By Charlene Campbell | Edited by Andrea Bosco Stehle | Photographs from The Cinderella Ball Women’s Committee, by David Bachman, Ben Petchel
In nearly a century of white gowns and tradition, the Cinderella Ball stands as the oldest charity event in Pittsburgh and the second-oldest debutante ball to benefit a charity in the country. This year’s ball, held January 30, marks the 90th since the 1920s premiere. Within that time, roughly 2,500 young ladies have been presented in their senior year of high school or freshman year of college by their fathers or another family member.
Originally held at The University Club in Oakland, the event was named the Cinderella Ball in 1926 by Morris H. Slocum. The dance was to end at the stroke of midnight, and tiny evening slippers were given to the lady whose feet they fit. The lady with the smallest foot was then bestowed the title, “Cinderella.” These days, the gift of a slipper has been replaced with a silver bracelet from Tiffany & Co.
The ball was formed as a way to introduce the young eligible daughters of Pittsburgh’s finest families to society and available bachelors of a similar social ranking, while raising money for the St. Margaret’s Hospital Dispensary Board and the hospital projects the board supported. Since then, the ball has evolved to introduce the next generation of women to lead the city in volunteer and philanthropic pursuits, while donating their time and raising money for various Pittsburgh charities and nonprofits.
Over the years, the ball has seen many changes. In the beginning, the guests of honor, as the debutantes were once referred to, performed a choreographed floor show complete with costumes. At one point, the dance steps to these follies were taught by Pittsburgh’s own Gene Kelly, as his mother had a local dance studio. He was invited back during the ball’s 50th anniversary but had to decline as he was shooting a film in Europe.
The follies performance has long been replaced by The Grand March, which consists of fathers, clad in white tie and tails, escorting their daughters the length of the ballroom so that all guests and family in attendance have the chance to view the debutantes’ dresses and this special moment with their dads. They then dance a waltz, which they have practiced for months leading up to the evening.
Initially held during Thanksgiving weekend for over a decade, the ball was moved to Christmas break to accommodate the growing number of young women going off to college, who had very little time off at the Thanksgiving holiday to partake. The Christmas holiday tradition continued until recent years, as the debutantes currently presented are seniors in high school and are home at the end of January when the ball typically takes place.
While the main focus has always been the girls, the decorations are also beautiful. The ball would never be complete without the giant pumpkin coach. Originally led by six, jet black wooden horses with golden reins, the coach serves as a signature display and the backdrop for many family photos.
Today, instead of the large coach being used for picking Cinderella’s name, a smaller pumpkin waits at the end of the ballroom for fathers to deposit their daughter’s name during the grand march in the hope that Prince Charming draws her card and she becomes Cinderella. Thus far, the most famous Prince Charming to date was the late Senator H. John Heinz III in 1961.
When St. Margaret’s joined UPMC, the hospital decided to discontinue its affiliation with the ball. The Cinderella Ball Women’s Committee (CWC) was then formed, and each year, the ball rotates to support a different nonprofit where the debutantes volunteer throughout the summer and fall of the year prior. Since the CWC was formed, a scholarship has been awarded to the young lady that volunteers the largest number of hours for the beneficiary. Many of the girls find their experience with the Cinderella Ball to be so rewarding that they choose an educational or career path based on their volunteer locations. And, many return to serve on the committee for future generations.
The tradition continues at this year’s Cinderella Ball, held at the Omni William Penn Hotel. Benefiting the Senator Heinz History Center, the event is chaired by Heather Chronis and Charlene Campbell, a third-generation debutante.