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Prestigious Balboa Bay Club, ‘the Host of the Coast,’ shifts focus to keep members

The Balboa Bay Club 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.

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 past 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.”

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