|Joan White's San Francisco Examiner Society column from Monday, September 5, 1966, celebrating a debutante ball on the previous Friday featuring the Grateful Dead at a mansion in the wealthy South Bay town of Hillsborough|
Debutante Balls and High Society in the United States
Before we get down to the serious business of Grateful Dead performances, a word about debutante balls is in order. For some centuries in France and England, young women of the upper classes made their "debut" amongst their peers when they were eligible to marry (as Jane Austen put it, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife"). They were presented to eligible young men in a series of parties and dances, and formally speaking their "debut" was when they were presented to royalty. Wealthy Americans adopted similar traditions, although obviously without the presentation to Royalty. At least until the 1960s, most major metropolitan areas had a system of parties and events that led to a formal "cotillion" where eligible young women from usually wealthy families were formally presented as part of adult society.
The parents of these debutantes had usually spent significant money on parties and dances leading up to the major event, although there was no formal structure. The young women were known as "debutantes," and were often local celebrities in their own right. Such events were written up in the local papers. The major papers in the Bay Area all had "society columnists:" the infamous Patsy Lou Montandon was the San Francisco Chronicle's society columnist (her immortal 1968 book How To Be A Party Girl is a true camp classic), and Joan White was the SF Examiner columnist. Appearing in the society column in effect made a young woman part of the upper class, whether or not that was a true representation of the family's income.
|A photo from the September 5, 1966 San Francisco Examiner. The caption reads "Bob Weir of "The Grateful Dead" wails away at ball which was also attended by his deb sister, Wendy Weir."|
For those of you who can't expand the screen easily, here are the key parts of the article (up top) [update: the article refers to the family as "Mattel" with an L, but I am assured now that the family spelled the name "Mattei."]
Brilliant Deb Ball In A Bay Chateau
Debs Danced To Rock 'n' Roll Beat
by Joan White, Examiner Society Editor
La Dolphine, the beautiful Hillsborough mansion that has been silent and unoccupied off and on since it was built before World War 1, burst into brilliant life with a rock 'n' roll beat Friday night, for a deb ball the Albert C. Mattels gave for their granddaughters, Ayn and Lyn Mattel [sic].
The Mattels have been leasing the home, which is modeled after Le Petit Trianon at Versailles, for six months of the year from the Hugh Chisholms.
The 18th century styled chateau is set in 3 1/2 acres of terraced gardens which were floodlighted with pink and white spots for the party. Despite the evening's chill, the young set stayed outside to dance to the rhythms of the Grateful Dead, while their elders remained in the ballroom where Al Trobe played.
It was a wonderful mixture of old elegance and Carnaby Street. In fact, two young men, Bruce Webster and William Lombardo, wore their dinner jackets over mod pants and boots. And another was in acceptable black tie with the exception of the wide mod belt that circled his waist.
One of the members of the Grateful Dead is Bob Weir, the brother of Peninsula Ball deb Wendy Weir, who made her bow earlier this year at a marvelous pop party at San Francisco Airport.
The beat of the band was so infectious that the adults were eventually lured to the outdoors dance platform where credible frugs were performed by Mrs. Ernest O. McCormick and Berens Nelson, and Mrs. William Wallace Mein Jr and Bryan Hemming.
Guests were shuttled up the drive to the mansion by Volkswagen buses. Pots of yellow spider-chrysanthemum lined the divided staircase where dinner tables were covered with moss green cloths and centered with yellow and white chrysanthemums and white candles.
|La Dolphine Mansion, 1760 Manor Drive, Hillsborough, CA, just south of San Francisco|
Up until the mid-60s, becoming a debutante was an indisputably glamorous thing for a young woman to do. Debutantes could hope (truthfully or not) to be the envy of all their peers, and might even become local celebrities. Young people are young, however, and one different thing about "society" events is that they were attended by both young and old people. Where a dance was involved, the sixties solution was to have two groups: a big band to play dance music for adults, and a rock group to provide dance music for the younger set. The groups would typically alternate, giving each social set a break to relax and mingle while the opposite group played. In the Bay Area, at least, and probably in many places, playing a society dance was a common paying gig for working bands. In some cases, they had to wear suits and ties to do it, but a paid booking was a paid booking.
The La Dolphine event seems to have been on a far grander scale than a typical debutante dance. For one thing, the mansion was so big that the two bands could play simultaneously. The Grateful Dead played outdoors, while pianist Al Trobe (probably leading a Count Basie-style big band) played in the ballroom. Keep in mind also that probably about 200 people were invited to the event, at most, and only half of them would have been interested in a rock band. Thus the Grateful Dead were engaged to entertain 100 teenagers.
In September 1966, the Grateful Dead had not yet released an album, and they were more infamous than famous. Nonetheless, they were becoming San Francisco headliners. The La Dolphine ball was on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and on that Sunday night the Dead would be headlining the Fillmore. While the Dead were far cheaper to hire in Fall '66 than they would be later, hiring a Fillmore headliner would be far more expensive than the usual teenage dance combo. Clearly, the event was on a higher order than a typical dance.
Eric of LoneStarDeadRadio, who procured the newspaper article up top, did have an interesting, if unverifiable story that he sent me in a personal email
amazingly enough after I posted it in Facebook someone commented that he is married to the sister of the 2 girls mentioned in the article the Mattei sisters Ayn and Lynn he said they were in Europe and wouldn't come home for deb ball unless grandma Mattei got the Dead to play so the old lady made it happen or so the story goesI find this story pretty plausible. Under normal circumstances, a debutante ball would not hire an expensive city headliner, when any local combo would do. However, if the granddaughters insisted on a certain band, a family that could accord to rent La Dolphine could afford the Dead's fees, whatever they were. Given that Bob Weir's sister was part of the same society circles, it would not have been hard to approach the band, and the group surely needed the money.
So, props to the Mattei sisters, for choosing to have the Grateful Dead when they could have had anything. Certainly if I was having a party for 100 of my friends, and I wanted a band for dancing, the 1966 Grateful Dead would be a great choice. I suspect the Dead may have dusted off some favorites by the Rolling Stones and the Olympics that didn't get played as much at the Avalon and the Fillmore, but I doubt we'll find out. Many of the attendees may have only been vaguely aware, if at all, of the name of the scruffy, unsigned band who were playing the dance music. But here's to hoping that Ayn and Lynn are still out there, and maybe they can tell us the setlist highlights, at least.
Albert C Mattel
Albert C Mattel had been President of the Honolulu Oil Company, until it was bought out by Jersey Oil in 1962, which is today better known as Exxon. The Honolulu Oil Company was associated with the 19th century steamship captain and entrepreneur William Matson, who was a pioneer of the San Francisco to Honolulu trade. However, the Honolulu Oil Company was based in San Francisco, and when it was sold in 1910 its principal fields were in Kern and Coalinga, CA. While the Mattel family was clearly quite wealthy, there was no connection to the Mattel toy company [note: I don't know why the name is googlable as Mattel, even though the family name was Mattei by this time]
Hillsborough is a wealthy Peninsula town halfway between San Francisco and Palo Alto. It is on the hills overlooking the Bay, just above San Mateo and Burlingame. Beginning with the formation of the Burlingame Country Club in 1893, Hillsborough society flourished around this area, with many of San Francisco’s most influential citizens commuting to country leisure via the newly minted Burlingame Train Depot. Several magnificent estates remain, including La Dolphine, orginally built for George Newhall by Lewis Hobart in 1913, then on 20 acres and known as Newmar.
A few communities, however, were still the provinces of the rich, particularly old San Francisco money. Old San Francisco money styled themselves as very European, and flashing wealth in public was frowned upon, but debutante balls were a place where conspicuous consumption was not forbidden. In the picture above, I suspect that the necklaces the Mattei sisters are wearing were not costume jewelry. Hillsborough was by far the toniest and richest community in the South Bay, followed closely by Atherton, where Bob Weir grew up. Nonetheless, save for a few families, possibly including the Matteis, most residents of Hillsborough and Atherton were not crazy rich in the way that Silicon Valley residents are today.
|The Good News perform at a debutante ball, with their strobe-light-ready clothing. The caption from a forgotten newspaper says "Peninsula Deb Janet Laird, Steve Boyden dance to the Big Beat"--clipping courtesy Tim Abbot|
For many years I (and others) had assumed that the La Dolphine event was for Wendy Weir, and that was why the Grateful Dead had played it. However, while Wendy must have been instrumental in making sure the Dead played La Dolphine, according to the article, it turns out that Wendy had come out in the Spring of that year. Joan White's article says "Peninsula Ball deb Wendy Weir, who made her bow earlier this year at a marvelous pop party at San Francisco Airport." If Wendy Weir debuted at a marvelous pop party, why didn't the Grateful Dead play at it? The issue appears to have been one of scheduling.
Generally speaking, debs do not "come out" in the Summer, so Wendy's event must have been in April or May of 1966, or even earlier. A debutante dance was a carefully planned event, so all the arrangements must have been made months in advance. Back in February and March of 1966, the Grateful Dead had relocated to Los Angeles, seemingly permanently, to "make it" in the music business. Thus they would not have seemed to have been available for Wendy Weir's event. Of course, we know that the Dead had returned to the Bay Area by April, but the debutante ball would already have been booked. If there had even been a plan to have the Grateful Dead play for Wendy, and there's no certainty that there was, the band missed any opportunity to book themselves in advance.
However, the discovery of this article solves a peculiar little mystery, and as a result I know which pop band played Wendy Weir's party. Sometime ago, I published a post on the interesting history of Redwood City's first blues band, The Good News. Besides being one of the first white blues bands in the Bay Area, modeled on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Good News also seem to have been the first band around the Bay Area to tour with their own light show. The light show was mainly a strobe light, but that was pretty far out for the time. The band wore outrageously colored Day-Glo clothes that looked exotic under the strobes.
I learned about The Good News in detail from their lead guitarist Tim Abbott. Abbott went on to play with The Chocolate Watch Band (and later Shango), but he mentioned in passing that The Good News had played a debutante party for Bob Weir's sister at the SFO Airport. I had wondered about that, since I had thought her big event was at La Dolphine, but Joan White's article confirms that Wendy came out at the Airport. Strange as it may seem, SFO Airport was fairly new at the time, and there was a lounge that could be rented. I suspect that if guests were flying in, it was very convenient. In 1966, at least, it must have been a desirable place to host an event, and with the strobe lights and DayGlo clothes of The Good News, it must have indeed been a marvelous pop party.
The picture of the Good News above was sent to me courtesy of Tim Abbott, and it was taken at a South Bay deb party, even though Abbott no longer remembers which one, where it was held, or what the newspaper was. It's not impossible that the picture actually was from Wendy's deb party, but in any case it's a good representation of what her event must have been like.
Yet the world of the South Bay was still quite small in the 60s. When the Mattei sisters wanted a specific band at their event, one of the band members had a sister who was part of their social circle. The Good News were a popular South Bay blues band in Spring 1966, but since they never recorded, they are thoroughly forgotten now. However, besides lead guitarist Abbott, the other members included lead singer Dave Torbert and drummer Chris Herold. Both Torbert and Herold would leave The Good News to join The New Delhi River Band with David Nelson. Torbert and Nelson went on to join the New Riders Of The Purple Sage, and when Torbert left the Riders, he re-united with Herold. Herold and Torbert went on to form Kingfish in 1974, and of course Bob Weir joined Kingfish a few months later. I wonder if Torbert and Herold recalled that they had played Wendy Weir's debutante ball eight years earlier?
September 4, 1968 Suzanne Bradford Debutante Ball, Burlingame Country Club, Burlingame, CA: The Sons Of Champlin/Walt Tolleson Orchestra
Bay Area Rock bands regularly played Debutante Balls in the 60s, usually on their way up the ladder. Just for comparison, here is a clip from Oakland Tribune society columnist Robin Orr, describing an event where the Sons Of Champlin alternated with a local big band. I think this event was a more typical debutante ball, while the Mattel sisters event at La Dolphine was grand even for the well-to-do.
Two members of the Sons Of Champlin, pianist Geoff Palmer and guitarist Terry Haggerty, were the sons of professional musicians. In fact, Terry's dad, Frank Haggerty, a fine jazz guitarist, even played some gigs with Al Trobe, so it's not impossible that he had played the La Dolphine show.
|Robin Orr's society column from the Oakland Tribune on September 5, 1966. A debutante dance was held at the Burlingame Country Club that featured both the Sons Of Champlin and The Walt Tolleson Orchestra|