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Story Behind ‘Off the Wall Street Dance’

Perhaps only in this tony seaside enclave could a simple cup of coffee percolate into an annual street dance that, now poised to celebrate its tenth anniversary, has raised considerably more than half a million dollars for medical education, services and research.

The odd thing is, there wasn’t even a whiff of espresso in the air when the “Off The Wall Street Dance” had its unlikely genesis in a Wall Street cafe called The Coffee Cup.

This was back in 1981, when the cafe’s morning regulars--a mix of business folk and long-time La Jolla residents--took their java in the form of the high-test, fully-caffeinated brew favored at the time. Many of those who dropped by for their daily brew-cum-gossip did so after stopping at the nearby post office to collect their mail, and many also belonged to the upper reaches of the La Jolla hierarchy.

Off The Wall, which will be staged the Sunday afternoon for the benefit of the UC -San Diego School of Medicine and Medical Center, was born in the aftermath of one of the giddier romps in San Diego’s high society history, an event so uniquely redolent of warm-hearted goofiness that other major cities would be hard pressed to dig anything like it from their own civic annals.

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The escapade, which quickly came to be known as “The Coffee Cup Caper,” started when a developer and cafe regular offered the staff a free week-end stay at a resort he had just built near the tip of Baja California. Proprietor Belle Riding and the waitresses naturally were eager to accept the offer, but a difficulty not susceptible to easy resolution presented itself: the mass exodus of the staff would mean closing The Coffee Cup for several days, with a consequent loss of revenue.

Thus brewed up a memorable storm in a coffee cup.

“The waitresses never got vacations, so we said we’d run the place for a couple of days,” said Nancy Hester, a Coffee Cup habitue and a La Jollan known for organizing major charity benefits. “So the owner, Belle Riding, just said, ‘Here are the keys, have fun, don’t burn the place down.’ ”

“Fun” turned out to be the operative word. Hester and close friend Mac Canty, another La Jollan with considerable experience in staging benefits, set about sketching the outlines of a little adventure that, quite unexpectedly, would blossom the following August into the first “Off The Wall” street dance.

The job assignment simply was to keep The Coffee Cup open for business while the staff played in the Baja sun. But Hester and Canty had a more ambitious goal in mind, the transformation of a typical small-town coffee shop into a venue attractive to cafe society.

The process included the installation of sophisticated decor, the recruitment of more than a score of buddies (including several unquestioned pillars of the community) and the organization of the “Off The Wall Street Blues Band,” which gave noon concerts and was headed by Canty’s husband, pediatric surgeon Timothy Canty, and by stockbroker Hugh Buchanon. For the duration, reservations were taken and the cafe solidly booked as regulars, the curious and a heavy leavening of La Jolla society crowded in to sample the temporarily expanded menu.

The “Coffee Cup Caper” menu included chili prepared by Bill Black, who later would serve as United States Chief of Protocol in the Bush Administration, and boeuf bourguignon cooked by developer Tex Cadenhead. Bill Larson, a prominent jeweler, and Richard Carlson, later a San Diego mayoral candidate, both flipped pancakes on the dawn shift; publishing heir David Copley and socialite Carolyn Farris washed dishes; society models Barbara ZoBell and Patti Mix waited tables and philanthropist Joseph Hibben, the man credited with making the San Diego Soviet Arts Festival a reality, worked as a short order cook.

“The Coffee Cup was the charity, and they made a lot more money than usual,” Hester said wryly as she recounted other details of her singular foray into the restaurant business. But, almost inevitably in this circle, a charitable connection quickly developed.

“The ‘Caper’ corresponded with the time Dr. Jack Farris became associate dean of the UCSD Medical School,” said Hester. “He wanted to found an event that would acquaint the community with what was going on at the medical school, so the street dance was born as a major amplification of ‘The Coffee Cup Caper.’ ”

“The street dance gave the town a sense of community with the medical school, which had never before ‘married’ La Jolla,” said Canty, adding, “A lot of people were barely aware that the school existed.” Bette Biddulph Smith and Deirdre Dooling, who both chaired “Off The Wall” in subsequent years (Smith on four occasions, Dooling twice), agreed that fostering good relations between town and gown has remained a driving motivation behind the event, although it also has become quite profitable and typically earns in excess of $100,000 each year.

“The dance is good for the neighborhood and good for the medical school, but I think one of its major accomplishments is simply establishing a reputation as a great end-of-summer party,” said Smith, who predicted that Off The Wall “will go on forever.”

“The people in La Jolla like it, because it’s family entertainment,” she said.

The basic “Off The Wall” outlines remain unchanged since they were first planned by Hester and Canty in 1982, although the event certainly has expanded. On the last Sunday of August, the entire length of Wall Street--which extends but two blocks--is closed to traffic and manned by an immense staff of volunteers that shows up shortly after dawn to erect three stages, more than a dozen game booths, the famously infamous dunking tank and pavilions for the several dozen restaurants that contribute specialties from their menus. “Off The Wall” typically features a trio of bands (The Off The Wall Blues Band headlined at the first dance); this year, Dr. Feelgood and the Interns of Love will alternate with The Heroes and Haute Chile.

Banks underwrite the performers; a large number of La Jolla businesses underwrite the amusement booths and other expenses, which range from accounting services to the rental of portable toilets. Tickets are available at a number of local commercial establishments and are priced at $15 if purchased in advance, or $20 at the door. Tickets cost $10 for children aged three through 12. A fair portion of the overall proceeds will be earned by the sale of tickets exchangeable for food, beverages and participation at the game booths.

Hester said that she planned “Off The Wall” as the opposite of the annual Rodeo Drive block party given in Beverly Hills as a fund-raiser for cancer research, which she attended before designing the La Jolla event. “That party cost $200 per person to attend and was sort of a battle between the florists and caterers,” she said. “I knew that this wouldn’t work in La Jolla, and I wanted ours to be inexpensive, because our initial goal was not to make a lot of money, but to make everyone aware that the university is an asset to our community.”

“What was most important was that this be an event that everybody could attend,” said Canty. “We didn’t even want to charge admission, but we had to in order to get the city’s permission to close off Wall Street. What’s neat about the dance is that it has evolved into a family day.”

The initial proceeds of some $30,000 helped found an emergency loan fund for UCSD medical students, but earnings from subsequent events have gone to the UCSD Medical Center’s burn, cancer and trauma centers, to the California Teratogen Registry and to the Institute for Research on Aging. Farris, who proposed the establishment of the fund-raiser, established the Off The Wall Foundation at UCSD, and suggested that funds be accumulated from successive street dances until $1 million had been be amassed.

Following Farris’ death in 1990, Smith said the decision was made to contribute $500,000 then in the foundation’s coffers to the UCSD trauma center. “What we do for the hospital is very little compared to what they do for us, but they’ve always been very appreciative of the funds,” Smith said.

So, just after dawn on Sunday morning, a cast of more than 200 volunteers will descend upon Wall Street to erect stages, set up concession stands and see to it that the porta-potties are conveniently but discreetly situated. If Off The Wall ’92 equals previous dances, it will be, in former chairman Dooling’s words, “Fun, casual and a great day for a low ticket price.”


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