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Sugar Plum Ball

Springfield society celebrates itself

Illinois Times

September 21, 1979

The splashing about of big frogs in small ponds is as much fun for the spectator as it must for the frogs. I certainly enjoyed watching from afar the hoopla—never the thing itself—surrounding the Springfield Art Association's Beaux Arts Ball.  

For those of us who made their social debuts in the back seats of borrowed Oldsmobiles, the Beaux Arts Ball is a little like an execution; it is a ritual that is at once fascinating and appalling, whose survival we can explain only by realizing that it appeals to deeper instincts than law or mercy.


For those who don't know it, the ball is held every year by the Springfield Art Association. Scheduled this year for November 24, it is the association's main fundraiser. It also marks the beginning of the Springfield social season—or what is left of it—and is the traditional affair at which the cream of local girlhood make their social debuts under the no doubt slightly damp eye of the Beaux Arts Queen.


The Art Association was founded in 1909, ostensibly to further the arts among the town's wayward young. In fact, the association exists to provide a mechanism by which social status may be calibrated and ratified. Bruce Campbell, a Springfield PR man who is also active in association affairs, wrote a scrapbook history of Sangamon County for the Bicentennial called Sangamon Saga. Campbell is the Boswell of Springfield's upper middle class. His book aims for comprehensiveness in only two areas: Springfield mayors (who are listed in a table with their dates of tenure) and Beaux Arts Ball queens.


There have been forty-five of the latter since the first one was crowned in 1930. (World War II interrupted the festivities for three years, which should give lie to the claim that stateside Americans did not suffer during the war.) Each is listed by Campbell, along with the names and genealogies of her parents ("Miss Hatch was the daughter of a pioneer Springfield family"); the theme of the ball ("Stars in Revue," "Hues of Artists' Blues"); the name of the dignitary—occasionally organizers were able to snag an idle governor, but in most years a mayor had to do—who presented her with her scepter; and the name of the orchestra that supplied the music (Mendell Riley, Wayne Kerr, and, marking the shift in generations that eventually penetrated even the recherche confines of the ball, the Rain Dear Army in 1967).


According to the association, the ball is intended as a tribute to those members who actively support its activities. More accurately. it's a chance for the members to celebrate being themselves. The queen and the ball committee are chosen from among those who (quoting our Boswell here) "consistently support the Springfield Art Association for a number of years through interest, volunteer service" ("It's not just for the high-class people," this year's queen explained to the press last May, "I see my mom do a lot of volunteer work") “and financial assistance”—which has led to the common assumption that the queenship can be bought.


There is a picture in Campbell's book taken at the 1949 ball, "Fairy Tale." It shows a polite Gov. Adlai Stevenson standing in tails on risers covered with what looks like tin foil while Queen Jeanne Lanphier stands next to him holding roses. On one side of the queen stands her court, each member wearing an incongruous medieval hat that looks like a dunce cap; opposite them are an equal number of much younger girls in costumes, a couple of them plainly bored, the rest gazing with apparent rapture at the queen and dreaming, perhaps, of the day when they too will have a chance to stand on tin foil risers and try to smile while rose thorns are digging into their bare forearms.


The amazing thing about this scene is that none of this adulation is really aimed at the queen herself. The honor actually is earned by the parents, not their daughter. But because bestowing such an honor on them would be unseemly, it is given to their daughter acting as stand-in. Unlike a beauty contestant, she is not there as reward for her beauty or her talent nor, as is the case with homecoming or prom queens, is she there because she is popular. The honor belongs to Mommy and Daddy.


What must it feel like, I wonder, being applauded for nothing except being somebody 's daughter? Or, in what I now regard as the more tantalizing question, why does everybody else applaud?


There have been women of talent stand on those risers in the last forty-eight years; a 1970s queen, if my information is correct, is now an attorney, and a 1950s queen is an accomplished Springfield developer. Did the rest survive to achieve things of value? Or did they at some point stop swimming long enough to sink without a trace into the whirlpool of club meetings, lunches at the club, and more volunteering?


The Copley papers have chronicled this rite since the first. Each year's coverage opens in the spring with an interview with that year's queen, a piece that's been written for so long now that it's acquired certain conventions of its own. The annual queen's interview traces its roots back to the days when it was thought one of journalism's functions was to keep the brutish lower classes informed of the doings of the local upper crust, in the hope that the latter would serve as examples to the former. It was perfected by Pauline Telford, who edited the women's pages before papers decided to put old whine in new bottles and call the women's pages “People” or "Take Two.”


This year's interview was, in the opinion of those of us who follow them, a classic. In it we learned to our relief that women have not changed as much as we have been led to believe by an hysterical press, that our new queen likes old-fashioned things, likes doors to be opened for her, isn't ready to split the bills, and wants only to set a table, not policy. The ball, she explained, is "something out of the ordinary. It's something you can't do every weekend. The same old stuff gets boring." Since the same old stuff for this queen and most of her predecessors includes skiing in the West ("I have as much fun going to the lodge and dressing up") we must assume that the ball is a wondrous, entrancing evening indeed. I begin to see why this year's edition has been called "Sugar Plum Ball."


Our queen also candidly admitted that she should be a different girl if she hadn't been raised on the west side of Springfield. I went to school at Springfield High School when it still was a west-side bastion, and I remember the kinds of girls who filled the Beaux Arts Courts as a race apart. They were—or so it seems now—always immaculately dressed, rarely did better than average in class, and always came back from Christmas vacations with suntans that they wore like badges. Their haughtiness was palpable; when they deigned to smile at the rest of us in the halls they looked like queens tossing coins to the rabble.


We used to think they were dumb, or had had their brains squeezed dry from reading Seventeen magazine. I think now it may have been that they were hollow inside, as if they'd spent their whole lives giving away parts of themselves to meet the expectations of others and no one had given them anything back. They were pampered, sure, but exploited too. I used to wonder if that explained their attachment to the protocols of their class, because they had nothing else to sustain them. I also used to think that that explained their almost giddy enthusiasm for high school and college; those were the only places they could lead their own lives for a bit instead of reliving Mommy's and Daddy's. In her interview with the SJ-R, our new queen noted that college had made a big difference in her life because "nobody knew me, nobody knew who my dad was and I was just me."


It'll be along trip home for her come November. ●




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