Having a Ball at the Circus


Circus literature, to the degree that it exists, seems to have made little effort to explore that transient moment in which the trapeze artist, briefly in space between handholds, pauses in air at the fulcrum between forward motion and gravity.

The sensation of that split second snatched from the grasp of time must be one of utter exhilaration, which, by consensus, seemed the mood reached by the 800 who attended “Circus,” the 45th annual Jewel Ball, given Saturday at La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club by La Jolla’s Las Patronas philanthropic group.

The strings of circus lights, the banners, the streamers straining to rein in the breeze, the midway-style sideshows, the carnival barkers, ringmasters, fire-swallowers, snake-tamers, magicians and the dozen other divertissements that jumbled into a clever background for “Circus” all distracted from the high-wire routine that ball chairman Marge Palmer said she and the other 49 members of Las Patronas tiptoed through during the length of a party-planning year. It was a year, Palmer noted, that started with war and recession and concluded with thunder and lightning.


In a perilous period for fund-raisers, the Jewel Ball--traditionally among the top 10 earners in the United States--managed to retain local supremacy by raising about $350,000 to be divided among seven major and 50 minor beneficiaries. The roster includes a cross-section of San Diego cultural, health and human-care institutions.

A multi-ring circus given without benefit of a sheltering big top (the Jewel Ball is always staged on the Beach Club tennis courts, transformed for a fleeting concatenation of hours into a sky-roofed ballroom), this year’s event was threatened by the unusual summer weather and the midweek thunderstorm that hung a rain-cloud-like question mark over Saturday’s event. Palmer, clad in a beaded gown as palely pink as cotton candy, said it was partly through a rapid and radical evolution in her personal theology that the rain was sent packing.

“All this year I’ve been praying to the God who’s a ‘He,’ ” said Palmer. “And then Tuesday night, when it started raining, I had a dream, a vision, and this beautiful woman called to me ‘Marge, Marge, but I’m a She!’ So I told all the Las Patronas to pray the Lord’s Prayer to ‘Our Mother who art in Heaven,’ and I know the stars will be out for us.”

Inasmuch as the Jewel Ball traditionally seems an evanescent fantasy that dissipates into the mists at about 2 a.m. on the first Sunday of each August, it was brought solidly to earth early Saturday evening by the mingled smells of popcorn and corn dogs and by Flame, a tattooed woman who serenely allowed a pair of live snakes to twine around her neck and around the necks of guests to whom a boa generally is something carried home in a hat box.

After the sinuous arabesques on the carnival stage, such cocktail hour diversions as the fellow relaxed on a bed of nails seemed a bit tame, although the sleight-of-hand artist who changed $1 bills into $100 notes--a feat never disparaged in La Jolla--repeatedly attracted large audiences.

The ball divided itself into two acts and moods, the old-fashioned, Ringling Brothers-style circus theme of the poolside reception, and the more conceptual, contemporary circus staged in the ballroom. During the cocktail hour, lights strung on high like tight-ropes glowed above a scene in which servers with bulbous clown noses and carnival-barker mustaches served corn fritters, miniature crab cakes, blinis with smoked salmon and a lavish assortment of iced shellfish.


In the ballroom, caterer Tony Kopas switched to an Italian menu of ravioli (in bright, balloon-like colors), herbed lamb loin and individual merry-go-rounds of miniature cakes pierced by tiny poles that supported white chocolate carousel horses.

The bold, circus-tent stripes of the reception area decor gave way in the ballroom to flats painted with a motif of circus performers, silver streamers flying from the light poles and centerpieces of glitter-coated horses and performing seals, mounted on multifaceted mirrored bases spread with oversized ivory and pink orchids. On the stage, the Leonard Neil Orchestra from Los Angeles played virtually nonstop from 9:30 p.m. nearly until the ball’s 2 a.m. curfew.

Professional party planner and recent New York emigre George Grisko, who, with partner Noel Schatz, helped design “Circus,” said the theme was chosen partly because Las Patronas had never used it before--and after 44 previous balls, novel themes are not easily come by--and partly because of the events thus far in 1991. “Considering everything that has happened this year, the circus provided the ideal theme, because it’s ‘up’ and diversionary,” Grisko said. The decor, menu and music also served to frame “Circus” as a specific installment in the larger, ongoing Jewel Ball, an event that, to a point, seems to have a life of its own.

Jo Bobbie Showley, one of the small group of women who founded Las Patronas in 1946, attended Saturday (“If you’re ambulatory and have a dress, you should be here,” she said), as she has most of the balls given since the inaugural event in 1947.

“The Jewel Ball stands by itself,” she said. “It’s a tour de force--it’s chic, it’s sophisticated, it’s glamorous. There’s nothing like it.”

Keeping the ball fresh remains an annual challenge for the revolving membership of 50 women; according to several, the motivation is the money that is parceled out to a host of institutions. The 1991 proceeds will bring the total distribution from the 45 Jewel Balls to nearly $5 million.

“There’s a sense of renewal every year because of the new list of beneficiaries and needs in the community that we help meet,” said Edie High Sanchez. “Our members work harder for knowing how they benefit this city.”

“Our whole goal is to make as much money as possible,” said Jewel Ball President Anne Coleman. “The more we make, the greater the number of beneficiaries we can fund. That’s the real bottom line for us.”

The list of recipients changes every year. Major 1991 grants will be made to equip a number of facilities, including the “Child Protection Room” at Children’s Hospital; pedodontics examination rooms at Logan Heights Family Health Center, and the kitchen at the Family Center for Women and Children operated by the San Diego Rescue Mission. Another grant will partially fund restoration of the main deck of the Star of India.

Martha Ranson, director of the Rachel’s Women’s Center in downtown San Diego, another major beneficiary, said proceeds will furnish a night shelter and upgrade the dining room. “We wouldn’t have these things otherwise,” she said.

Guests included co-chair Sally Bucko and her husband, Dennis; Bill Black and Barbara Woodbury; Melesse and Robert Traylor; Bill Kellogg and 1992 Jewel Ball chairwoman Tricia Kellogg; Doris and Dirk Broekema; Jeanne Lawrence, briefly back from a year in London and about to embark for New York on a yearlong American art course at Sotheby’s; Emmy and Bud Cote; Mary Lou Daves and John Paul Jones; Sukey Beasley; Debbie and Chris Neils; Ingrid and Joe Hibben; Nina and Bob Doede; Anne and Chuck Dick, and Jeanne and John Bucher.

Also attending were Rosie and Rick Haggerty; Carolyn Farris with Lewis Grinnan; Paul Palmer; Mary Jo and Tom Osterman; Cheryl and Ron Kendrick; Karon and Gordon Luce; Evelyn Truitt and Neil Ash; Ewa and Larry Robinson; Judith and Randy Strada; Anne Halsey-Smith and Joseph Cunningham; Sarah and David Burton; Bette and Ken Smith; Maggie Coleman; Linda and Rick Strauss; Judi and Dick Freeman, and state Assemblywoman Dede Alpert and her husband, Michael.