See more photos in "CuriousJosh: The Edwardian Ball 2012 @ the Belasco Theater."
Whether the setting is the Victorian era or the Roaring '20s, vintage-themed parties have become increasingly common in recent years. Few, though, can create a world that bridges eras as seamlessly as the Edwardian Ball. A long-running event in San Francisco, the Ball's founders added an annual L.A. party not too long ago and their most recent gathering, Sunday night at downtown's Belasco, drew large crowds of costumed partygoers for a night of performance and dancing.
The Edwardian Ball is primarily a tribute to author and illustrator Edward Gorey, whose grim and often darkly humorous tales appeared to be loosely set between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While nods to Gorey's work peppered the venue and its stage, those now-classic books served as more of a launch pad than a guide for the attendees. Overall, the look on the dance floor was Downton Abbey meets Boardwalk Empire meets The Road Warrior. They keep things loose and that helps make the crowd feel comfortable.
Here's what works about Edwardian Ball. Try applying some of these techniques next time you throw a vintage-themed party.
Get a Venue That Fits
The Edwardian Ball originally was scheduled to take place at the Music Box. After that venue suddenly shut its doors, the organizers rescheduled and moved downtown to the Belasco. This proved to be the best decision they could have made. The theater's history dates back to the early 1900s, but it had been sorely underused for decades.
A beautifully restored venue, the Belasco is filled with small rooms, hallways and tall staircases. It's the sort of space that you want to explore while dressed in your silent film star finest.
Showcase Artists Who Merge the Past with the Present
Inside the Ball's bazaar, I met Liz Huston. The Venice-based artist has been working as a photographer for almost 20 years, but six years ago she moved into photomontage. Through an involved process that incorporates Photoshop and paint, she transforms her photographs into new works that evoke the Victorian era. The piece on the left side of the above image is based on photos she took in a Peruvian jungle. Huston's work gelled well with the whimsical, vintage vibe of the party.
Bring in Something That Definitely Isn't Retro.
There needs to be something to keep the partygoers tied to the present. Out on the patio at the Belasco, that was Mikey's Hug Deli. An interactive art project that launched at Burning Man in 2005, the Hug Deli proves that hugs don't have to be free, but they don't have to cost much, either. Here you pay with compliments. For offering two kind statements, you can have your choice of menu options, from the Hand Hug to the Long Uncomfortable Hug.
Mikey, the L.A. artist behind the booth, says the first compliment usually is pretty superficial and the second one will be a bit more substantial. He had me try working the booth for a little bit and my sole customer proved this right. Both people have to put some effort into this, Mikey says. "If you're getting a deep compliment, the hugger is going to give a more meaningful hug," he says. It's not anything you might associate with the early 20th century, but it was interesting.
Get a Mentalist.
What's a vintage party without a contraption that looks like it came out of a penny arcade? Based on old-fashioned fortune telling machines, Malvoye the Mentalist sits inside a wooden booth decked out with all sorts of odd gadgets. His two assistants pick out someone from the audience and strap down the participant's left hand. After opening with a message from his sponsors, Malvoye will ask your name, which isn't necessarily the name he will immediately repeat. He'll rant a little, telling you what he's learned from the spirits. His voice might skip, at which point the assistants will kick the box to get him back on track. By the time he instructs you to ask your question, there's a good chance that you've forgotten it, but you'll be too busy laughing to care.
When it comes to music, the past is the future.
Out in the lobby, Shovelman forged a perfect merger of the past and the present with his bluesy "folktronic" sound. San Francisco-based Isaac Frankle plays an aging shovel with strings. He says he doesn't remember how the instrument came into being, but he's been playing it for a few years, performing at many music festivals and opening for artists like Primus and Beats Antique. It's not like playing the guitar, he adds. "I'm getting sounds I haven't heard anywhere before," he says. Those twangy, metallic chords are amped up with effect pedals and electronic beats.
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Stage a show.
There were a number of performances throughout the night, but the main event came from Rosin Coven -- "The World's Premier Pagan Lounge Ensemble," who founded Edwardian Ball -- and their frequent collaborator, dance/circus arts troupe Vau de Vire Society. This year, they staged a retelling of Gorey's tale "The Iron Tonic." The short yet brooding work came to life with dance, acrobatics and an array of timeless music performed by artists costumed to appear trapped between eras. It was gorgeous.