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Curtsy to High Society Is Viewed in New Light

July 07, 1994|LEONARD REED | Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

VENTURA — Melanie Ann Chieu, in flowing white gown, walks in measured steps along the edge of the parquet dance floor in the Gold Coast Room of Doubletree Inn. Periodically she stops, faces the crowd and, to the nod of her tuxedoed father, slowly dips into a full curtsy. Everyone applauds.

History would have it that Melanie Ann is being introduced to society.

In France in 1817, for example, Melanie Ann would have taken the same curtsy and in so doing placed herself solidly in a marriage market of only the richest, most elite, most genealogically conscious suitors. A century later, with F. Scott Fitzgerald's mansioned Newport, R.I., crowd, Melanie Ann's future would have been equally assured--or imprisoned, depending upon your point of view.

But it's 1994 in a seaside oil patch gone suburban, a place where civic debate centers on mall expansion, beach parking, gang threats. No vaulted chateaux surrounded by vineyards, no Grey Rocks manse with marble-faced ballroom overlooking a brooding sea, no ruling oligarchs whose closed circle of families have only each other to carry on names, fortunes, manners. Just a chain hotel jammed with 300 women in every conceivable mode of dress and men in black tuxedos, many of them rented.

No matter. Spirit will not be foiled, least of all when galvanized by proud legacies.

This is the 37th Las Patronas Presentation Ball, held annually. And Melanie Ann Chieu, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Frank Chieu of Camarillo, is joined by 11 others being presented to society.

Las Patronas, a philanthropic wing of the Assistance League of Ventura County, has pulled out the stops for this one.

The multipurpose Gold Coast Room is so enhanced as to look built for the event: debutante entrances are canopied by floor-to-ceiling mini white lights and ribbons. The vast ceiling is a relief of faux "vaults" created by arching ribbons and white lights. Cream roses with blush pink centers are in profusion. Tall slender crystal vases on each table hold lilies and Gerber daisies.

Even the heavy-stock programs are gilded with the impression of a gold fan, symbol of this event.

Dinner would please a DeGaulle or a Kennedy: shrimp, avocado and mango salad followed by a triple entree of beef tenderloin, lamb loin and New Zealand venison in a choice of Montmorency cherry and pinon chutney or pecan-rosemary beurre blanc sauce Perigueux. Wine? In sequence, of course: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon. The lemon curd tart with caramel sauce dessert is followed by chocolate truffles.

Melanie Ann Chieu doesn't usually eat this way, and neither do the other 11 debutantes. In fact, Melanie Ann doesn't really live in the traditions of American high society. That she is a debutante at all shows shift enough in the demography and cast of these balls.

She's certainly not here to find a husband. Melanie Ann just graduated from Adolfo Camarillo High School as a National Merit commended scholar and cited by the National Forensic League for her debating prowess. She spent last summer at Harvard, earned straight A's, and applied for early admission to Cornell, which did the smart thing and snapped her up. At Cornell, she'll major in industrial and labor relations, one of the best programs of its kind in the U.S. Men may someday work for her.

Melanie Ann Chieu, it is plain, simply doesn't need a boost or an intro to make it in this world, to be somebody to her family, or to carry out proud legacies.

But she curtsies as thousands before her have in this formalized ritual of class, and as she does she has a thought running through her head: "My family won't always be with me like this."

Later, she expands on that thought: "This is about closure. And commencement. This is about my going on to the next thing, about making decisions for myself. It feels symbolic."

That's an insightful remark from a young woman who, when asked how she became a debutante in the first place, said: "I wouldn't call it an aspiration. But the two things they said would happen--that I'd make close friends and be closer to my dad, things at first I didn't believe--happened.

I'm happy about that."

Melanie Ann also notes that the ball is congruent with her own volunteer work in the National Charity League and her high school's Ticktocker club. Indeed, Las Patronas donates $75 of each $150 ball ticket to the Assistance League School for Developmentally Delayed Children, in Oxnard; the Girls' and Teen Clubs, in Ventura; the Buffy Bear Project, providing teddy bears to city and county fire and police departments for children in trauma situations; and Operations School Bell, which provides two complete outfits of new clothes to underprivileged school-age children. Combined with donations generated by an earlier mail solicitation, Las Patronas this year will donate about $50,000 to these causes.

But that's not the most telling part for Melanie Ann Chieu, a nephrologist's daughter whose immigrant legacies are anything but Mayflower, whose predilections kept her off the beach in 1992 and instead sent her to China to study the practice of medicine, whose very mien is an uncommon combination of ebullience and reflection. No, if Melanie Ann Chieu could suffer an oxymoron and be called a debutante of the '90s, it would be for an everyday sensibility that is not born of any particular class.

"I continue to realize that the most important things in life I haven't learned in school but rather involve the people I've met," she says. "By doing this, I've gotten perspective that I wouldn't have gotten."

That's about as true as things get, whether learned in need and disability or mined privately amid flowers and gowns and roast lamb dinners.

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