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With online social networking, book clubs and “girls’ night out,” women’s social clubs may seem like a thing of the past.
But on Wilshire Boulevard sits the 116-year-old Ebell Club of Los Angeles.
The still-vibrant women’s club offers eclectic programming while also keeping alive its traditions like education, lectures and community service.
Of course, a spread in The New York Times on Aug. 10 — which was then reprinted in dozens of publications around the world — didn’t hurt either.
“The response has been far and wide and wonderful,” said the president of the club, Shirlee Taylor Haizlip.
Haizlip is one of 15 board members of the historic women’s club, who are leading the charge to revitalize interest this year, especially among women under 40. She was the one who pitched the story idea to The Times.
“We’re competing in a time and place where there are so many options out there for women,” Haizlip said. “We have to make ours as attractive as possible.”
To help attract younger members, the Wilshire Ebell has added cooking, yoga, Pilates and meditation classes.
The club offers membership programming from October through June. On Oct. 4, an “express” luncheon will kick off the 2010-11 season and continue every Monday. “Eat, Play, Leave” is meant to bring busy women together to catch up and have lunch. The club will also bring back its daily coffee station, so women can drop in at the beginning of the day.
“There’s just nothing like face-to-face conversation,” she said.
Haizlip knows online social networking is one way that women can connect, but she wants the club to remain relevant through ongoing events. For a fee, non-members are also welcome to attend.
A classic revival
Located at 4400 Wilshire Blvd., the club is housed in an Italian renaissance revival building. Behind the ornate wrought iron gates, called the “members portal”, hides a large campus, with manicured gardens, colonnades, an art salon, formal dining rooms, a library and multiple rooms for member and non-member events.
The well-known 1,270-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre is rented out for plays and other productions. Rooms in the club are also used for civic clubs, educational events, script readings or rehearsals. Together, the club and the theatre make up about 77,000 square feet of space.
Since The New York Times article, Haizlip alone has received about 60 e-mails and letters from people who had a connection to the club, as well as inquiries about renting the theatre, which sits dark most weekdays. But the biggest coup for Haizlip is the number of women nationwide — about 150 — asking to join the club.
One woman sent Haizlip a copy of a book she wrote, called “The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard,” based on the life of her grandmother, who was an Ebell member.
While the club was established in 1894, renowned architect Sumner Hunt built the current buildings for the Ebell Club in 1927. It was the seventh building to house the club, which grew in membership through the 40s. At one point, the LA club had as many as 3,000 members.
In the late 1950s, as women began working, membership dropped, and has been on the decline ever since. Today, there are only 450 members.
Haizlip said by the end of her term as president in 2012, she would like the club to boast 2,000 members — it’s an ambitious goal, she admits.
The Ebell is named after Dr. Adrian Ebell, a 19th century German professor who wanted to promote women’s education at a time when few colleges were open to women. He opened the first chapter in Oakland in 1876.
This week, Haizlip received a call from the president of that club. She said that membership has plummeted to about 20 women, and they will have to close their doors.
The president wanted to see if the LA chapter would like “a great deal” of fine blue and white china, depicting the original Oakland Ebell Club. It would be quite an addition, Haizlip said.
“It’s a little sad, but it’s also a reaffirmation of what it takes to survive,” Haizlip said, adding that the china will be used for special occasions and will be displayed prominently, in honor of California’s first Ebell Club.
Membership dues are not enough
Membership dues alone are not enough to pay for the $2 million in operating and staffing costs. Additional money is needed for restoration and repair efforts. The vast collection of artwork as well as the plumbing system and wiring needs attention, as does the outside of the building, and the salon-style rooms need a fresh coat of paint, Haizlip said.
The Los Angeles Ebell receives most of the money it needs through renting the club’s rooms and halls for weddings, events and for filming movies and television shows.
“That’s what keeps our doors open,” Haizlip said.
Movies like “Wedding Crashers” and “Forrest Gump” were filmed in parts of the club. HBO’s “True Blood” and “Six Feet Under” also shot scenes here. Tom Cruise was there in March, and created quite a stir, Haizlip said. Beyonce rented out the theater for a music video.
She said if the club had its goal of 2,000 members, the club wouldn’t have to rely on renting out their facilities as much and could be open just for members.
On Monday, she opened a large suede-covered Ebell yearbook from 1916 that depicts each member with a large silver print. She cherishes the book, and says all members can feel they are stewards of Ebell’s rich traditions.
“The club brings a sense of community, above and beyond what women do in their everyday lives,” Haizlip said.
Re-energizing the club’s programming and looking at alternative ways of generating income is this year’s mission, she said.
The club is renting the theatre for only $1,500 on Monday nights. Normally the cost runs about $4,000, Haizlip said. They have already had two inquiries.
Club leaders are also thinking about opening a mid-week farmers market in the parking lot.
Haizlip is organizing a speaking event with the nation’s first female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, appointed under President Bill Clinton. Albright and Haizlip lived in the same dormitory freshman year at Wellesley College, where they both graduated in 1959.
Haizlip came of age at the start of the women’s rights movement, but before that, choices were limited to becoming a teacher, a nurse or a mother, she said.
As times have changed, so have the requirements to become an Ebell Club member. Haizlip said anyone may apply. The application on the Ebell web site includes a section where up to three members have to sign for the candidate, but it is no longer necessary to fill that out. The application costs $45 to process.
Names of those interested in becoming members are posted on a board, and the following month, the directors vote to accept new members. Annual dues are $220.
Haizlip, 72, a published author who moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast, joined the club in 1995 after she “fell in love with the building.” This is Haizlip’s second time being president. In 2000, she was appointed as the first African American president of the club.
“I came here without knowing a soul. Since then, I’ve made 30 BFF’s,” she said.
For more information, call (323) 931-1277 or go to www.ebellla.com
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