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Holly Halsted Balthis, 95; Oldest Rose Queen and 'Mom' to Successors

August 05, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

When Holly Halsted Balthis reigned as the queen of the Tournament of Roses in 1930, the Rose Bowl was only 7 years old and, as she once noted, Old Pasadena was new.

Balthis, the oldest living Rose Queen, died at age 95 of natural causes Friday at her home in Laguna Beach, said her son and sole survivor, Frank Balthis Jr.

Described in the Los Angeles Times in 1930 as a "vivacious brunette," Balthis never dreamed her stint as Rose Queen would mean much once it ended.

"I thought it was a short deal, New Year's Day, and that'd be it," she said in a 1986 interview in The Times. "But it's something that stays with you all your life."

Indeed, in recent decades Balthis was considered "the grand dame" of the Tournament of Roses. She remained active in tournament functions up until her death and each year welcomed the new queen and her court.

"She loved them immediately," Margaret Huntley Main, the 1940 Rose Queen, told The Times on Wednesday. "She tried to imbue them with the camaraderie, the fun and the sometimes trauma of the experience that we all shared."

Said Dave Davis, the Tournament of Roses president and chairman of the board: "As far as Holly was concerned, it was her organization. She felt very proprietary of the Tournament of Roses. She was a great sponsor. She was always upbeat, and she always enjoyed meeting the new tournament royalty and talking to them."

Main recalled that Balthis was one of the first people to congratulate her when she became queen more than six decades ago.

"She looked up at me and said, 'Well, you're a tall one. But they tell me you're smart, so you'll do very well,' " Main said. "And I've tried to do well for Holly ever since. Our friendship was 65 years, and it grew from my awe and admiration in the beginning to really a true sisterhood."

Although not one to dwell on the past, Balthis felt it her duty, as a former queen, to remain loyal to the Tournament of Roses.

"She was sort of the Queen Mom to all the queens that came after," said her son, adding that she also did much to ensure that former queens kept in touch with each other and that they remained active in the Tournament of Roses.

Main said Balthis once chided her after Main said it would be inconvenient for her to attend a tournament function.

"She said, 'Margaret, get your priorities straight.' So I came," Main said with a laugh. "Holly kept us all in line, but she did it with charm."

Balthis was born in Pasadena in 1908 and graduated from Pasadena High School in 1925. She majored in education at UCLA, going to school one semester and working in the Tournament of Roses public relations office the next semester to pay her way.

The first queen of the Tournament of Roses, Hallie Woods McConnell, was chosen in 1905. Over the next 25 years, queens were chosen only 11 times. With Balthis' crowning, the tournament has selected a Rose Queen every year.

Unlike young women who today are interviewed by a committee of judges who look for public-speaking ability and poise, Balthis did not "try out" for Rose Queen. She was chosen, she told The Times, because she had worked for the tournament for several years and knew the directors and Pasadena officials.

"At first I felt overwhelmed and honored, but I think I really did it because of my dad," she said. "He was so proud of the fact he had been an early comer to Pasadena."

These days, the Rose Queen and six princesses receive an official wardrobe and gowns for public appearances. It was different in Balthis' time. Not only did she not receive a crown, but she had to supply the white satin dress she wore in the parade.

"The tournament gave me, I think, $10 to buy the satin and lace, and I found a dressmaker in the neighborhood," she recalled in 1986.

She was, however, allowed to choose her own court to accompany her on the float. She chose her sister, Gabrielle, and five high school friends.

"I always say my biggest thrill was to round Orange Grove and Colorado and see that sea of faces," Balthis said. "You realized this was the day, and it didn't rain. I think of seeing my family all in the stands and wow! The big thrill, of course is coming into the Rose Bowl on the arm of your escort. SC won that day, by the way."

Her escort was her future husband, Frank S. Balthis, a Harvard law student who would later become a Superior Court judge and an appellate court justice. Balthis wore her white satin parade dress when they were married five months after she became Rose Queen. Over the years, she said, "The dress finally got so bad it became a long-sleeve blouse. And then, I don't know."

Balthis also kept scrapbooks from her time as queen. Among her keepsakes: a grain of rice sent to her by a man named Rye the Rice Writer. On the grain, he had painstakingly inscribed: Holly Halsted, Queen of the Tournament of Roses, Pasadena, California."

Frank Balthis Jr., whose father died in 1978, said his mother was living alone and driving until a week and a half ago. She also continued to speak to service organizations about what it was like to have lived in all the decades of the last century, including recollections of her 1930 reign as Rose Queen.

"People were really fascinated with her zest for life," he said.

Balthis became the oldest living Rose Queen after silent film star May McAvoy, the 1923 Rose Queen, died in 1984. With Balthis' death, 1933 Rose Queen Dorothy Edwards Conlon, 91, of Pompano Beach, Fla., now holds the title.

A funeral service for Balthis will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Laguna Beach United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley Drive, Laguna Beach. Instead of flowers, the family requests donations to the Living Desert Reserve, 47900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert, Calif. 92260; to the Friends of Dana Point Library, 33841 Niguel Road, Dana Point, 92629; or to the Holly Balthis Memorial at her church.

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