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Romance Takes the Center Stage at Balboa Park

It didn’t take a close inspection of the 125 couples at Sunday’s “Romance Rekindled” to know these were the kind of people whose eyes moisten when they watch “Casablanca"--even for the 30th time.

This was the sort of crowd that hums “Red Sails in the Sunset” when squeezing melons in the vegetable aisle, that keeps the wedding album at hand, and that, upon waking, gazes at the gently snoring figure on the other side of the bed and sees a valentine.

The afternoon reunion of a few of the more than 25,000 couples who have married at Balboa Park’s House of Hospitality since 1937 was a sort of civic greeting card, said committee member Bill Eaton, who called the event “The House of Hospitality’s Valentine to Balboa Park.”

“We wanted to be part of the park’s Diamond Jubilee, and since we don’t have any special collections to display, we came up with ‘Romance Rekindled,’ ” said Betty Peabody, House of Hospitality board president. “We think of this as the public room of the park--as the living room of the park--and many people obviously feel that way too, since so many have opted to be married here.”

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The party-goers, some in bridal gowns that still fit, others in snatches of wedding finery rescued from the attic, represented more than five decades of San Diego matrimony and included Betty and Robert Tobiasson, 1934 graduates of San Diego High School who, in 1937, became the first couple to marry at the site.

The Tobiassons now live near Elizabeth, Ark., but didn’t think twice about attending “Romance Rekindled.”

“The invitation was such a mind-boggler!” Betty Tobiasson exclaimed. “How could we ever have missed this?”

She brought along a paper sack of mementos, such as the heart-shaped hat and the tops of fine silk stockings that were her two mad nuptial extravagances. “That was Depression, and I couldn’t afford a lovely white gown,” said Betty as she modeled the coquettish hat and pulled bits of silk from the bag. “But these were so grand, and I’ve never been able to part with them.”

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Her husband, Robert, sported his striped matrimonial bow tie over a conventional black necktie. “This tie cost me 25 cents at Woolworth’s, and I wasn’t about to get rid of it,” he said.

Most of the couples in attendance have already spent a couple of decades in wedlock (although a few were married in the late 1980s), and the event reflected days gone by. Couples danced to the big-band tunes of the Carl Hoffman Orchestra, and many examined wedding photos displayed on a pink-clothed table. A few sneaked off to the outskirts of the room. “I’ve found people holding hands back in the corners, and I’ve told them they’re acting more like newlyweds than ‘Romance Rekindled,’ ” committee member Peggy Matthews chuckled.

Buffets offered uncomplicated fare--turkey sandwiches, egg rolls, chips and salsa, strawberry punch and Champagne--but an elaborate, triple-tiered cake dominated the room. It was served after Kay and David Porter, who in 1947 became the first postwar couple to marry at the House of Hospitality, led a grand wedding march to the strains of Mendelssohn, naturally.

“There were still wartime shortages in 1947, and the catering facilities were almost non-existent, so you just had to make do,” Kay Porter said. (Balboa Park festivities were suspended during World War II, when the Navy used its buildings for housing and offices.)

“We had 450 guests at our wedding, and I remember there weren’t enough chairs. But then there wasn’t the airplane noise we have now, either. We served cake and Champagne punch; no liquor was permitted in the park then, so a couple of my uncles were off behind the building stirring up the punch while everybody looked the other way.”

Perhaps the most familiar figure at the party was the Rev. John Sorensen, semi-retired pastor of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Fletcher Hills. Sorensen holds the unchallenged record for weddings performed at the House of Hospitality, about 3,000 in the last 30 years, he said.

“I might perform a half dozen weddings per weekend during the busy season,” Sorensen said, adding that the busiest month is, unsurprisingly, June.

LA JOLLA--UC San Diego Chancellor Richard Atkinson probably didn’t have a pun in mind when he told the hundreds assembled at Thursday’s ground breaking for the university’s newest medical facility that, “The Shiley Eye Center is a vision that has been before the university for years.”

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Although ceremonial shovels were provided for Atkinson; Dr. Stuart Brown, chairman of the UCSD ophthalmology department, and Donald and Darlene Shiley, center benefactors, the bare outlines of that vision--in the form of a few steel girders--were already rising on the moonscape of bare, bulldozed earth at the eastern edge of the campus. Because it was a rare, wintry San Diego forenoon, most guests huddled in the white tent erected for the occasion. At a reception after the ceremony, many conversations turned to the university’s ongoing growth as a major center for medical research, education and treatment.

Addresses were made by Darlene Shiley; Dr. Robert Resnik, the medical school’s dean for clinical affairs, and Brown, who said, “This building, and the many millions of dollars involved in it, came from the citizens of San Diego.”

But the scene was repeatedly stolen by Benjamin Dreyfuss. Scene-stealing may be an art that Benjamin, 3, learned at home--his father is actor Richard Dreyfuss. The child’s mother, Jeramie, brought him to the ceremony as a gesture of thanks to Brown, who in 1987 successfully treated the boy for a rare eye disease.

Jeramie Dreyfuss wrangled the microphone from her son long enough to say, “We’ve been with Dr. Brown since the beginning (of his eye center campaign), and we’re delighted.” She said that her husband had planned to attend but was in North Carolina making a film with actress Holly Hunter.

In addition to the Shileys, who donated $1 million, the guest list included other major benefactors, most notably developer Ernest Hahn. Many later lunched on Waldorf salad, lemon chicken and chocolate tortes at the chancellor’s official residence.


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