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SCENE

Manners 101

April 15, 1998|LEILAH BERNSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Six-year-old Andrew Willingham huddled in a corner outside the Presidential Suite at the Regal Biltmore Hotel on Saturday, refusing to take another step. Never mind his mother's gentle pleas or the potential thrill of showing off his first suit. In the end, it took a bribe--the promise of an electric guitar--to get him to open that door.

On the other side of the door were two more boys and six girls who had also given up their Saturday for a class called Petite Protocol. Even in an age of takeout dinners and 30-minutes-or-less home cooking, table manners are highly valued. For 11 years, the Biltmore and its four-star restaurant, Bernard's, have been the backdrop to sold-out etiquette classes for children ages 7 to 12 taught by Marjabelle Young Stewart and Diane Diehl, two leading authorities on the art of minding your manners.

The parents of Saturday's students paid a $150-per-child class fee, and on a rainy, gray morning drove their children in from as far away as Irvine and Palmdale. Not that their children's manners were bad, they said, but they could be improved all the same.

One mother, Kelli Olson, brought a copy of Stewart's famous 1965 book "White Gloves and Party Manners" (coauthored with Ann Buchwald). It was the same book Olson had used when she took an etiquette class at the Bullock's Pasadena Tea Room 24 years ago, and her 7-year-old daughter Mallory had been reading it all week to prepare for Saturday.

Bidding her mother goodbye, Mallory bounced off to join the other girls in spring dresses lined up quietly on sofas in the Presidential Suite. Meanwhile, Andrew, minutes after his mother left the room, could be found curled up in an oversized armchair with a new friend, 8-year-old Dave Cooper-Matchett, giggling and making faces.

Stewart began the class with handshakes and introductions. Then, with Diehl's assistance, she taught the girls how to curtsy and the boys how to bow. Lessons on telephone etiquette, letter writing and officiating at a punch bowl followed.

"Don't pick up the fruit or you'll choke," Stewart warned, as she showed how to ladle the punch into a glass "just properly" and serve it with a napkin. One by one, carefully and tentatively, each child took a turn.

In the soft glow of the Presidental Suite, with white chiffon curtains blowing by the open windows, it could seem that the Victorian era had returned. Well, not exactly, though we still have our reasons to study etiquette today.

"Adults are taking more gourmet cooking classes now," Stewart pointed out. "Parents are bringing crystal out of the cupboards. And guess who's coming for dinner? Your own kids!"

Stewart, author of 18 books on etiquette, is a motherly, exuberant woman who quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson ("Manners are the happy ways of doing things") and calls the Ten Commandments the "first book of etiquette." She began teaching children's etiquette classes in Washington, D.C., in 1965. Among her earliest students were Tricia and Julie Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter, Barbara.

Today, Stewart's classes are offered in 400 cities, including Paris, London and Tokyo. They are taught by proteges such as Diehl, who also runs a consulting firm in Orange County specializing in international business protocol.

On Saturday, to learn the basics of proper dining, Stewart's class stood around a "practice" dining-room table set with the original gold service from the Biltmore's opening in 1923. Gently but firmly, she taught them how to "grip" the hotel's heavy utensils in their small hands, how to pour sugar, how to pass salt, the difference between the American and continental styles of handling knives and forks.

The children watched closely. ("Can we have some sugar?" asked Dave.) Diehl continued with instructions on holding a wine glass and a Champagne glass, proposing a toast, breaking bread over the bread plate, folding a napkin, setting the table and the proper way to help a lady into her seat.

Then everyone trooped downstairs to Bernard's, where they were put to the test with a special lunch--children's portions only--prepared by chef Berto Sanchez. They started with tomato bisque en crou^te, filet of sole and a raspberry sorbet intermezzo. ("It's not ice cream, it's just to cleanse your palate," Stewart explained.)

Then came the main course: breast of chicken with feta cheese and spinach, along with broccoli, carrots, white cauliflower souffle (accompanied by three French fries) and rolls. Stewart advised: "Remember: animal, speed; human, style." And finally, there was dessert--a chocolate Florentine cookie cup with a trio of mixed berries, eaten with a chocolate spoon.

By the end, the young ladies and gentlemen definitely seemed to be getting the hang of it, though the conversation ran to topics otherwise rarely heard at Bernard's: "Does Superman come from the center of the Earth or from a crystal?" "Can you wiggle your ears?" "Do you know my body is half robot?"

So what if the sorbet was the all-around favorite part of the day? And so what if the boys got into a headlock in the men's restroom in the middle of lunch, with the lights on Dave's tennis shoes flashing underneath his gray suit pants during the scuffle? Even Petite Protocol kids will be kids.

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