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Birds of Fine Feather Flock Together at Ball

December 10, 1987|David Nelson

SAN DIEGO — Ann Davies brought her own fork to Le Bal Masque, given Thursday at the San Diego Museum of Art for about 300 finely feathered guests.

That might be thought vaguely unusual--or even avant garde, given that the party was at an art museum--but consider that rather than bearing this implement, she wore it. She wore it, in fact, over her nose, rather like the nose guard on a Saxon helmet; it was suspended from a twisted copper frame edged in feathers, and it made the act of drinking wine an amusingly challenging task.

But rather than being outre, Davies simply was in the swing of things at this decidedly stunning masked ball, at which the motto "anything goes" was given an entirely new definition and at which some of San Diego's most conservative souls let down their hair both for the benefit of the museum and the sake of having a very good time.

Event chairman Sally Thornton enrobed the gala in a gossamer fabric loomed from thread spun on the wheel of imagination. The idea was to create a participatory fantasy, one which the guests could help design merely by wearing masks and opening their minds to the spirit of the thing.

Party designers Jim Crawford and Michael Coleman set the mood by staging a forbidding tableau vivant at the entrance to the museum. Mysterious figures based on those of the centuries-old Carnaval of Venice watched over the fog-enshrouded entry stairs (the mist spewed from a dry-ice machine), including a pair of halberd-bearing guards in winged helmets, and a group of figures in fluorescent white costumes.

Inside, a second tableau populated the grand staircase, an Art Nouveau collection of young women in white gowns, young men in golden ram's head masks, and a striking pair of women costumed as living poinsettias. (The stairs were flanked in poinsettias, and one did not notice immediately that some were breathing.)

Museum director Steven Brezzo, speaking from the staircase, said that he felt as if he were in the midst of a Fellini movie. The scene also looked remarkably like 1920s photographs of spectacles produced at the Folies-Bergere in Paris, when designers with seemingly immense budgets created living works of art on stage.

Brezzo also said that he felt sorry for the chairman of next year's version of the museum's annual Fine Arts Ball.

"This is one of those nights that will be tough to top," he said. "You sit back and pity the next poor chairman, because how will she ever be able to put together a better party than this?"

The guests, for their part, largely echoed Brezzo's comments. If last week's party can be taken as reliable evidence, adults must be eager to join in the games of make-believe that seem so exclusively the province of childhood. Certainly the wild profusion of masks created a gleefulness that is rare at parties; guests were only too glad to express their wit, imagination and yearnings through fanciful creations of feathers and molded cloth and ceramic. Some guests remained anonymous behind or beneath their masks.

Al Gabbs, unmasked when the dinner bell sounded, confounded nearly everyone with his towering rooster headdress, which hid his features. Judith Harris and Robert Singer wore face-shielding "Amadeus"-style visors; Veryl and Aage Fredericksen, clad in matching tuxedoes, also sported white ceramic "Phantom of the Opera" masks exactly like those worn by the hero of the rock opera of the same name. Sportscaster Charley Jones earned kudos by bearing a Ted Leitner mask. Virginia Monday and Alice Cramer carried feathered creations that spread out almost a yard in diameter, while Ingrid Hibben crowned herself with a cocky pink flamingo.

Ingrid's husband, museum President Joseph Hibben, wore his own bright feathers (emerald and lapis, in emulation of an exuberant peacock), but he gallantly observed that the women carried the evening.

"While I think all the men look better with their masks," he said, "I must say that the women look better without them."

The event offered the guests a preview of the museum's new exhibit, "American Women Artists, 1830-1930," which is underwritten by Sally and John Thornton and is on loan from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The president of that museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, attended Le Bal Masque as guest of honor.

Holladay professed herself delighted by the installation.

"It looks better here than in my own museum," she said. In response to her compliment, quite a few guests actually strolled through the exhibit, a display of will power given the wild scene they had to leave behind under the Rotunda.

The dinner was almost an anticlimax to the reception, since guests had to unmask to taste the opening course of vegetable terrine in red bell pepper sauce. The dining rooms--both Gallery 12 and the Copley Auditorium were used--were a visual extension of the evening, since they were done totally in red, from the floor-length cloths to the towering anthurium centerpieces.

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