Balboa Bay Club, founded in 1948, celebrates its sapphire anniversary this week

Actor Andy Devine is pictured with his family members on the beach in the early 1960s.
(Courtesy of Balboa Bay Club)

With a membership that has over the years included celebrities and politicians the likes of John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Andy Devine, the Reagans and the Goldwaters, the Balboa Bay Club is celebrating 75 years Friday with a members-only celebration to honors its sapphire anniversary.

The Balboa Bay Club was founded in 1948 by Ken Kendall, according to Leticia Rice, the club’s current general manager. Rice said Kendall knew at the time that boating would be key in attracting membership and that although other clubs had already been established in Newport Harbor — the Balboa Yacht Club and Newport Harbor Yacht Club — “none would compare to the overall vision that Kendall had for Balboa Bay Club,” Rice said.

“He envisioned more than just a yacht club and set out to build a true membership club for the purpose of social, recreational and yachting pleasure,” she said.

Former President Gerald Ford misses a putt at the Balboa Bay Club in 1977.
(Courtesy of the Balboa Bay Club)

The club’s ownership has changed over the years. It went from Kendall’s hands to Jack Wrather and Bonita Granville Wrather, who in turn sold the club to Bill and Beverly Ray in 1971. The club, which has been described as “the host of the coast” is now currently stewarded by the Pickup and Martin families.

Membership fees in its infancy were around $500, by Rice’s approximations, but now vary so widely by member that a precise cost could not be reported.

Nancy Reagan with William Bents at a dinner at the Balboa Bay Club in May 1967.
Nancy Reagan with William Bents at a dinner at the Balboa Bay Club in May 1967, the year her husband began his first term as governor of California.
(Courtesy of the Balboa Bay Club)

“The club grew in functionality as the years went on, adding innovations and unique facilities for the club’s social events. These were evident in the multiple buildings that served as facilities for the club, including guest bungalows, tennis courts, pools, beach and boating, indoor and outdoor dining facilities and ultimately hotel rooms and event spaces,” Rice said. “All of this culminated in a complete remodeling and rebuilding of the club facilities, which debuted in 2002 as the club was rebranded as the Balboa Bay Club Resort & Spa.”

Former President Ronald Reagan speaks at the Balboa Bay Club in this undated photo.
(Courtesy of the Balboa Bay Club)

The 75th anniversary celebration will look back at the club’s history and will welcome guests with a red carpet. Friday’s is the main event, but Rice said the Balboa Bay Club has been celebrating all year and will continue to acknowledge the anniversary throughout the remainder of 2023.

John Wortmann, a longtime member and chair of the club’s board of governors, said he and his wife, Anne, were drawn to the club because of its abundance of events for both adults and the whole family. The Wortmanns joined the club more than 30 years ago and practically brought up both of their children, John and Devon, on its property. Devon was recently married there.

“There was just a plethora of different activities and [it was] a good way for not just the young but for people of any age to meet people whether they’re new to Newport Beach or if they’ve lived here forever,” Wortmann said.

Barry and Margaret Goldwater alongside Jack Richardson, right, aboard the TOH-BE-KIN. The man on the left is unidentified.
Barry and Margaret Goldwater alongside Jack Richardson, right, aboard the TOH-BE-KIN. The man on the left is unidentified.Barry Goldwater was a Republican nominee for president in 1964 and was a senator for Arizona from 1953 to 1965 and 1969 to 1987.
(Courtesy of the Balboa Bay Club)

Wortmann said he took a seat on the club’s governing board at the request of previous ownership, and he has been chair since the early 2000s. He said his job for the last 20-plus years has been to elevate the member experience.

“I think the values being based on family, based on the community of Newport Beach, as this being the center of the social scene since 75 years ago — nothing has changed,” Wortmann said. “But I do think, and what I’m proud to be a part of, is the elevating of not only the facilities but the member experience. I think everything ... has been improved. The food, the facilities, and I think people really have a greater appreciation for everything after coming out of COVID too. [We’re] realizing that we all had a place to go where we were comfortable, knew people, and it is a respite in the middle of summer when you can’t really get anywhere.”

Kathy Hamilton, another longtime member and president of the 1221 Scholarship Fund, said she joined the club with her husband, Noel, in 1997. Initially, the two only signed up so her parents could borrow the boat slip temporarily to park their boat. But they later expanded their membership activities.

A shot of members of the Balboa Bay Club enjoying the beach in 1980.
(Courtesy of the Balboa Bay Club)

Noel Hamilton is now on the club’s board and Kathy Hamilton, along with other members of the 1221 Scholarship Fund, helps organize events to raise funds for scholarships for graduating seniors of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. Like the Wortmanns, the Hamiltons raised their children, Caroline and Reed, on the club property too.

“The club has been a very big part of our lives over the years. We’ve made so many lasting friendships, and we just use it all the time,” Kathy Hamilton said. “Right now, our boat is in a slip at the Bay Club, and it’s just incredible to have it there. We love the chefs that they hire here. They are outstanding. The resort is a great place to house our friends. Whenever our friends come in town, they can stay there and we had my daughter’s wedding here, … over the years, we’ve hosted many charity events at the club and they’ve done an incredible job for us. We just feel part of the family here.”

Socialite and actress Zsa Zsa Gabor signs autographs for the public at the Balboa Bay Club.
(Courtesy of the Balboa Bay Club)

She said she remembers the days when the Rays were running the Balboa Bay Club and knows that there are some members who might miss the old days. But it’s her belief the club has continued to improve under the Pickup and Martin families.

For his part, Wortmann said his hope is the younger generations of his family “will make new memories of their own, like the ones we have been blessed with over the years. The Balboa Bay Club — it is not just a destination. It is not just a place. It is an important part of the fabric of our community in Newport Beach and our lives.”