In the heart of Alabama lies a gem of Southern culture. For over half a century, the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra Guild Symphony Ball has captivated the community with its debutantes whose grace, beauty, and commitment to philanthropy and furthering musical education is deeply rooted in generations of tradition. This October, the esteemed society of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra Guild (HSOG) hosted its 60th debutante ball, which has evolved and adapted to the ever-changing times while maintaining its inherent charm and sophistication. Thirty-five college-age young ladies were honored. Each year, music, roses, belles, and ballgowns abound in what is the most spectacular social event of the year in Huntsville, a city steeped in tradition since the mid-nineteenth century and rocketed into international history in the 1950s.
It all began in 1964 when a group of visionary women in the Huntsville Civic Symphony Guild sponsored a gala dedicated to combining the social and cultural life of the community by introducing young women to Huntsville society while raising funds to purchase an acoustical shell for the Huntsville Civic Symphony (organized in 1954 and today known as the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra). Originally held on a Friday during Symphony Week in early October (so as not to interfere with Saturday college football), this keystone for the social structure of the community was patterned after English aristocratic society practices and included the secret selection of eligible young ladies by an anonymous, female, 9-member debutante board, independent of the Guild, and with the financial support of an advisory board of 7 men. Since the inception of the event, Guild members have had no participation in the selection of the girls to be presented. According to a 1964 Birmingham Post-Herald article, then Guild President Mrs. Milton E. Whitley (Jane) said, “the Guild is neither qualified, nor does it desire, to select the girls to be presented” and “for obvious reasons… the (debutante) board must remain completely anonymous.” The only Guild contact to the debutante board is through the Guild’s Presentation Chairman, who acts as liaison, and that title has exclusively been occupied by only 4 Guild members in the last six decades: Mrs. John H. Wallace III (Bess) 1964-1975, Mrs. Louis George Rambo (Martha) 1976-2002, Mrs. Peter Loftis Lowe (Betsy) 2003-2015, and Mrs. Carl John Gessler, Jr. (Sarah) 2016-present. Past Presentation Chairman Betsy Lowe, who maintained the position for 13 years, said, “it is a year-round job which originally included meeting with each debutante one-on-one, approving of each debutante dress, teaching them how to curtsy, and coordinating the formal presentation during the Ball.” The duties are so extensive, Mr. Randy Roper, whose family came to Huntsville in 1819, has served by the side of the last 3 of 4 Presentation Chairmen since he was age 24. As the Presentation Chairman’s right hand, Mr. Roper has no official title in that capacity, but he has simultaneously been an advisor more than 20 times.
The first Symphony Ball held Friday, October 9, in Dunnavant’s Mall, currently known as the Medical Mall at the corner of Memorial Parkway and Governors Drive. (Dunnavant’s Department Store was the anchor of the shopping center and the mall was the largest space available at the time.) Nine-hundred and seventy coveted invitations were mailed in early September, and nearly 1,000 Huntsvillians attended. The previous day, Huntsville native and current Huntsville Symphony Orchestra CEO Dan Halcomb remembered shopping with his mother and 7-year-old brother in Dunnavant’s after school and seeing the mall draped and tables covered and set. Mr. Halcomb said, “At the age of 13, I had no idea what a debutante was. Six years later, I was a Marshal at the Ball and have enjoyed attending as an escort, advisor, or benefactor ever since.” That Friday evening, twenty-two young women were presented. According to a 1964 Huntsville Times article, “a setting of elegance and formality was achieved with fountains banked with white mums featuring underwater lights” and “white chandeliers with white candles entwined with gold beads and crystal prisms” suspended from the ceiling. Two-thousand and four Symphony Ball Chair, Mrs. Raymond Leroy Livingston, Jr. (Sheryl), recalls from history passed down through Ball Chairs, that “area businesses such as Rutenberg’s, Richards Lighting, and Roper’s Flowers completely transformed the interior space. Tables were covered with white tablecloths sewn by Guild members (as there were no rental companies in Huntsville at the time) and white fabric swags donated by local cotton mills draped every wall and store front.” The Guild created a Versailles Garden scene including white wrought iron furniture, trees, palms, floral arrangements, and custom-made lyre centerpieces antiqued with gold. The lyre-embossed invitation-only event, costing $35 per couple, began promptly at 9:00 p.m. with no admittance after 9:45 p.m. The formal presentation of the debutantes, who wore white ball gowns, 16-button, kidskin, opera-length gloves, and carried bouquets of red roses while being escorted by their fathers, was announced by symphony conductor Russell Gerhart at 10:00 p.m. and was followed by a father and daughter dance, a debutante and escort dance, and a champagne breakfast at midnight. Attendees danced the night away to music performed by future “Big Band and Jazz Hall-of-Famer” Claude Thornhill, who at the time was also Tony Bennett’s musical director, until the evening’s end at 1:00 a.m. The musical theme was further carried throughout the event with the use of lyres which remain the symbol of the Ball; gold lyre charms are presented to each debutante to this day.
From the very beginning, the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra Guild Symphony Ball has been a celebrated local institution and continues to shine a spotlight on the advancement of music education and community enrichment. While the core components of the debutante season remain the same, including a steadfast commitment to community service by cleaning violins for the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra Third Grade Violin Program and preparing coloring book kits for pediatric patients at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children, it also has evolved to embrace the changing times with professionalism and leadership training. While these young women embody the refinement of a bygone era, their participation ensures the life of classical music in Huntsville, and their legacy as ambassadors of art and culture will continue to inspire generations yet to come. As the Symphony Ball continues to evolve, adapt, and inspire, each passing year these remarkable young women bring new energy and fresh perspectives to an age-old tradition, underscoring the enduring relevance of the arts in our society. In a world of constant change, the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra Guild debutantes offer a sense of continuity, reminding us of the immense power of music to transcend time and connect us all. Across the expanse of six decades, the HSOG has remained true to their mission: fostering a love of classical music and community service in the heart of Huntsville.