An Evening with Michelle Obama, At the Wilshire Ebell Theatre

Remarks Offered by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip 54th and 59th President of the  Ebell of Los Angeles – An Evening with Michelle Obama, At the Wilshire Ebell Theatre -Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Good evening and a heartfelt welcome to the First Lady Michelle Obama, the Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, Senator Barbara Boxer and to all of you powerful women out there. Welcome to the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, once the main meeting room for 3,000 members of this 116-year-old Ebell Club of Los Angeles.  Your presence makes this theatre not just radiate, but rock.  Like a great dress, the Ebell becomes you.

We are all making history tonight. I’ve been asked to tell you a little about this fabulous institution which this evening celebrates fabulous women, present company included.

When you came through those doors, you stepped into a National Monument, an American treasure, The Ebell of Los Angeles, once the largest women’s club in the world: very much a place for today’s women.  Although she is a woman of a certain age, the Ebell has good bones and doesn’t need major “refreshment.”

There’s a lot of history here.  Queen Marie of Romania visited; her retinue fidgeted because she was breaking the law; she smoked illegally in our French Room.  Amelia Earhart made her last public speaking appearance here before she flew off into the ether. Judy Garland was discovered on this very stage. And under a hot light, Beyoncé’s undulations caused eyeballs to pop and sweat to run.

But it wasn’t always like this.  A hundred and sixteen years ago, Grover Cleveland was President,  Queen Victoria ruled England, Russia’s last Czar was Nicholas the Second, and the Ebell Club was born. It wasn’t an easy time for women: 26 years before Suffrage, bodies hobbled by long dresses and deformed by corsets.  But minds were open.

Two sisters, Emmy Lou and Alice Parsons, organized a group in their home to explore  the rapidly changing world.  This potent idea became the Ebell Club, a place for them to empower themselves, a place to throw off the chains, a place to take off the blinders, a place to think for themselves, to control their lives, to make life better, to get on bikes in their bloomers and zoom off into Shakespeare, psychology, law, Browning, citizenship.

They invited their friends.  They outgrew the house.  They rented a space. With their own money. They outgrew that.   They bought a space, with their own money.  They outgrew that.  They built a space. With their own money. The Los Angeles Times called it a modified Greek Temple. They got it right.  There were a lot of Athenas here; strong, brave, wise women who could do anything with their own money. Growth caused them to move four more times, all with their own money.

Finally, they outgrew a gorgeous structure on Seventh and Figueroa. With $500,000 of their own money they purchased what had been orange groves on an undeveloped dirt road, Wilshire Boulevard. Some vision, huh?

They hired one of the great architects of the day, Sumner Hunt, who just happened to have been married to a former Ebell President. There was a lot of pillow talk. The women got risers on their stairs that made them ascend and descend like queens. They got men’s hat containers under their auditorium seats.  They got a coffered ceiling, a grill work door, an enchanted garden, a woman’s statue in a fountain dedicated to peace, in honor of their husbands, brothers and sons lost in World War I. And they got this spectacular theatre with its soaring windows.

When this building opened in 1927, in the middle of Prohibition, and two years before the Stock Market Crash, there was “jazz dancing, fast cars, talk about Freud and the shortest dresses in history.” If there was gin, they didn’t document it. They retained the woman President who was their leader for two terms calling her the Building President.

They ignored the Crash. Didn’t talk about it. They moved forward. The Depression didn’t defeat them; it made them stronger. The Club grew.

They were remarkable women, those Ebell ladies.  Nothing stopped them.  Their determination bolted through their motto, “I will find a way…or make one.” They kept moving, establishing scholarship endowments, women’s aid endowments, assisting homeless, battered, abandoned women.

The Sixties discoed in. Everything changed. Some Club members embraced new opportunities outside these walls. Many left, a small number remained. The property was almost sold.

But, the spirit of those early founders joined with the spirit of the flower children and new doors opened.  There was too much that resembled greatness in this incredible space that they and their foremothers had carved out, with their own money.

They reevaluated what assets they had. They rented their facility for film shoots, weddings and political events. The Club experienced rebirth. The daughters and granddaughters of its founders understood, deep within their bones, that this good, shining, alabaster caravansary, slanted on a corner of Wilshire Boulevard could not be lost.

The Ebell women have always been leaders and ahead of their time. They made a decision to harvest the talents of All women, not just women like themselves. This Club became one of the most diversified in modern times.

Now we come to today.  Here we are, hosting a grand night for some grand women. We know where they came from.  We know how they got here.  We have tired feet and broken fingernails to prove it.

And so we not only welcome you tonight, we celebrate all the women who made it this far. Let the circle go unbroken. Keep on going.  The road may be hard. The hill may be steep. The light may be low, but at the end, at the end, there is TRIUMPH.

And all of you too, will find a way or make one.

Thank you especially, Mrs. Obama, for making history here by gracing the Wilshire Ebell and inspiring generations of women to come.

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