By Suzanne Besser
In 1972 the Beacon Hill Civic Association, looking for a way to celebrate its 50th anniversary, opted to invite the entire community to a black tie ball. A dance committee was formed, arrangements made and tickets sold for what then was considered to be a one-time event.
But the Dance was so well-received by folks all over the Hill that the BHCA decided to sponsor it again. And again.
February 4 marks the 45th time the dance – sometimes called the Beacon Hill Gala and other times the Winter Dance – has brought hundreds of residents together for an elegant evening of dining, dancing and good fellowship.
The black tie social event, which has gone through many changes over the years, was originally based on a successful fundraiser model used in New York City. The heart of the event were the dinner parties, said Susan McWhinney-Morse who, as far as she can remember, has attended every dance except one (which she has regretted missing ever since). “Homeowners were flattered to be asked to give pre-dance dinners in their homes,” she said. “They covered the cost of the meal so that the income from ticket sales could be donated to support the BHCA.”
The dinner parties were elegant. A neighbor once said that soon after moving here in February, 1999, she took an evening walk, surreptitiously peeking through unshaded windows into neighborhood dining rooms. “What I saw were dining tables beautifully set with silver candelabras, lush flower centerpieces and fine crystal and china,” she said. “I thought, oh my gosh, is this the way Beacon Hillers eat every night? I was relieved to later learn that it was the night of the Winter Dance, and I had seen tables set by hosts readying pre-dance dinners. Phew!”
This strategy worked well for years except for one hitch that nagged the committee. “The dinner parties were so successful that guests, enjoying a comfortable evening of great food and wine in front of a cozy fireplace, never quite arrived at the dance,” said McWhinney-Morse. “So the committee tried to upend that by first offering dessert at the hotel as an enticement and later by hiring vans to pick up guests at each home and bring them to the dance. Neither way was entirely successful.”
Around the same time, it became harder to find volunteers willing to host in their homes. “It was expensive, hard work and people were busier,” said McWhinney-Morse, who for many years had hosted up to thirty people for a stand-up buffet in her home. From then on, those hosting dinner parties were given the option of doing so at the hotel in rooms separate from the ballroom or in their homes. This year all guests will dine together in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Boston hotel.
The gala was not always held in hotels. Armed with elaborate decorations, early committees transformed venues like a waterfront warehouse, city construction sites and the Armory itself into formal ballrooms, according to a former committee member Bobbi Moore, who is still known for her prowess on the dance floor with husband Jim McNeely. (“No, it is he who is the dancer, I just follow along,” she insists.)
Some years there have been themes and other years not. McWhinney-Morse remembers a Campbell Soup Ball with an Andy Warhol theme, a Toga party and a Red, White and Blue Ball. Moore remembers her late husband Roger Moore, long a BHCA leader, interviewing a belly dancer for one affair but (unfortunately for the rest of us) she wasn’t sure why.
In 1992, the affair was named Shall We Dance and printed invitations suggested that “40’s Era Costumes would be just swinging.” In 1997 a Diamond Jubilee Ball at the Ritz Carlton Hotel celebrated BHCA’s 75 birthday. In 1998 masks were optional along with black ties at an Evening in Venice: A Masquerade Ball. To celebrate BHCA’s 80th year in 2002, guests were invited to twirl back in time (period dress hoped for but not materialized).
In 2004 guests were invited to Dancing in the Streets at the old Ritz and to wear silk ties picturing all Beacon Hill streets. The ties, designed by former BHCA Chair Lori Geissenhainer Bates, were later worn at the Democratic National Convention by Secret Service agents protecting John Kerry during his presidential run. (Having befriended many neighbors, the agents were also invited to the gala but politely declined. Kerry, too.) The ties are still available for purchase at the BHCA office.
A mask making party was held prior to the 2003 Black and White Masked Ball, reminiscent of the Truman Capote’s much celebrated ball by the same name. Most Beacon Hill ladies arrived gowned in black, a few in white and one in red who, consequently, attracted the most attention much to the despair of the rest.
In 2008 the Jailhouse Rock was held at the newly opened Liberty Hotel, formerly the Charles Street Jail. The tables were decorated with toy handcuffs and other jail paraphernalia; one photo taken shows a lovely young woman dancing while handcuffed to one of Beacon Hill’s most infamous residents who somehow had tricked his way into the dance. Then known as Clark Rockefeller, he is now known as Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a not so nice guy who just happens to be spending a lot of time in handcuffs and not the toy kind either.
All Beacon Hillers are invited to carry on the 45-year tradition at the 2017 Gala, to be held at the Four Seasons Hotel on February 4. The festivities begin at 6:30 pm with a cocktail reception, followed by dinner at 7:30 pm and the After Hours with dancing and dessert at 9:00 pm. The nine-member Boston-based Kahootz Band will play hip, modern and classic music. Tickets for the dinner dance or After Hours are available now on www.bhcivic.org or by calling the Beacon Hill Civic Association at 617-227-1922.