A Holiday Tradition 9

Women of Chapman’s “Christmas at The Ritz” celebrates 30 years.

The Beginning

The Fashionables, a support group for Chapman College (later Chapman University) was 15 years old in 1986 when President Mary Lou Hopkins Hornsby asked founding member Dori de Kruif to create a fundraiser to support the college. Up until that time, the group’s dues provided scholarships for Chapman students, but there was no other fundraising.

“I thought of doing a benefit at The Ritz Restaurant because it was my husband Jack’s and my favorite restaurant,” Dori says. “We were there all the time, and we knew the owners Hans and Charlene Prager.“

Soon, Dori mentioned it to Hans, and a meeting was set up with Mary Lou to talk to the Pragers about the possibility of a fundraiser at the restaurant.

Charlene remembers it well.

“Hans suggested a brunch or a luncheon because the restaurant wasn’t open before dinner on Saturday. He said he would make it fabulous.”

Hans chose the first Saturday in December for the holiday luncheon, and the first “Christmas at The Ritz” (named by Dori) was held December 6, 1986.

With Dori as founding chair, she asked her committee to bring their husbands and significant others to the event.

“The month was already busy with black-tie Saturday night holiday events and fundraisers, so we wanted the event to be more casual and less formal. That way the men would want to attend.”

The good news for the committee was that the restaurant was already decorated for the holidays, so they didn’t have to worry about the cost of décor.

“Hans picked the menu,” Dori says.

As it turned out, the sugar snap pea soup, cold poached Norwegian salmon with cucumber vinaigrette, and raspberry crème brulee with chocolate truffles was a hit.

“I asked Kittie Leslie of Fashion Island about doing an informal fashion presentation, including Neiman Marcus, and she agreed,” Dori says.

Charlene relays that Hans, who passed on in 2004, loved it that the ladies wanted to come to The Ritz and celebrate, and he pulled out all the stops.

“He got all his wine purveyors to donate wines for the event, and we generously offered an open bar,” Charlene says. “Hans’ philosophy was, ‘The more you give, the more you get back.’”

“We had no idea how successful it would be,” Dori remembers. “We were happy to fill the Escoffier Room with a modest overflow the first few years, which was around 125 people. And, the men loved it. It wasn’t just a ladies’ luncheon.”

According to Dori, the inaugural event honored Hans and James Roosevelt as the luncheon’s honorary chairs. James, the eldest son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a Chapman trustee, professor and ran its Enterprise Institute.

Mary Roosevelt, James’ widow, says of his involvement.

“James supported Chapman because he believed strongly there should be a private college as well as a public university in the county,” Mary says.

The Mary and James Roosevelt Hall was named in their honor as a result.

Mary remembers being seated with Dori and Jack de Kruif, Shirlee and Bob Guggenhiem, and Pat and Dick Allen at the inaugural benefit.

“It was a beautiful occasion,” Mary recalls. “It was a chance for a lot of us who knew each other to get together to celebrate the holidays and raise money for a good cause.”

Dori says the red invitation with its embossed gold wreath with “Christmas at The Ritz” in the center has never changed. She also relates that there were a few raffle prizes the first year, and, within a few years, Dickens carolers and a jolly Santa were added to the festivities.

She also relates that the Women of Chapman members were happy that the benefit was at a Newport Beach restaurant because many of them lived in the city.

“It was also successful because it was at The Ritz, and because everything that Hans and Charlene did was perfection,” Dori says. “That first year we netted $10,000 for Chapman’s All-Faiths Chapel.”

Continuing the Tradition

“Christmas at The Ritz” grew over the years to be a sold-out affair with 375 guests. Even after Hans and Charlene sold the restaurant in 2002, Managing Partner Ray Jacobi continued the generosity the Pragers had offered. When the event reached its 20th anniversary in 2006, Charlene, appropriately, chaired it, and in 2014, when The Ritz Restaurant & Garden, as it became known, was permanently closed due to The Irvine Company’s refusal to renew its lease, the fundraiser continued a few blocks away at the Island Hotel.

Through the years, the menu was updated by the Pragers to include the wild mushroom “cappuccino” soup, braised short ribs, and warm pear cheesecake in phyllo with caramel sauce. And, in the last six years, the famous Ritz Egg has been added as the first course, to the delight of many. The raffle has grown to a 20–item opportunity prize drawing with stellar prizes, and, in the last few years, a tempting live auction has been added. Santa Claus continues to greet everyone, with photo ops for all, while the music by costumed Dickens carolers wafts throughout the party. Net proceeds vary between $200,000 and $250,000 and are currently pledged to Musco Center for the Arts, Dodge College of Film and Media Arts and the university’s new Center for Science and Technology. All told, more than $7 million has been given to Chapman through the “Christmas at The Ritz” fundraisers.

The Present

This year’s 30th anniversary of the popular holiday soiree is being held on Saturday, December 10th, one week later than usual. With so many fundraisers the first weekend in December, it seemed a better choice. Wildflower Linen will be showcasing its sumptuous linens on the guest tables, and the sweet smell of pine will greet guests as live trees surround the ballroom and garland the tables. Nutcrackers, always a “Christmas at The Ritz” theme, will continue to be a part of the holiday décor. The informal fashion and jewelry presentation will be presented by South Coast Plaza’s luxury department store, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Graff Diamonds.

The special underwriters this year include Julia and George Argyros as Thirtieth Anniversary Patrons (they attended the first one); Janet Curci, Ruth Ann Segerstrom Moriarty, Marybelle & S. Paul Musco and Deedee & Don Sodaro as Grand Patrons; and Kim Smith/Smith-Walker Foundation as Honorary Chair.

The past chairs will be honored, and they include (excluding those who have passed on): Dori de Kruif (who chaired the 1st, 5th and 10th benefits), Sandy Chiles, Catherine Thyen, Nora Jorgensen Johnson, Mary Dell Barkouras, Martha Green, Leslie Cancellieri, Joan Riach-Gayner, Sandi Jackson, Marci Hollander, Adrienne Brandes, Kathy Hamilton, Barbara Eidson, Donna Bianchi, Anne Manassero, Kim Smith, Karly Brown, Charlene Prager, and yours truly.

Dori sums it up:

“I remember it like it was yesterday. It was so much fun. It will be forever special because it’s the start of the season!”