Some kids get to go to tennis camp. Some kids get to go to basketball camp. Then there's culture camp.
Eight kids recently got to spend a weekend day at a sort of culture camp, anyway, at the Biltmore Hotel. The $150 cost included all the ginger ale and scrambled eggs-with-caviar they could tolerate, which wasn't much at all.
Actually, the gathering looked more like a birthday party than anything else. At 10 a.m. sharp, six girls arrived in the hotel's grandly appointed Presidential Suite wearing party dresses, tights, patent leather shoes (or satin ballet slippers) and enormous hair ribbons.
Outnumbered by the girls, the two boys were dressed in neckties and buttoned-up shirts. One boy's jacket came off immediately; the other suffered in style. The youngest culture-vulture was six, the oldest, 12.
The day began with a crash course on cutlery (including ultra-sophisticated fish forks and fish knives), champagne flutes (hold the stem), and soup bowls (tip them away from you if you have to tip at all); the finesse of the handshake (two webs should meet); and proper introductions (the name of the person you wish to honor goes first).
When it was time to practice what they had learned, the group sat down Saturday to brunch at Bernard's restaurant, where the dim lighting was forgiving of faux pas, such as removing each and every caviar morsel with one's fingers.
The day's meat and potatoes was the so-called on-site instruction in public behavior.
"This area in particular has so many museums and theaters, it's important for children to develop consideration and respect for others," explained instructor Diane Diehl, who owns the Orange County franchise of Washington, D.C., etiquette authority Marjabelle Young Stewart's six-week courses. The Biltmore has the Los Angeles franchise of Stewart's one-day children's etiquette program.
Members of the class limo-ed over to the Museum of Natural History, where they received simple rules to live by. "A museum is almost like a library," explained the well-mannered, patient Diehl. "You have to be very quiet. Running is verboten. Walk serenely so people can hardly hear you."
When viewing a picture or reading a plaque, it's improper to block someone else's view, she continued. And, of course, touching anything on display is a grievous wrong, unless, of course, it's in a special hands-on area, which the Natural History Museum includes.
Diehl also delved into the sticky issue of how to react when other people misbehave. "You may see children running or laughing and that's OK--we're not going to judge them."
Then they were off: running, er, make that fast-walking, through galleries lined with stuffed, lifelike elephants and leopards. They climbed on rocks like North American bears. They giggled. They did not scream. Their parents would be proud.
Do children need to be taught museum manners?
"The great percentage have an instinct that they should whisper and be very quiet, but you get both extremes," notes Lori Jacobson, an assistant museum education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Problems come up when there isn't an adult supervising."
Diehl finds that most children are usually "better on excursions than (on) table manners," she said. "The average American family, with the wife working, it's difficult to have the consistency of family dinners. The TV's on. The majority of women don't sit down with their children. They cook and serve and occasionally sit down."
But Diehl has observed that when the weekend arrives, both parents like to take time out for trips to places like museums and theaters.
By the time the limousine returned the group to the hotel for lemonade and cookies, there wasn't much time left for theater manners, except to learn basics like the proper way to clap (boys with hands together, girls holding the left hand still in a cupped position and hitting it with the palm of the right hand).
As for the right time to clap, Diehl said that can be tricky: "The olden rule is, if you're unsure wait to see what everyone else does."