Construction equipment hummed somewhere inside the airy dining room of what will soon be the Balboa Bay Club's members-only bar and grill, as Director of Club Operations Malcolm Smith led a small group past the restaurant Thursday evening.
"We're on the rebound right now," he said. "We've got a good buzz."
Behind him, club members and their families trickled onto the lawn and beach area overlooking Newport Bay, dressed in colorful luau garb and sipping tall mai tais to celebrate the local institution's 65th anniversary.
"We're so excited for this evening," said club Board of Governors member Catherine Thyen as she greeted party guests passing through a tiki-themed cut-out gateway. She said one of the things she most enjoys about the Balboa Bay Club is its sense of community.
"When you come, you always know lots of people," she said.
The evening was an emotional occasion for nearly lifelong member Jeff Rowerdink, who remembered playing checkers with John Wayne and being sneaked into the men's spa by his father, where he'd mingle with the likes of Dean Martin and Joey Bishop.
"My dad said, 'The best investment I ever made was buying that membership,'" Rowerdink said. Now that he lives on nearby Lido Isle, he said, "I'm here every day."
While longtime members gathered to look back on the days when the likes of Dean Martin and the Duke hung out in the beach hut, club and resort executives discussed ongoing renovations and plans for the future.
The Members Grill, which is set to open July 9, is one of several major projects designed to boost amenities for the club's approximately 4,500 members with about 1,700 memberships, which can be shared by family members and passed between generations.
Smith said that the renovations are the most extensive the club has seen since it was torn down and rebuilt with the Balboa Bay Resort about 13 years ago.
Before that, only the private club existed. In the past decade or so, Smith said, both the resort and the club have seen "peaks and valleys" in terms of business, though recently, club membership has been increasing. He estimated that the club represents "the lion's share" of the property's revenue.
About a year ago, a group led by Richard H. Pickup bought the 15-acre club and hotel. The group, said Kevin Martin, resort president and one of its owners, early on surveyed a focus group of members about changes they wanted to see.
In response, he said, millions of dollars have been spent on improvements, including new pool furniture, fitness equipment and a "state of the art" security access system.
"It's been fun," Martin said.