[Author's note: this post is an excerpt from The Gentlemen of Gloucester, a book available here on Amazon.]
Generations ago, the First City Troop was known for its lavish debutante balls.
According to Honorary Trooper Charlie Barclay, before the Second World War, individual families would host these events each year, but that custom died off when the Great Depression destroyed many Philadelphia fortunes.
In 1966, the debutante tradition returned when eleven baby girls were born to a number of Troopers all in the same year. Excited about having so many daughters at once, the parents pooled their resources for a Troop Daughters Ball that would occur in 1984 when the girls would all reach age eighteen.
To finance this future event, each family agreed to chip in $500 to $800 annually so that by 1984 they would have around $99,000 with which to play. Their plan worked great. That is, until some overly flamboyant Troopers invested in get-rich-quick AT&T warrants which soon tanked and wiped out the entire debutante fund.
Cooler heads were clearly required.
These were supplied when Nell Grim, a Wellesley-and Harvard-educated self-taught manager of her own private portfolio, stepped in with other Troop wives and recommend a selection of boring but safe investment vehicles that ultimately recouped the Troopers' losses and rescued the future ball from doom.
According to Larry Grim, “by 1984 we had all the money we needed and more. For the ball we overbought in almost every way, so ‘liquid dividends’ were declared of liquor, wine, and other stuff for the partners.” But, it was a near run thing. For years Nell had to stave off flamboyant investment suggestions from swashbuckling Troopers, like that idea of buying cases of expensive wine to store in caves, or the one about buying risky shares in Klouff Gold Mining Company, whose motto was “Through the Roof with Klouff!”
During the years leading up to the ball, the parents fostered esprit de corps among their girls by holding frequent parties at locations spanning the greater Philadelphia area. Each of these had its own whimsical theme. There was a Gong Show theme, a 1970s skateboarding theme, a rock concert theme, etc. On one occasion they toured pastoral Bucks County in a London-styled double-decker bus.
From a sociological perspective, planning for the Troop Daughters Ball occurred at a propitious time for such events in American history.
The country changed dramatically during the eighteen years between when the idea was hatched in 1966 and when it came to fruition in 1984. When the girls were born in 1966, the anti-establishment counterculture about to sweep the United States had yet to make its presence felt, and by the time they turned eighteen in 1984, the spirit of the 1960s and 70s had already run its course.
The ball took place just as the Reagan era rode a national wave of nostalgia.
On ball night, December 29, 1984, 1,400 people streamed into the Armory after dining at private clubs and restaurants around town. The event began at 11 p.m. and lasted until dawn, with a pause for breakfast at 3 a.m.
Clauss whistled at the controversy that swirled around such a late starting time, saying, “When the secondary-school-aged invitees sought their parent’s approval to attend the ball, scores of parents flipped out when they saw the event’s start time. One of them said, ‘What the hell kind of party for kids is this that starts at 11 p.m.!?’” Despite the late start time, however, the ball was intended to be a full family event for ages ranging from children to grandparents.
The ’84 ball was a major hit. It not only reestablished the debutante tradition within the Troop, it coincided (and may have even sparked) a wave of such events further afield, receiving coverage in Town & Country and Esquire magazines. In addition to one-night festivities, the ball fulfilled its mating purposes. Peter Clauss said, “Lots of romances came out of it, and quite a few marriages.”