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Having a Ball : Feted for Charity Work, They Reject the 'Debutante' Label

March 29, 1987|GERALD FARIS | Times Staff Writer

The Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Wilshire hotel was all 18th-Century elegance with its marble, mirrors and crystal chandeliers.

But in the cramped backstage area, where racks of clothes vied for space with teen-aged girls, doting mothers and beauticians, the dress code ran to T-shirts, jogging outfits and running shoes.

Excitement verged on nervousness as the 26 Palos Verdes Peninsula high school seniors laughed and chatted and got ready for "their day."

And a very long day it was as the girls were saluted by friends and family for a collective 12,466 hours of charity work, ranging from "adopting" grandmothers at a nursing home to ushering at the Norris Community Theater.

They were the 1987 graduating Ticktockers of the National Charity League's Peninsula chapter, winding up a part of their life that started in the seventh grade.

"This wasn't real until last night," said 17-year-old Jody Keller. "It's hard to believe it will be over by tonight."

The world would call them debutantes, even though the charity league that sponsored the event and similar Palos Verdes Peninsula groups bristle at the word. They prefer to call such events "presentations."

The Peninsula groups reflect a change that came to the deb world in the 1970s, when the popular image of debutantes--beauteous party-goers with wealthy fathers, a gift for smart remarks and a fondness for champagne--gave way to the concept of young women performing community service and being rewarded at teas, luncheons and dinner-dances.

On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, three groups sponsor such events, which they concede still have many trappings of more traditional debutante balls.

At the Charity League event two weeks ago, the "presentations"

started with a fashion show before nearly 900 smartly dressed luncheon guests, some of whom had flown in for the occasion.

The girls had been transformed into models, striding and dancing, turning and dipping--and, in a few cases, clomping--to applause and whistles as they showed off a collection of sometimes gaudy, sometimes severe Laura Ashley fashions.

Later, the girls were individually presented to the audience gathered in Beverly Hills, to the recorded strains of their favorite songs, as a narrator recounted their accomplishments, their memories and their plans.

Holding red roses against pristine white gowns, many with full skirts and puffed sleeves, they made their way down the runway again, this time walking in slow dignity but with broad smiles. They were met by their parents, and their mothers placed gold medallions attached to white ribbons around their necks.

Recognized for Service

"We don't like the concept of a traditional deb ball," said the league's Sharon Guthrie, explaining that families are not asked to contribute large sums to charity to present their daughters in a display of riches. "The girls are recognized for six years of community service."

Joan Cobble of Las Madrecitas, a Peninsula group that supports Orthopaedic Hospital in Los Angeles and presents senior girls at a December Evergreen Ball in Beverly Hills, said: "We are acknowledging the fact that the girls have done this service and we're proud of them and we want the members of our organization to see what they have done." The girls, called Las Ninas, do a variety of things at the hospital, primarily entertaining children.

The third Peninsula group that sponsors such events is the San Pedro-Palos Verdes chapter of the Assistance League, which was to introduce seven girls at a dinner-dance Saturday at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The girls, called Assisteens, have put in two to six years of helping with group charities, mostly working in the league's San Pedro gift shop.

Commentators who keep tabs on debs say that some things haven't changed: The girls still wear beautiful dresses, are fussed over by families and escorts, and party with new friends. Deb balls, said one publicist for such affairs, "have been going on since Marie Antoinette's time and give a girl the opportunity to be a princess for an evening."

Work More Important

But if modern debs can still waltz or stand graciously in a receiving line, they also have put in time on hospital wards and learned things such as CPR.

Several Peninsula young women said that while being presented is exciting, even something they look forward to for months, the charity work is more important. "I worked at the hospital to grow as a person, not to get presented," said Jennifer Baszile, 17, who was presented at last December's Evergreen Ball.

Her mother, Janet Baszile, who is on the executive board of Las Madrecitas, said the service work helps the girls mature, and "they get a glimpse of life outside Palos Verdes."

Ticktocker Keller, who did volunteer work at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said, "There was one girl with her hand completely burned off. It was tough to sit there and talk to her. It makes you feel how lucky you are."

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