The Assembly Ball Tradition Plays On At A New Venue

Posted: December 23, 1986

Tradition is the underlying theme of the Assembly Ball, the oldest continuous subscription dance in the country. And traditional forms were met Saturday night at the 238th gala, held at the Adam's Mark Hotel.

Members of the most prominent Philadelphia families and their guests were there - the men in white tie, the women in satins and sequins, velvet and diamonds.

It is probable that the majority of the 1,200 guests attended with a mixture of curiosity and misgivings. For the first time since the late 1970s, when the hotel also was closed, the ball did not take place at the Bellevue Stratford, its home since 1905. What would it be like without the turn-of- the-century elegance of the Bellevue and its ambiance, so suited to the Assembly? And what could adequately replace the Bellevue ballroom's beloved balcony boxes, to which one could resort when tired of dancing, or just to watch the swirling figures on the floor below?

At the start of the evening, friends would ask each other "What do you think?" and the reply would be a guarded "It's interesting." Later, this changed to "It's well-done." Still later, one regular Assembly-goer said she never had such a good time.

From the start, except for the new surroundings, everything was as in the past. Traditions were observed under the watchful eyes of the ball's six managers: senior manager Nicholas W. Biddle Jr., Richard Davis Wood Jr., Samuel Shober Stroud, David Story Jenks-Smith, Gouverneur Cadwalader Jr. and James Kent Willing 3d. The names Cadwalader and Willing appear in records of the Assemblies from its earliest days. (Around the time of the Assembly's founding, in 1748, the Biddles and other socially prominent Quaker families did not attend what they considered to be a "frivolous" event.)

Guests were required to present their cards of admission upon arrival, then don white gloves (elbow length for the women) to pass through the traditional receiving line of the patronesses. The male guests bowed and the female guests curtsied, a time-honored custom, and the patronesses returned the curtsies.

After this, it was off to dance to the music of Lester Lanin and his orchestra. If ever the Assembly Ball managers should see fit to offer a prize for innovation on the dance floor, L. Stockton Illoway and his sister, Katie Schoettle, would be leading contenders.

For the occasion, the Adam's Mark Exhibition Hall, converted by decorations into a scene in the Swiss Alps, became the ballroom. Walls were covered with murals depicting pine trees, snow-covered mountain peaks and an Alpine village. Tables were draped with snowy-white cloths and with gleaming cutlery and centerpieces of Christmas greenery.

Across the entrance hall, the hotel's actual ballroom became the supper room, where from midnight on guests dined on scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, apple fritters, banana crepes, muffins and fresh fruit served in sculpted watermelon shells. Open bars were busy throughout the party and, as usual, glasses of champagne were passed by waiters.

It was a night for the young at the Assembly Ball. Girls, who in the old days would have been called debutantes, and young men were all over the place.

In general, the young women who had preball dinners given in their honor wore white evening dresses. In days long gone, young ladies were presented to society at the Assembly Ball when they turned 18. They all wore white. But Saturday, all manner of dress was seen on young women, including several black, strapless evening gowns, slinky and very uptown.

The Assemblies have always welcomed out-of-town guests, including George Washington, who attended while he was president. One of the out-of-towners this year was Thomas Lovejoy, executive vice president of the World Wildlife Fund-Conservation Foundation in Washington. With Ruth Patrick Hodge, Lovejoy was a guest at a dinner given jointly by Mary Davis (who wore a royal blue sequined top and satin skirt and a star diamond pin at her shoulder), Mrs. Howard W. Taylor Jr., and Theodore Clattenburg. Another guest from Washington at the dinner was Charles Howland, for many years an officer of the Smithsonian Institution. With Charles Francis and Lucienne Clement (who wore a stunning turquoise-and-diamond necklace and earrings to set off her turquoise evening gown) was Barbara Sadtler of New York, an executive of the Estee Lauder cosmetic empire.

Among the Philadelphians at the party were Maisie Worrall and William M. Hollenback Jr., who will be married early next year.

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