Art Deco Ball: A Tomboy’s Adventure in the Lifestyle of the 1930s




Instant Film Photoshoot at the 1930s ball.

Originally published on KQED’s NewsFix.

There is a first time for everything. There was the first time I ever Rollerbladed, the first time I stepped onto an airplane and the first time I covered a 1930s ball.

This weekend I attended the Art Deco Society of California’s (ADSC) Preservation Ball, honoring the 40th anniversary of the Paramount’s restoration. And like many of my first times, I was nervous. The invitation clearly stated, “Black/white tie or vintage formal/cocktail attire in the style of the 1920s, ’30s or ’40s requested,” and my wardrobe is mainly composed of sneakers, jeans and the occasional hipster cardigan.

As a reporter, I truly wanted to blend in. As an unequivocal tomboy, I dreaded the idea of wearing a ball gown. My research led me to one of the most famous scenes with Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco,” a 1930 movie in which she wears a tux and overtly flirts with a woman. With that in mind, finding a tux for a woman my size – I am quite short – wasn’t going to be easy.

I always assumed that hipsters were the only ones who found a use for vintage shops. In reality, these shops have a real clientele: faithful customers who wouldn’t wear anything but clothes from the Roaring ‘20s or the Great Depression.

The Art Deco Society’s website provided guests with a list of vintage stores in the area. I picked the first one on the list and drove to San Francisco the day of the ball, hoping for a miracle. I headed for the Haight and entered a store called Decades of Fashion. It smelled like old clothes. It was filled with relics from every single decade until the 1960s. An androgynous woman dressed with a dapper 1920s look asked me how she could help.  I said I was looking for a tux for a ball in Oakland.

“The Preservation Ball?” she said. That’s when I realized that this event was bigger than just a few people gathering to play dress-up.

She took me through a maze of aisles, each dedicated to a style or an era.

“This is our tux section,” she said, as she started sliding hangers. She found an original 1920s tux that was exactly my size. Once I tried it on, my anxiety level dropped. I had found my outfit for the ball … seriously. With the tux, I purchased a bowtie from the 1930s, suspenders and four studs for the shirt – they didn’t use buttons at the time.

The ball was held at the Paramount Theatre in honor of the 40thanniversary of its preservation and restoration. The Paramount opened its door in 1931, two years after “Black Thursday,” which was the start of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It was a time when people badly needed entertainment.

Jack Bethards was the former executive director of the Oakland Symphony in the 1970s.

“It was a great show business time,” Bethards said. “The studio system was turning out wonderful movies of all types, including big lavish musicals, which of course were ideal in this building.”

Business was in full swing until the demand for large movie theaters dropped.

“In the 1970s, large movie theaters that seated 3,000 people were simply not drawing that kind of audience anymore,” Bethards said. “Many theaters were broken up into smaller individual theaters we called multiplex.”

At the time, the Oakland Symphony was looking for a new home and purchased the Paramount Theatre in 1973.

“At that time, the art deco style wasn’t really recognized,” Bethards said. “It was considered to be passe and so many people, including many donors to the project, thought that the theater ought to be modernized, updated and simplified in design. But we set up a very simple standard. Architecture first, show business second.”

After nine months of work and $1 million, the Paramount Theatre was completely renovated and had regained the splendor it once had. Since then, the management of the Paramount has made an ongoing effort to preserve the building. It was declared a California registered landmark in 1976 and a year later became a national historic landmark.

The ball was the opportunity to celebrate the restoration of the art deco building. And what better way to do so than time travel?

I walked from my apartment in downtown Oakland to the Paramount in a tux. It was a long five-minute walk and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I was walking on Broadway when I first saw the 1930s Ford. A tall broad-shouldered man in a top hat and small circular glasses stepped out of the car. He trotted around and opened the door on the passenger side. A woman, wearing a long ostrich feather in her hair and ermine fur covering her shoulders, elegantly emerged from the car. It felt like a window back in time. Their attitudes, their gaits, everything was perfectly on point. They must have been doing this a lot.

Reporter Lauren Benichou is working on a story about a Bay Area community of 1920s, ’30s and ’40s enthusiasts who go to great lengths to preserve the lifestyle of these eras. 

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