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Snug Harbor : Balboa Bay Club Offers Haven for Well-Known, Well-Heeled

July 14, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

It's one of those summer days you dreamed about when you decided to come to California: cloudless and bright and still cool enough in the morning to drive the 928 to the club with the top down. You swing easily into the circular driveway, and your door is opened by the valet almost before the wheels stop turning. As he eases the Porsche away to be washed and detailed, you step onto the carpet that leads to the lobby, stroll through the bar and out onto the sunny veranda. You toss a quick wave at a group of friends sipping their morning mimosas on your way down to the yacht dock.

There sits your spotless, 80-foot, $3-million treasure, fueled up, manned and ready to motor off to Catalina. Breakfast is on the table in the main salon and champagne is chilling in the bucket. You've just gone from home to car to yacht, and you haven't even gotten your feet sandy.

It may sound like ad copy for the California Lottery, but this sort of thing happens all the time at the Balboa Bay Club. At the BBC, Orange County's enclave of laid-back luxury, extraordinary wealth is often ordinary, and the vessels at the clubhouse dock are far too large to be called mere boats.

For the better part of its 40 years, the Balboa Bay Club has been the playground of choice--and sometimes the home--of hundreds of Southern California's most influential, powerful and famous people. It has played host to presidents, prime ministers and kings. It is unquestionably the most famous private club in the county and it has become synonymous with privilege, Newport Beach style--which means, club members and officers said, all of the goodies without all of the stuffiness.

"When somebody asks what the Bay Club is," club president Tom Deemer said, "you have to tell them what it isn't."

"It isn't a yacht club, although we have yacht facilities. It isn't a social club, although we offer all the social considerations. It isn't an athletic club, but we have those facilities. It isn't a dining club, although we offer dining seven days a week. It's a combination of all those, and members can pick as many or as few of them as they want.

"And stuffiness is the furthest thing from the truth. The relaxed atmosphere disavows that. We don't do things that are stuffy."

That's not to say that many of the members are just plain folks. The latest demographic survey of members, taken late last year, offered this profile of typical BBC members:

Most are in their late 40s and have families. Their annual income is at least double the median income of the area in which they live. And that area is likely to be the most affluent city in the county, Newport Beach, where 65% of the members live. Most are homeowners, and 85% live in the county. About a third are boaters or have boating interests, although they may not necessarily own boats.

The beginnings of the club were substantially humbler, almost comically so. Even though a local newspaper, the Newport-Balboa News Times, trumpeted in September, 1947, that a "deluxe yacht club" was to begin construction on a beachfront off West Coast Highway, the reality a year later amounted to no more than a stretch of cluttered sand on Lower Newport Bay's Lido Channel.

The founder of the club, Kenneth Kendall, heir to a Manhattan real estate fortune, spent the early days standing near the highway and drumming up business.

"Why, those guys were selling memberships from a hamburger stand at the end of a small path covered with blacktop, leading straight from the Coast Highway," said early member Morrie Smith in a BBC history titled, "Host of the Coast."

"Everything around was junk," he said.

Apart from the hamburger stand, the only feature that identified the property in the early days as the Balboa Bay Club was a large sign at the corner of the property bearing the name. Still, Kendall talked several people, who had come to Newport Beach on holiday, into buying $100 memberships.

As the clubhouse and adjacent facilities were completed, Hollywood began to discover the BBC. Clark Gable, David Niven, Ruby Keeler, Victor McLaglen, Lana Turner, Leo Carrillo, Bonita Granville, Sonja Henie, Danny Thomas, Dinah Shore, Jack Benny, William Holden, Andy Devine, Jack Oakie, Jascha Heifetz and others either took out memberships or spent time at the club as guests. Humphrey Bogart, an avid yachtsman, occasionally docked his sailboat, Santana, at the club--and used the facilities to court Lauren Bacall.

Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, actress Dolores Del Rio and bandleaders Freddie Martin and David Rose have lived at the club as tenants, and the John Wayne was an active member and served on the club's board of governors. Comedian Joey Bishop, who lives in Newport Beach, has also served on the board.

In 1957, when club president Edward Crowley was married at the club, Phil Harris was best man and Bing Crosby gave away the bride.

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