly impractical in real life.
For example, designers Adelma Liefgreen and Mary Clare Brandt created "A Christmas Picnic at the Beach" for Tim Flannery, a whimsical vignette that the San Diego Padre second baseman and his family are unlikely to re-create for their private holiday festivities. Because Flannery is a surfing devotee, the designers mounted a scene in which the family would gather around a table made of a multicolored surfboard balanced on a pair of giant clam shells. Presents are grouped under trees decorated with sea shells and miniature bathing trunks, and the scene is carpeted with sand. Cute, but not too practical.
But thoughts of practicality never constrain the designers who annually transform Casa de Balboa into a wintry wonderland populated by elegantly dressed Christmas trees and scenes from holidays past, present and future. Since the space gradually is being transformed into the new Museum of San Diego History (funds raised by "Celebrate" have helped to finance this addition to Balboa Park's Museum Row), the exhibit this year has the look of a work in progress. The extravagant vignettes are posed against a scene of reconstruction that has exposed the building's pipes and structural supports. The work does nothing to spoil the sights, however, and one San Diego Historical Society member even found something positive in the juxtaposition of holiday vignettes and construction work.
"Anyone who comes to see Celebrate can see exactly how the funds it raises are being spent," she said.
The 500 guests at Saturday's kickoff gala saw all this through a veil of soft lighting that reflected off the thousand-jeweled Hord ornaments in the Elizabeth and Betty Schlappi exhibit. There was an aural side to the party, as well, and one that pointed up the somewhat premature nature of Celebrate the Holidays--it seemed odd to hear the O'Farrell School for the Performing Arts choir singing "Joy to the World" before anyone had had the chance to hear the sound made by a carving knife slicing through the crisp skin of a Thanksgiving turkey.
There were turkeys present, however, mostly on the buffet tables arranged by John Baylin's catering group. The fare included both traditional and unusual holiday foods (rounds of Brie coated with crackling, caramelized sugar were one edible curiosity) and concluded with tables spread with seemingly endless assortments of Christmas cookies and pastries.
Nearly all the sponsors and designers of the 36 vignettes and various trees attended, including the event's general chair, Stephanie Coutts, for whom Cuilly Burdette designed the first-ever "Chairman's Tree," which towers over the entrance to the exhibit. Planned to become an annual tradition, the chairman's tree reflects the overall theme chosen for the year, and in deference to the monochromatic scheme selected by Coutts, the massive evergreen boasted nothing more than simple red garlands, alternated with crimson globes and old-fashioned popcorn strings.
Although the swirling crowds of holiday-attired guests sometimes formed impenetrable barriers in front of favored vignettes, there was always something to see at the gala. Frank and Elsie Weston were on hand to inspect the "All Aboard" scene created for them by designer David Wiese, which depicts a luxurious sleeping compartment aboard the Orient Express. This is Christmas in Motion indeed, complete with holiday trimmings and an ever-changing, if imagined, scene outside the windows. The vignette gave no clue, however, to which Weston would have to climb the ladder that led to the upper berth.