Cinderella Ball marks 90th year of celebrating service, family
It was a bone-cold Sunday afternoon in mid-January. But there was a heart-warming scene in the ballroom on the 17th floor of a Downtown hotel as 20 teenage girls clutched the hands of their fathers as they danced — every so often being stopped mid-step for a little more instruction.
Dads and daughters were rehearsing for the Cinderella Ball, which takes place Jan. 30 at the Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown. The annual event is the country's second-oldest debutante ball to benefit a charity, as well as the oldest continual charity gala in Pittsburgh.
While some cities no longer host such events because of lack of participation or funding, this one flourishes. Pittsburgh's debutante ball celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.
At the Cinderella Ball, young ladies are presented to society on the arms of their fathers in age-old cotillion style. She makes her curtsy, which is her formal entrance into society in front of 500 to 600 guests.
During the evening, a Cinderella is chosen when her name is randomly selected out of a decorated pumpkin by Prince Charming, whose identity is a secret until that evening.
The debutante process begins when the girls submit an application, and the committee decides based on several criteria, the first being past generations involved in past balls. A list is compiled, and around 20 girls are selected.
In 90 years, the event will have presented more than 2,500 debutantes.
Some Prince Charmings of the past include Thomas J. Hilliard, brother of Elsie Hilliard Hillman; Hillman's son, William Talbott Hillman; and Sen. H. John Heinz III.
At one time, Gene Kelly taught the waltz to the girls.
It is impressive to be able to continue such an event for nine decades, says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and co-author of the 18th edition of “Emily Post's Etiquette.”
“It also shows they have been able to modernize the event for the young girls,” Post says. “These balls are wonderful traditions. Some people may think of them as antiquated, but they are recognizing these women as transferring from a young adult into an adult and celebrating that in a formal way.”
Girls are required to wear white dresses and gloves— not cream or ivory — and they can have white and/or clear beading, but no trains. The gown can be strapless and they can wear a pearl or cross necklace and pearl or diamond earrings.
The dads or other presenting family members will be dressed in white tie and tails as they lead the women in the Grand March and a waltz.
The event, which originally took place at the University Club in Oakland, was named the Cinderella Ball in 1926 because the dance was to end at the stroke of midnight. The lady with the smallest foot was given tiny evening slippers and received the title Cinderella. These days, the gift of a slipper has been replaced with a silver bracelet from Tiffany & Co.
For 75 years, the ball was organized by and benefited St. Margaret's Hospital Dispensary Board.
A Cinderella save
In 2001, the Cinderella's Women's Committee, a nonprofit organization, was formed for the purpose of continuing the ball. This effort was spearheaded by four women: Jamie Wise Lanier, Elizabeth Townsend Winson Sweeney, Rebecca Parkinson Keevican and Catherine Hughes Baker. Since then, money raised by the ball has gone to several civic organizations, including Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.
Committee member Catherine Loevner, who has chaired the event twice, says the ball was saved by these four women.
“These four women created the Cinderella Ball committee because they believe in this event and want it to continue,” says Loevner, whose daughters and granddaughters have been presented. “I really feel honored to be part of the committee because of all the fine institutions we work with and the amazing families and the girls.
“These are exceptional young women,” Loevner says. “It's a family affair. It's a tradition that is steeped in many families. And it has history. People are thrilled to have their daughters associated with this event and the beneficiary and the importance of the ball to our city.”
The group is committed to keeping the event strong, and keeping the ball current, says Keevican, president for the past 15 years.
“We have such wonderful committee members and many of the girls have had grandmothers or mothers or aunts or cousins or sisters be presented before them so they want to continue that tradition,” Keevican says.
The committee established a fund in memory of long-time Dispensary Board member Ann Gordon Steele. The Ann Gordon Steele Founder's Circle provided the seed money for the new committee to continue to host the ball.
A national trademark
The Cinderella Ball, a nationally registered trademark, supports local civic and charitable organizations in a two-fold manner: financially and through the debutantes' volunteer efforts.
Debutantes are required to do a minimum of 30 hours of volunteering — this year at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. The committee awards a scholarship to the debutante who has contributed the most volunteer hours and has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to volunteer leadership.
Roseanne Wholey, mother of Lauren Wholey, who will be presented this year, says it's been an amazing process preparing for a night that teaches the girls the importance of volunteering and helping others.
“Volunteering is a big part of my life, and it's important to help others,” says Lauren Wholey, a senior at Shady Side Academy, whose sister was presented. “You just feel good. This entire Cinderella Ball experience has been wonderful.”
Two of her classmates are also enjoying the experience.
Deb Caroline Colville agrees. “It has a wonderful reputation with so many generations of families being presented in the past,” Colville says. “I am honored to be a part of it.”
Phoebe Thompson is carrying on a tradition that her grandmother and aunt started. Her dad was on the floor committee.
“My dad is thrilled to be doing this with me,” Thompson says. “We have been practicing our dancing. It's a true honor. The women's committee does a fabulous job.” Her love of history was an added bonus in being able to volunteer at the history center, she says.
There aren't many moments like this one, says Maeghan Parda, a senior at Sewickley Academy. She says it's special because of the time spent with her dad and it's a night for her mom, too, who is dealing with a health issue.
“I see what she goes through,” Parda says. “You never know what can happen, so we will have this evening together — all of us, because you just never know.”
Blending old and new
The Cinderella Ball continues because it blends old and new Pittsburgh, says Heather Chronis, who is chairing the event with Charlene Campbell, a former debutante.
“The committee respects the history, and we move forward each year. Pittsburgh is such an inclusive city. We try to make it a fun evening.”
The Cinderella Ball is open to everyone. No one is excluded, Chronis says, although the debutante fee is $3,000, of which $2,500 goes to the beneficiary. The committee takes the applications and looks at each one individually.
Campbell is a third-generation debutante and says it was an amazing evening to be a part of, which is why she continues to be involved.
It's an event that most definitely will live on, Chronis says.
“I foresee this ball continuing for years and years,” Chronis says. “It has such a solid foundation and it continues to evolve, while maintaining its history. It's a night for these girls and their dads and families and friends. It's all about celebrating these young women with the evening ending at midnight ... just like Cinderella and her Prince Charming ... they lived happily ever after.”
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7889 or firstname.lastname@example.org.