30 Years of Ball on the Square
by sarah jordan
Hot. That’s the first word that comes to mind when Audrey Claire Taichman talks about last year’s Ball on The Square. The Ball is held on the third Thursday of June each year in Rittenhouse Square, and last year the temperatures soared to nearly 104 degrees as the Northeast was engulfed in a scorching heat wave. Staying hydrated was a top priority for partygoers: More than 500 mini bottles of Fiji Water and countless cases of Acqua Panna were tossed back during the dinner service. But some guests, like Taichman, a Philly restaurateur and former Ball chair, chose to beat the heat with other chilled beverages. “Last year was just so hot,” says Taichman. “I was sitting with a bunch of restaurant folk. We needed something so we wouldn’t care how hot it was, so we asked the manager of Lacroix to go get us some tequila. Pretty quickly, no one cared about the heat anymore,” she adds with a laugh. “The party was such a good bonding experience for everyone.”
Good for bonding, networking—whatever your purposes—the Ball on The Square is the hot ticket that finishes off Philadelphia’s spring social season. After all, come summer, Thursday nights are when Center City dwellers get a head start on their long weekends, motoring off to their mansions in Longport and Avalon. So at this final major bash until fall, guests leave no glass of Champagne untouched.
“The main purpose of the Ball is to raise money, but the other purpose is to see and be seen,” says Center City realtor and board member Joanne Davidow. “There are people on the benches watching the guests, who are dressed to the nines. It’s almost like our red carpet, because when you walk in some people get more attention from the cameras than others... some gowns are great and some are mistakes, just like at the Oscars.... Everyone makes an entrance. There’s the air-kissing. A lot of people at the Ball are movers and shakers, so there’s lots of conversation.”
Perhaps no two have air-kissed or conversed more than Bennett Weinstock and his wife, Judie, interior designers and Square residents who haven’t missed a single Ball in all of its 30 years. Simply, it’s just a good time, says Bennett. “A lot of people dread going to these charity events, but have to go because of an affiliation with the charity. But here, with this ball, most people go because it’s actually fun.”
Hosted by the Friends of Rittenhouse Square organization, this is the most glamorous outdoor black-tie party in town, with proceeds going to a variety of projects that maintain the costly upkeep of the Square. The annual “block party” is a social must for Rittenhouse Square locals and their friends, who nibble at hors d’oeuvres and quaff glasses of signature cocktails like the St-Germain-infused Moonflower, while catching up with their neighbors at this sell-out fundraiser.
And these partygoers are devoted to this urban park, called one of the most beautiful squares in America. It has been compared to London’s Grosvenor Square and Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens. But even with its fashionable and elegant aesthetics, Rittenhouse Square is best known and loved as a “people’s park.” According to the Friends organization, on a summer day the Square might see some 15,000 visitors: nannies with toddlers, workers brown-bagging lunch, musicians busking, and even a few bikini-clad sun worshippers.
In conjunction with the 30th anniversary of the Ball, the Friends also celebrates the 100th anniversary of French architect Paul Philippe Cret’s Beaux Arts design, which transformed the elegant park from its humble beginnings into what Philadelphians know today. Back in the untamed 1700s, the area was covered with thick woods and was home to partridges, foxes, deer, wolves... and pigeons (some things never change).
No one wants to be fashionably late, with tickets starting at $550 a person and going upward to $2,500. Men in tuxedos and white dinner jackets and women in formal gowns (the less fabric, the better these days) arrive from all corners of the Square. Many local guests simply walk over when they hear the band tuning up and queue up at the entrance for their turn in front of the photographers. Flashbulbs pop as men dab their brows discreetly from the heat and women brush cheeks with friends and frenemies alike. Glasses clink and hors d’oeuvres float by. Dinner service in the tents starts at 8 PM—then the dancing begins.
“It’s one of the few parties where people dance, take off their shoes, and dance some more, then walk home barefoot,” say Barbara Eberlein, president of her eponymous design firm and past cochair of the Ball. Stefanie Lutzo, owner of clothing boutique Adresse, adds, “Literally, once the band starts, it’s on. It’s on! That floor is packed.”
Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, can often be spotted on the dance floor. She has hardly skipped a Ball over the past three decades—but remembers missing the first year’s especially well.
“It was 1983, and I was living in an old apartment at 1919 Chestnut Street,” she says. “I lived on the top floor in a corner apartment with my daughter. I was kind of bemoaning my first Ball because I was in between boyfriends. I remember seeing all of the preparations, like something from Cinderella. My dream was to go to that Ball. Then I met [my husband] Joe, and I have hardly missed a party since. It feels like a Cinderella kind of night for me, even to this day.”
The gala’s notoriously crowded dance floor is proof that the Friends know a thing or two about music. But it’s the music, in particular, that has been one area that the Friends have been fielding some not-so-friendly remarks in the past few years. “The band is great,” says realtor Laurie Phillips. “But the music is so loud you can’t hear each other talk at the table.” Friends president Betsy Hummel acknowledges the concerns about the volume: “The old guard doesn’t like the louder music. But no matter how many calls we get, the dance floor is still filled to capacity.... The guests keep coming back.”
“We are trying to change things this year,” says Mary Parenti, cochair of this year’s Ball. “Last year I got calls saying, ‘It was a lovely evening, but it was ridiculous at dinner.’ So we’ll have dinner music played by the band during dinner instead of dance music. The old guard made a good point, because during dinner even I couldn’t talk to the person sitting next to me without raising my voice.”
And the attendance numbers are booming. “It used to be that if we had 200 guests, we would be thrilled,” says Carole Shanis, a former Ball chair and frequent host of the exclusive patron party. “Now the Ball will easily sell out its 500 tickets.” Says Wendy Rosen, a Square resident for 30 years who served as Friends president for 16 years, “I liked it better when it was more intimate, more neighborhood... when we were all squished together at 350. But you have to put all of the guests somewhere. And the regulars tend to get territorial over certain choice tables.”
Alan Sandman, committee member and former Ball cochair, sizes it up: “If you buy a table for 10 grand, your table is up front. If you have a bad table one year, don’t worry; you’ll get a better one next year.”
With tables fetching such hefty sums of money, it’s no surprise that the Ball on The Square has been branded as an elitist event. But gala-goers are quick to shrug off the chatter. They know the party is ultimately a means to an end.
“Okay, it costs money to go to the Ball. But it’s something that’s done to keep the Square looking glorious every day. That’s the final take on it,” says Nancy Heinzen, a vice president of Friends and author of The Perfect Square: A History of Rittenhouse Square. “There are lots of glamorous people who live on the Square, but lots of us are not so well-known and glamorous. We also live on the Square and participate, too.”
Still, for all of the noise about tables, entertainment, and close quarters, people return each year. One can simply chalk it up to the Ball being a great party. Demé plastic surgeon Dr. Kevin Cross, who counts many gala-goers as his patients and has attended on and off the past few years, says: “Look, if it were a quiet, conservative event, it would lose some of its excitement. It’s the people that attend who make it fun.”
Being among peers tends to keep the revelry in check, too. “I’ve never seen anyone fall into the roses drunk,” says Sandman with a laugh. “It’s a reasonably well-behaved crowd. If you were in the bushes with someone you shouldn’t be? Well... Rittenhouse Square is really a shtetl—that’s a Yiddish word for ‘village.’ People would know.”
photography by steven goldblatt