Venerable Friday Morning Club Pulls Up Stakes

All was in a state of hubbub, but not confusion; the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee and the promise of lunch filled the lavish high-rise office suite on Wilshire Boulevard. The Friday Morning Club, as it had for 94 years, was holding its first meeting in its current season last month, but this meeting was different. Founded in 1891, the organization, which considers itself the oldest women's club in the country with an unbroken span of continuous service, had pulled up roots and moved to new quarters.

Geographically, members have moved just a few miles from the downtown clubhouse they had owned and occupied for 61 years. But in the sense of lighting the lamp of culture, keeping it aglow for almost a century and making impressive civic contributions, they've traveled a great distance.

For openers, Friday Morning members founded the country's first public kindergarten and the first juvenile court; they started a "protective league" for children and still raise money for abused children. Not to be forgotten is their establishment of this country's first traveling library at the end of the last century. As proof, there's a photo in the California Room of the Central Library of member Mary Foy, leaning against a saddlebag of books, holding a purse for fines.

Designated a Monument

Additionally, Friday Morning was the first women's group to finance and build its own clubhouse. In 1924, they erected the boldly dramatic Neo-Italian Renaissance structure on South Figueroa Street. Designated a local historical monument, it's also listed in the National Registry of Historical Places. When their five-story clubhouse--housing a theater that could seat 1,000, and ornate dining room, boasting handpainted beams--proved too large, members retreated to the penthouse suite for close to a decade.

That is, until this year, when they sold the building to the Society for the Preservation of Variety Arts. Then lock, stock and barrels full of china and valuables they moved again.

"Times changed. The neighborhood changed. So we changed, too," one member observed. But one thing that didn't change is a no-nonsense spirit and ability to cope. Florence Chertok, president, Virginia DeZell, first vice president, and Louella Nash, a board director, helped by many members of the club, had spent hectic weeks overseeing the packing and arranging of their paintings, Chinese vases and the collection of historical fans preserved under glass, some contributed by the Sepulveda and Crocker families.

Prominently on display in the new quarters is the landscape by Gutzon Borglun, the sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, and in the place of honor, dominating one wall in the salon hangs the all-important portrait of founder Caroline Severance.

The club's presiding genius, Madame Severance, as she's always referred to, seems to nod approvingly at the bustling salon. After all, she had founded the Friday Morning Club in the late 19th Century, when Los Angeles, a "little underdeveloped town" with a population of just over 50,000, needed a cultural and civic organization exclusively for women.

In April, 1891, in the reading room of the Hollenbeck Hotel, then located at Second and Broadway, Severance and a determined band of 87 drew up bylaws. Were they not the "picked women of the country who (had) the time, wealth, brains and culture--plus the ability to use them to the last inch of value"?

The wife of a successful banker, mother of five, abolitionist and early exponent of women's rights, Severance, who was a close friend of Susan B. Anthony, was the first woman to vote in L.A. in 1911. (California had awarded women the vote nine years before passage of the Suffrage Amendment.) Legend has it that, at 92, frail and failing, she was literally carried to the polls.

Now it's 1985, the first Friday in October, shortly after 10:30 a.m. and the meeting begins. President Chertok says she's delighted that members like their clubhouse. She briefly reviews fire regulations, the need for an identification card and suitable places to eat. Bringing sandwiches is no longer necessary, she explains, because there's an excellent restaurant in the building, and for "those who like McDonald's, it's downstairs."

The program recalls an earlier, more leisurely era. There will be a travelogue on Bolivia, another on "The Condor Over America." Business meetings will combine with musical offerings, besides card parties and an upcoming talk by an actress-author, who doubles as an "aviatrix with five world records."

But for today's musicale, a virile young baritone, accompanied by a male pianist, alternately woos and wows the women with songs of yesteryear. "I Feel a Song Coming On," classical selections from "Carmen" and "Faust," a Sigmund Romberg medley, golden highlights of the Silver Screen and "The Impossible Dream." Members sway, discreetly tap their feet. When urged to, they sing along. Old melodies are, indeed, sweeter.

Unvarying Calendar

Despite the 20th Century's "chaos and rebellion," the club has been steadfast in following an unvarying calendar of similar events. Their programs, a repository of local history, recently contributed to the Huntington Library, note the busy decade of the 1920s, when membership topped 2,000 and there was a waiting list.

During those glory days, William Butler Yeats came to town to read his Irish poetry; Vachel Lindsey brought a "deepened sense of the value of the modern interpretation of modern life." Hugh Walpole, "brilliant young novelist" spoke and Coningsley Dawson thrilled members with his Great War memoirs in describing "the fruit of the rich experience of the battlefield." Then, in 1928, Will Durant addressed the club and inquired, "Is progress a delusion?"

Maybe yes, maybe no, but lunch is eternal. Over that nourishing culinary cliche, chicken and peas, Hazel Blouin, age 92, is correcting the pronunciation of her name ("I just blew in"), isn't too sure about the new quarters. "I miss the other place," she said softly. A member since 1924, Blouin recalled: "You had to be sponsored by someone of good name; you had to wear a hat and gloves and be on time because you were somebody when you belonged."

Sitting opposite, Regina Bell, 94, said she was relatively new, having joined in 1973. Thrilled by the new quarters, Bell recalled "friendship, social life and work" as important to her association. In washing the china the day before, she said, "I dropped four saucers that never cracked or chipped. God was with me."

Indeed, some grand power has overseen Friday Morning's fortunes. Membership holds steady at 200 dues payers, but a number living in Leisure World are inactive. The future is uncertain. Renewal of the club is a problem. The Juniors, a training program for younger women, has been defunct for many years. But the group spirit, based on useful longevity, remains optimistic. As Chertok said, "Change is everything. We're looking forward to the future."

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