The Host of the Coast
A longtime pillar of the coastal community, Balboa Bay Club widens its vision for the future.
Like a number of old stories at the Balboa Bay Club, the history of Scandinavian Night begins at the bar. This was 45 years ago. Rita Sprinkel and a few Norwegian friends were laughing and belting out childhood songs in the club’s already raucous tavern. “Someone said, ‘You guys have so much fun,’” Sprinkel recalls, “‘you should put on a dinner.’” So Sprinkel enlisted the help of some other members, donned her traditional Norwegian bunad dress and rolled hundreds of meatballs for the Scandinavian dinner.
It was the way things happened at Newport Beach’s iconic and exclusive private club: with a comforting sense of camaraderie. You could walk into the bar alone, she said, but you wouldn’t stay that way. “Everybody knew everybody,” she says.
Sprinkel, whose husband, Reed, is a former construction company executive, recalled those days as she carried out her hostess duties at this year’s Scandinavian dinner, now a decades-old event. A keyboardist played a waltz in the ballroom as the mostly senior crowd lingered near the banquet table displaying knekkebrod, gravlax, Icelandic herring and meatballs.
A cherished tradition for many longtime members, the event seems a relic from another world at today’s changing Balboa Bay Club, where teenagers hang out in new computer and game rooms, moms do Pilates or get spray tans, and families pack an activity room to watch “Minions” on movie night. Instead of a dimly lit bar specializing in strong martinis, there’s a modish gastropub offering bacon-wrapped dates and beer floats.
Long a prestigious town center of sorts for powerbrokers and elite, the nearly 70-year-old BBC once attracted old Hollywood: Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall. John Wayne, a beloved club governor. Parties could last all night, but the BBC looked presidential by morning: As befitting its longtime nickname, “Host of the Coast,” the club has been visited by every U.S. president since Harry Truman.
But the BBC has spent recent years adjusting to a new reality for private clubs: Appeal to a younger generation of professionals and their families or risk irrelevance. It wasn’t just an academic aspiration: as late as 2012, the club was losing around 200 members a year.
After members of the Pickup family in 2012 purchased the club, the 160-room Balboa Resort next door and sister property Newport Beach Country Club, they embarked on a $54 million capital improvement plan that included a makeover of the facilities and the addition of amenities and events aimed at attracting younger members. The bet appears to be paying off: Two years ago, the club managed to stem the loss and start growing its numbers again, said general manager Malcolm Smith.
Many members say the Pickups have revived the look and feel of the club. “The place is totally transformed, like brand spanking new,” said 25-year member John Wortmann, a private investor who serves as chairman of the club’s board of governors. “We’re trying to be more inclusive, have a mix of people with different interests.”
“The new owners want it to be a place for young families,” said Bruce Cook, a longtime member and publisher of Bay Window, the club’s magazine since its founding. “They love the tradition, but they’re not clinging to it.”
Controversy over the new direction of the club mostly played out in the first year of the Pickups’ purchase, club leaders said. But the project remains a delicate balancing act. After all, what the club has gained over the last decade or so – most notably, the high-end public resort that opened in 2003 – has also marked a loss of sorts, a diminished exclusivity, for longtime members. Sprinkel, for instance, says the club hasn’t felt quite the same to her since the resort opened. Though the club was much bigger in earlier decades – membership peaked at 4,000 and stands at about 1,800 now – it felt tinier to her. “I miss the old club,” she said. “It was much more intimate.”
Smith said that tension between old and new plays out in a number of small, though not unimportant, ways. His somewhat comical example: the fate of the club’s famous Power Burger. A few years ago, the chef began tinkering with the time-honored Thousand Island sauce and the sesame seed buns. Longtime members balked, though Smith said no one agreed what exactly made the Power Burger a Power Burger. “Everyone has a different recollection,” he says. The club is still working on a new version of the old favorite.
More generally, he said, “It’s a never-ending discussion. What traditions do we uphold, and what new traditions do we start?”
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Balboa began as social beach club just after World War II. Its exquisite location on the water led to a secondary, but nonetheless defining, identity. “It grew into a yacht marina,” said Cook.
The BBC lacked the history of Newport Harbor Yacht Club and Balboa Island Yacht Club, both of which were decades older. But the BBC saw itself not as a traditional yacht club but as a social club – with a big-enough marina to accommodate very large yachts. “People came here because they wanted the social life,” Cook said. “The marina was a parking lot.”
An additional appeal to many was its casual feel; the BBC seemed the opposite of stuffy city clubs. That fun, low-key vibe was there from the start. One of its early owners, Texas wildcatter-turned-Hollywood producer Jack Wrather, told The Orange County Register in 1978 that he had grown to miss those earliest years.
“When I first joined it in 1948, it was just a little hot dog stand with some slips,” said Wrather, who produced “The Lone Ranger” and “Lassie.” “But it just grew and grew like everything else in Orange County.”
Even if the place grew far fancier, a casual elegance remained in the club DNA. Members routinely disembark from sleek yachts or shiny Rolls-Royces wearing flip-flops.
A place where the wealthy and famous could kick back was bound to appeal to local rising stars too. The BBC quickly became a must-join for many business and civic leaders in the city. People often remember it as an “old boys’ club,” a phrase of both gentle rebuke and affection.
Kirk Dawson chuckled when he used the term to describe what the club felt like for many years. He had been the No. 1 salesman in the nation for Rolls-Royce when he moved west in 1975. The BBC seemed like the sort of prestigious place he should join, and he figured he might be able to drum up a little business while having a good time there. He was right on all counts. Now the leasing manager at Fletcher Jones, Dawson still works the rooms over at the club. “A lot of members are my customers. It makes it fun for me,” he said. “Every three years, they’re ready to roll over into another car.”
Dawson is also a member of a fraternity known as the Six O’clockers, who gather weekday mornings in the steam room to shoot the breeze, play cards, solve world problems. (The 6 a.m. part is a suggestion; Dawson gets in around 7 a.m.) “Everyone there has done something different from the other guys there,” he said. Dawson said he tells the young steam room attendants: “Listen, because this is the best education you’ll have.”
In many respects, people still join for similar reasons as Dawson did. Given the high price of admission – single-member initiation fees run around $12,000 – the timing tends to coincide with professional success. Real estate agent Brian Liberto, 42, had worked his way up to selling multimillion-dollar Newport Beach homes with Sotheby’s when he joined BBC a few years ago. Networking was a big draw.“I get great mentorship from the older gentlemen,” he said.
But he also joined for other reasons. He goes to the club five days a week: to work out, swim, have lunch at the members-only grill or play a standing Saturday morning basketball game. “My friends are here,” he said. “I take a girl on a date here. I take my parents here.”
When he’s trying to sell a family on a Newport Beach home, he doesn’t bring up the BBC’s prestige or its networking benefits. Joining the club is about convenience. If a house doesn’t have a swimming pool, for instance, he tells prospective buyers they could just join the BBC, he says, and never worry about upkeep.
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The Pickup family has spent the past few years navigating members’ nostalgia for the old club and their practical expectations of the new one. They had not been members of the club – they are golfers and car aficionados, not yachtsmen – but had long understood the BBC’s history. Richard Pickup, who grew up in Whittier, made his fortune as a securities trader. He and his son, Todd, got into hotel and resort investments as a side project. They hadn’t considered owning one outright until news emerged that a Chinese investor was trying to buy the BBC and Newport Country Club from longtime owner Beverly Ray.
“Here’s a Newport Beach landmark, an institution, being sold to a Chinese individual?” said Todd, 46, who serves as CEO of the club and resort’s parent company, International Bay Clubs. “It kind of felt like the soul of Newport was going to be in the hands of a foreigner.”
The Chinese investor’s plan fell through, and the Pickups stepped in. Richard Pickup’s son-in-law, Kevin Martin, serves as company president. Richard Pickup said the family is looking long term. “We have other ways of making money,” he said. “We’re not paying ourselves big dividends. Everything we’ve made we’ve put back into the company.”
Todd Pickup has two sons, 15 and 11. He said he saw a sign of the future recently: a youth baseball team, sponsored by the BBC: “There were all these little kids, running around in Balboa Bay jerseys. It was really neat. At any club, you have to have that kind of family dynamic.”