A Fundraising Tradition Whose Roots Run Deep
The history of the Bal de Paris begins, as any good Bay Area yarn must, with the price of real estate. To be specific: $110,000.
That was how much it cost to rebuild le Eglise Notre Dame des Victoires following the 1906 Earthquake and Great Fire, which had devastated the French community. Homes were flattened and businesses lost. It took nearly a decade to re-establish the historic landmark church, which had, since its founding in 1856, provided a civic and spiritual heartbeat for French immigrants and their children.
After the new church was completed, between 1913-1915, the Rev. Lous Le Bihan, S.M., the presiding Marist pastor and driving force at NDV for 30 years between 1927-1957, turned his attention to the need for a school and purchased three prime lots located along Pine Street for $40,000. The Archbishop of San Francisco guaranteed a loan of $340,000, at that time a quite sizable sum, that would take many decades to pay off after l’Ecole Notre Dame des Victoires opened its doors in January 14th, 1924.
In this mounting debt were the seeds of what would ultimately, in 1950, come to be known as the “Bal de Paris.” The church’s new school opened in the depths of the Depression and it would require both commitment and vision to lay the foundation of what today, nearly 100 years after NDV quite literally rose from the ashes of the 1906 Earthquake, is a thriving academic, religious and civic community woven deeply into the fabric of downtown San Francisco.
It All Started With Mardi Gras Dinner…
Father Etienne L. Siffert, S.M., who has been an informal historian for both the church and school, recalled that the community has always been enterprising, and the evolution of the Bal de Paris is evidence of that fact. “It all started in the early years before 1950 with a Mardi Gras dinner, along with a bazaar and games in the church hall, which was very popular,” he said.
This early fundraiser, which included a dance in the school gym, a bazaar in the church hall and myriad lunches and dinners, raised precious dollars to support overflowing classrooms, Father Siffert said, “but it was not enough.”
“The classrooms were full, sometimes with as many as 50 children in a class, but tuition was only five dollars a month! And some people thought it was too much!”
A Formal Affair
It was time for something more ambitious to fund the fledgling school: Le Bal de Paris. The first formal black-tie fundraiser took place in November 1950 at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, where it remained for much of the next decade. “It was a very elegant and formal affair in those days, and in recent years we have come back to that tradition, which is very nice,” said Mrs. Gloria Boyle, chair of the Bal in 1956 and, along with her daughter and granddaughter, a graduate of NDV.
“Just as it is now, it was a special thing for the community. We had two orchestras and back then we had reception lines, and it was a wonderful feeling, being known and recognized by name. It was a welcoming thing that was very meaningful and quite sophisticated,” said Mrs. Boyle, who has for many years sponsored a table of 10. “I suppose one of the most memorable periods was when a group of mothers at the school decided to get together and take dance lessons and perform at the Bal.” Mrs. Boyle recollected of a featured entertainment that started in 1961 and lasted several years. “They were so professional and so good that people kept saying, “How can it be that they’re just a group of mothers from the school? They did quite a job with that.”
With the exception of 1963, when sponsors varied the formula and decided to revert to the three-day Mardi Gras celebration format, the Bal de Paris has been held continuously at various hotels all over the city. Many have been located at venerable haunts such as the Fairmont (where the Bal was most often held in its early years) to the Sheraton Palace, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Hotel Meridien and the Hyatt on Union Square. Themes have varied over the years, reflecting the style and ethos of the era. Some of the more memorable events have included high-spirited, high-kicking Can-Can dancers and elaborate displays of decorations inspired by the likes of artists such as the celebrated post-Impressionist chronicler of Parisian nightlife, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. At one point in the early decades, the Francisco School of Ballet participated, providing costumes for display as decorations and a live performance in the midst of the Bal.
Moving out of the Big Band Era and into the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Bal reflected changing times. In 1970, the event had its first male co-chair, Jean Belleau, while 1984, 1990 and 2011 saw the only husband-wife teams ever to take the helm (M & Mme Gregory Hogg, M & Mme Michael Trusdell, 2011 M & Mme Helmut Schmidt respectively.)
“It was a very special event,” remember Yvonne Sangiacomo, who chaired two Bals in the 1970’s. “I used to be in charge of hiring the bands. My father (the great nightclub impresario Agostino “Bimbo” Giuntoli) was in that business so I loved doing that. At one point we were trying so hard to get this one group. They were known as the DeCastro Sisters. They were quite prominent in those days and played Las Vegas and New York and the Bal wanted them so bad. And I tried and tried.”
Tried and succeeded, but not without some ingenuity. Mrs. Sangiacomo, whose seven children all attended NDV, took it upon herself to go down to her dad’s club, Bimbo’s 365 Club, negotiate with the local musician’s union and then persuade the singers to hop in a taxi and race up to perform at the Bal de Paris between acts down at the club.
“Afterwards we put them back in a taxi and brought them back to Bimbo’s,” said Mrs. Sangiacomo. “That was fun! We were creative, and had a good time – because we had a good cause to work for.” Perhaps one of the edgier Bal themes was prompted in 1972 by the release of the new film “Cabaret,” whose memorable master of ceremonies role (made famous by Joel Gray) was reenacted in a live performance of “Money Makes the World Go-Round” by Dr. Alan Giannini, a well-regarded San Francisco allergist.
“Every year is different, but always everyone has a wonderful time,” said Father Siffert. “There are so many memories over time, through the years.”
The Bal’s history has evolved and been imprinted with the talents and commitment of each year’s chairmanship, along with the influence and support of committee members. But what is perennial as the Bal itself is the ongoing spirit and legacy built upon year after year, a reflection of the vital community and city in which le Eglise and le Ecole Notre Dame des Victoires were first established.
It was perhaps best said by Father Siffert, an integral part of the monumental annual effort since his arrival at NDV in 1975:
“It brings the whole school and church community together in a way that reflects our uniqueness. There is a mix of cultures, families, businesses and all with one thing in common: A desire to support the long-standing pillar that Notre Dame des Victoires has been for so many people. By working together we understand one another. With the Bal de Paris, young blood from the parents and school community is joined with our storied traditions from the past. It is very special.”
Bal de Paris Chairs
With gratitude, we thank the following Bal de Paris chairs and the countless volunteers, parishioners and NDV families who contributed to making this annual event so fun and memorable.
- 1950 Mme Harry C. Davis
- 1951 Mme Harry Somerfield
- 1952 Mme Rene Grialou, Mme Nicholas F. Cebalo
- 1953 Mme Andre Pechoultres
- 1954 Mme Frederick Hall, Mme Vasco K. Vannelli
- 1955 Mme Ralph Kircher, Mme Joseph A. Guiffre, Mme John Hurley
- 1956 Mme Peter Bercut, Mme Philip Boyle, Mme Robert Girerd
- 1957 Mme Thomas Murphy
- 1958 Mme Alfred Arnaud, Mme Jack Seltenrich
- 1959 Mme Martin Del Bonta
- 1960 Mme Bern Rocci-Gutbert, Mme Glenn Ghiselli
- 1961 Mme Fernard Casabonne, Mme Paul Marty
- 1962 Mme Arthur Press
- 1963 Mme James Silvestri
- 1964 Mme Harry Marchand
- 1965 Mme Keith Norgard
- 1966 Mme George L. Higgins, Mme Irene Leutza
- 1967 Mme Albert Aubert
- 1968 Mme N. Michael Kavanaugh, Mme George Tournahu
- 1969 Mme Gerald Cook, Mme Helene Duport
- 1970 M Jean Belleau, Mme John Jordan
- 1971 Mme Albert Aubert, Judge Ollie Marie-Victoire, Mme Yvonne Sangiacomo
- 1972 Mme Bernard Baylocq, Mme Robert Mohun, Mme George Moscone
- 1973 Mme Jack Louhoo, Mme Eugenia Murphy, Mme Dominic Tarantino
- 1974 Mme Martin Eyerachar, Mme Arthur Martini, Mme Russell F. Stechsculte
- 1975 Mme Denise Baylocq, Mme Judy Doyle
- 1976 Mme Wilna Bordachar, Mme Yvonne Sangiacomo
- 1977 Mme Peter Corroo, Mme Joan Rubia
- 1978 Mme Mary Lou Giannini, Mme John O’Brien, Mme Alfred Sassus Jr.
- 1979 Mme Claire Casabonne, Mme Joseph Polizzi
- 1980 Mme Robert Andrini, Mme Richard Fiore
- 1981 Rev Pere Leonard Ferringo
- 1982 Mme Joanne Rubia
- 1983 Mme Marguerite Falango, Mme Michael Stewart
- 1984 M & Mme Gregory Hogg
- 1985 Mme Anne Metais, Mme Eugene Udovich
- 1986 Mme John Christen, Mme Robert Dondero
- 1987 Mme Philip O’Keefe, Mme Helmut Schmidt
- 1988 Mme Edward Perry, Mme Benjamin Yee
- 1989 Mme Marilyn Terry
- 1990 M & Mme Michael Trusdell
- 1991 Mme Timothy Doyle, Mme Elizabeth O’Keefe
- 1992 Mme Robert Martel, Mme Keith Rutz, Mme Gregory Ryken
- 1993 Mme Frederic Campagnoli, Mme William Diefenbach, Mme Philip Telesco
- 1994 Mme David Bardelli, Mme Howard Meehan
- 1995 Mme Maria Creasey, Mme Maripaz Lee, Mme Jacqueline Martin
- 1996 Mme Patricia Chan, Mme Macy Lam, Mme Maureen Revel
- 1997 Mme Maureen McGinley, Mme Alena Kucera
- 1998 Mme Beth Cucco, Mme Janet Nedeau, Mme Renee Vignoles
- 1999 Mme Rose Heller, Mme Patty Jayo, Mme Nicole Sorhondo
- 2000 Mme Renee Max, Mme Lana Panfilova
- 2001 Mme Monica Oggero, Mme Renee Vignoles
- 2002 Mme Linda Decker, Mme Jackie Forman, Mme Kathy Ghanayem, M Cyrian Tabuena
- 2003 Mme Mary Falzon, Mme Susan Penney, Mme Lucy Ribeiro, Mme Renee Vignoles
- 2004 Mme Jeanine Alexander
- 2005 Mme Orla Fahy, Mme Susan Penney
- 2006 Mme Amy Kelly, Mme Kathleen Flores
- 2007 Mme Michelle Galvin
- 2008 Mme Alona Sandoval-Grenacher, M Tim Sheridon
- 2009 Mme Virginia Plant
- 2010 Mme Erica Plam
- 2011 M & Mme Helmut Schmidt
- 2012 Mme Laurie Sharp
- 2013 Mme Laura Holliday, Mme Shawn Hunnicutt
- 2014 Mme Melanie Johnke, Mme Maureen Kelly
- 2015 Mme Erin Tougher, Mme Michele Brasch
- 2016 Mme Jill Bourque
- 2017 Mme Mia Green, Mme Mila C. Meniktas
- 2018 Mme Jill Bourque, Mme Kattya Breitenbach, Mssr Patrick Breitenbach