The Edwardian Ball (photo: Patric Carver)
“Prithee, good lady, might I immortalize you tonight?”
I turned around to see a man dressed from top hat to spats in gilded, early-20th-century threads — the golden flecks in his outfit matching the shine in his smile. He was raising an extremely modern camera to a very slight, still-headed Marie Antoinette. Marie giggled and lowered the plastic cup from her ghostly powdered face and nodded an affirmative, her rosier-than-actual-roses cheeks bunched in delight.
I felt dramatically out of place in my simple black cocktail dress, my ribs held in place merely by the constitution of my own fleshy composition and not wired together by the bondage of yesteryear’s unmentionables. Repeatedly throughout the night, I would be certain I’d seen the tightest lacing a corset (or body) could endure, only to be proved wrong by an even more securely wrapped torso at the next turn. Edwardian Ball attendees do not fiddle about when it comes to costuming.
In fact, attendees at the ball don’t fritter away any opportunity to bounce into character. The outward finery — corsets, gowns, and epaulets alike — was fantastic, but that was just the beginning. Everyone who waltzed through the entrance of the Regency Ballroom seemed to have internalized the theme of the evening. Many attendees strode lightly and gracefully, breathing out phrases of social nicety from a past society, whose members now only confer with the occasional earthworm or grub that manages to slink into their resting places. My ears never quite got used to overhearing this conversation throughout the night; it was as if I was an extra in a play that I was unaware was being performed.
“Would it please you to partake in some libations?”
“Goodness! I am flush with gladness at seeing your form this evening!”
When someone remarked, “Oh, do forgive my misstep,” after bumping into me, I felt like a Neanderthal replying with a clunky, “Oh, uh, no problem.”
Seriously, were there rehearsals for attendance that I missed?
The vendors were in step with the transformative spirit of the evening as well. A couple running a telegram station snapped into character when I approached their booth, the woman behind the machine asking me, “Are you familiar with how to send a telegram?” in the lute-like sing-song voice of accomplished ladies from high society of the previous century.
Telegrams and dainty talk seemed right in place, given the setting. The Regency is a breathtaking venue on any given day, the Edwardians positively choke every crevice of the space with drama and wonder. From the psychedelic, oversized flora straight out of Alice’s famed adventures to the walls speckled with glass eyeballs peering out from canvases lined with fur and scales to the puzzling sculptures whirring with light and movement but no utilitarian purpose, the four levels of the Regency were abuzz with oddities and delights.
In the top floor lodge, period drops were suspended from the flies of the stage depicting a moonlit night in an ivy-coated garden. The room was filled with vibrations from the massive pipe organ that ushered in the evening’s entertainment. The mezzanine and main ballroom were in permanent sunset, lit by the waning glow of dimmed chandelier and stained-glass inspired Art Nouveau backdrops. Even the basement was dressed up pretty, with all the warmth of a bustling marketplace. Peppered throughout the layers of the Regency were large black-and-white homages to Edward Gorey, one of the two Edwards behind the spirit of the Edwardian Ball.
Every room seemed alive. It was hard to take everything in, and I felt a little faint in the wake of all this excess. No wonder people used faint from the vapors.
Luckily, two pillars of the Bay Area performing arts scene, Kat Robichaud and Emcee Kingfish (Jim Sweeney of Hubba Hubba Revue) were there to lend support stronger than smelling salts as hosts for the evening. Robichaud, who also performed during the evening with keyboardist Brendan Getzell, always has a way of elevating the evening to something ethereal. Whether our lives are fastened with brass buttons or plastic clasps, Robichaud’s narration polishes them up to their brightest forms. She also managed to be one of the strongest performers of the night, her voice filling the expansive ballroom at points during the evening.
MegaFlame Big Band started the evening with a sold swing sound that set the tone for the mainstage. It was somewhat out of place, given the heavy period references, but I was grateful to not be staring down the barrel of an entire evening of turn-of-the-century waltzes. Some of the acts that Robichaud ushered in were breathtaking, including the remixed old world charm of high-kicking troupe Le Cancan Bijou and Edwardian staples Rosin Coven. Everyone was wowed by Bijou’s dance spectacular, but it was Coven’s “pagan lounge” sound that really sent the crowd into the throes of joy. All of the songs had a walk-in-the-graveyard feel that matched perfectly with the surreal Betty Boop cartoons projected behind the band. It’s not exactly the sort of thing that sends my bustle quaking, but I was definitely an outsider in that regard.
Up on the lodge level I felt more at home. Dubbed the “Museum of Wonders” for the evening, the lodge stage hosted a variety show. With Emcee Kingfish serving as ringmaster, the energy was high but not stifling. He really knows how to make a crowd feel simultaneously comfortable and keyed up. Burlesque performer JonBenet Butterbuns was a spot-on Popeye, her athleticism on full display. Lady BEAST of New Orleans did a very engaging bottle-walking act. She had a very captivating stage presence, daring the most jaded San Franciscan to not watch with anticipation as she placed the leather-footed sole of her glittery heels atop each slender bottle neck opening. During her set, I looked at the crowd and thought, “This is why I love people. We’ve sent men to the moon. We’ve built artificial hearts. Yet, we’re still fascinated by a girl in bronze pants balancing on some old soda bottles.” Miss Emmma brought things to a more refined place with sultry singing as she performed burlesque. The RAD Acrobatic Circus proved to be a thrilling duo, stretching the limits of the small stage with their bodies intertwining every which way. Magician Roman Spinale made bowling balls appear out of thin air and watches disappear. It was fun for the sake of fun, and surreal without being unbelievable. All of these acts were going on in a room filled with oddities which occasionally included a pair of stilt-walkers dressed as safari animals that seemed to have escaped from a Dalí painting. It all fit with the weird that is the Bay Area.
In the basement, things were a little more low-key, but the performances were no less luminous. JD Limelight played a charming set on the accordion. It was simple and real and one of my favorite performances of the night. Rabbit Quinn channeled Tori Amos with her thready originals that show off her amazing voice, over which she has precision command. A string quartet evoked the splendor of simplicity beautifully — resonating grace and refinement.
It’s a silly thing, the adults of San Francisco getting together and putting on ball gowns to dance waltzes and drink from plastic cups together. It’s silly and indulgent, but perhaps desperately needed. In more than one moment at the ball, I heard attendees remark to each other about their worries: rising rents, having to work multiple gigs in lieu of a full-time position, worrying that their president is going to deport their neighbor and launch us into World War III, tweet by tweet. In that context, the distraction of a spectacle like the Edwardian Ball seems downright medicinal. In leaving, I saw shadowy figures of people in hoop skirts and coats with tails disappearing into parking garages and rideshares. Scattering down Bush and Van Ness after the ball, attendees were dispatching themselves back out into the weary modern world, taking a little bit of fantasy with them.