For 50 years, Maxine Mahon was San Diego’s doyenne of dance as the founder and director of California Ballet Co., which despite its closure in 2020 still holds the record as the oldest professional ballet company in San Diego history.
Maxine Kay Mahon Krause, who retired in 2018, passed away at her home in Tierrasanta on Sunday at the age of 82.
Friends and colleagues have referred to her as a “San Diego icon” and her decades of distinguished leadership earned her lifetime achievement award in 2002 from the San Diego Dance Alliance.
Trystan Merrick, a former principal dancer with California Ballet who now co-owns San Diego’s BalletCenter Studios, said Mahon’s impact on the dance community, and on his own development as an artist, “won’t be forgotten.”
“We shared a love for plants and nature, and found kinship in design and costume creation. She never lost her spice even towards the end,” Merrick said. “She spoke a lot about joy in the last few weeks. I hope to cultivate that more in my own life, as well as applying my favorite ‘Maxine-ism’ — a simple and impactful learn.”
Born Maxine Jennings on Jan. 29, 1941, in San Diego, she was an infant when her father, U.S. Marine Johnny Jennings, moved their family to his duty station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii — just months before the Dec. 7 Japanese attack that launched the U.S. into World War II.
“I was just a few months old when we arrived. That makes me one of the youngest Pearl Harbor survivors,” Mahon said in a 2018 Union-Tribune interview. “My mother saw the Japanese planes up close — she could see the goggled eyes of the pilots as they came down shooting at everything. She ran into the house and shoved a mattress under the stairway and we hid there.”
The Jennings family moved back to San Diego, where Maxine and her sister, Marlene, grew up dancing in their mother’s basement ballet studio. She later danced in 25 musicals at the then-named Starlight Opera in Balboa Park. She went on to study music at San Diego State University and was preparing for a career as an accordionist when she was seriously injured in a water-skiing accident on Mission Bay. As she recovered, she lost interest in music and refocused her energies on dance, studying under teacher Margarette Ellicot of El Cajon.
In 1961, former San Francisco Ballet company members Nancy Johnson and Richard Carter moved to San Diego with the goal of starting their own ballet company and Mahon signed on as a member. That ensemble became the original San Diego Ballet. “We were very tiny,” Mahon said, “but ambitious.”
Mahon danced with San Diego Ballet for seven years, then in 1967, she joined the National Ballet in Washington, D.C., where she trained under Frederic Franklin, a noted veteran of the Ballets Russes, recognized as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century. A year later, she moved back to San Diego because she knew she’d need to take care of her parents one day.
In the summer of 1968, Mahon and her first husband, Robert Mahon, invited many of her dancer friends from Washington, D.C., to vacation in San Diego, and they decided to put on a show at an outdoor amphitheater at San Diego State University that was a success critically, if not financially.
Encouraged to continue, the Mahons co-founded California Ballet on July 13, 1968. The California Ballet School followed, with company members — who included Maxine’s sister Marlene — serving as faculty. Maxine was company director, choreographer, costume designer and seamstress.
During its first 50 years, California Ballet grew to become the city’s pre-eminent ballet company, outlasting its predecessor, San Diego Ballet, which folded in the 1983-’84 season (the current San Diego Ballet is not connected to the original).
Among Mahon’s proudest accomplishments were the establishment of the California Ballet Lecture Demonstrations; a dance academy with three locations in San Diego; awards at international ballet competitions in Varna, Bulgaria, Toyko and Helsinki; several major choreographies for California Ballet and other companies; and a long list of students who have gone on to stellar careers as dance performers and administrators.
San Diego arts leader William Virchis, who met Mahon more than 50 years ago when he was a young stage director at the Starlight in Balboa Park, remembered Mahon as a great choreographer and leader.
“Sometimes you’re lucky to catch a falling star in your hands and it stays with you in your heart and mind forever. Such a star was Maxine,” Virchis said. “She was an incredibly gorgeous, intelligent and talented woman and an incredible choreographer who always knew the right moves, both on stage and in her life. Her mother and family were incredible icons in the ballet and dance world and I learned so much from them. Her honesty, strength, discipline, commitment to excellence, and more than that, her loyalty to this community, to her friends, her students and dancers is without peer. She was a true warrior in this community for the arts, but mostly the dance world. Her students and dance company members have danced all over the world and take a little bit of her with them everywhere they go. She will be missed.”
On the 50th anniversary of California Ballet in 2018, Mahon retired from directing the dance company. She handed the reins over to new leadership, but the company struggled. Its final production was “The Nutcracker” in 2019. The company folded when the pandemic arrived and shut down all arts organizations in early 2020. Mahon continued to teach at the California Ballet School until health issues forced her to stop last January. The school closed in September.
“Unfortunately, there are many factors, both financial and personal, that have brought us to this decision,” the company announced in a statement. “We can no longer continue offering quality programs that have made California Ballet what it is … the final curtain call has come for California Ballet.”
In a post on Facebook Monday, Mahon’s daughter Clarissa Mahon Palhegyi wrote that her mother had passed away “quickly and quietly” at home, as was her longstanding request. “In her final days, her chosen word was joy: joy in having her sweet Lovie the kitty with her, joy in her yard and the birds feeding outside her window, the joy she found in the consistent, loyal presence of her caretaking team.”
Mahon was predeceased by her second husband, Dean Krause. She is survived by her daughter, Clarissa, and son-in-law Jeff Palhegyi, of Atlanta; sister Marlene Jones Wallace; and grandsons Aubrey Dean and Gordon Lane Palhegyi.
Memorial services are planned in mid-February but have not been finalized. Details will be announced in the coming days.
Kragen is the Union-Tribune’s Arts & Entertainment Editor. Luttrell is a freelance writer.