Colorful vintage parasols, drop-waist dresses, and newsboy caps dotted Oakland’s historic Dunsmuir Estate lawn as far the eye could see this Sunday for the Art Deco Society’s 27th Gatsby Summer Afternoon. Ford Model Ts helped transport hundreds to a scene reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby as the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra’s melody carried over the dance floor: “It wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.”
Guests were dressed up as nicely as if they were attending a party at the mansion of Jay Gatsby, a main character in the 1925 novel. The dress code discouraged modern gear (no cell phones or water bottles) and suggested the right kind of historic attire (light colors would have been suitable for a daytime event, but not flapper dresses—which were considered evening attire at the time).
“It’s fun to enter a totally different world and kind of forget your old world,” said Karin Brown, who had dressed her children up in Art Deco attire. “The challenge is not to bring any plastic and trying to find china and wicker baskets.”
Tom Brown, Karin’s husband, had hidden their plastic utensils under an old fashioned doll in the wagon they brought for their picnic later. “We try to avoid as many anachronisms as we can,” he said. “We put things that are not so vintage in the baskets, where they’re not seen.”
The event, which drew an estimated 700 participants this year, is traditionally held on the second Sunday of September. “Especially today, on 9/11, people are celebrating, but are not forgetting what took place ten years ago,” said attendee Larry Pirack. “But this event is something that should continue, because a lot of the younger people are now remembering what their parents and grandparents did. So we’re very fortunate to be here every year.”
Pirack was surrounded by a picnic set fit for a 1920s stockbroker, complete with a beach umbrella from Alameda’s Neptune Beach, “the Coney Island of the West” during the Roaring Twenties. He said he sometimes longs to go back to a simpler time. “All in all, people had a good time and they didn’t need much,” Pirack said. “There was no television. There were no electronics like we have today, but they made do with what they had. I’ve heard my grandparents and parents speak of what they did to have fun, and it was so simple—just like what we’re doing today.”
Participants gathered together to celebrate the decadence of the Art Deco period, the era between the two world wars. Activities included tours of the Dunsmuir mansion, croquet, and plenty of dancing the Charleston and the Fox Trot.
“Look around you—you’re surrounded by the high points of design and style in our history,” said Lynn Harrison, Preservation Director for the Art Deco Society, which seeks to preserve and promote the era’s art, architecture, music, and design. “Its interesting in that the Art Deco Society has been enjoying this tight little time period for longer than the actual time period existed.”
Laurie Gordon, founder of the Gatsby Summer Afternoon, says she came up with the idea after the success of themed picnics she put together with friends. “We thought it’s nice to have a little picnic,” she said, “but what if we could have dancing too? And in order to have dancing you have to have lots of people to afford a big orchestra.” That is how Gatsby Summer Afternoon began 27 years ago, and its popularity has grown ever since.
“It’s often compared to being on a movie set,” said Gordon. “It isn’t like going to a Renaissance fair where some people are dressed up in costume and others are just observers. It’s required that everyone do his or her part. So people dress up, they bring elaborate picnics, they work on all the aspects of it so they can really be a part of the day.”
Gordon says she is happy to see that some attendees have been coming to the picnic for so many years that they are now bringing their own children to the event. Others have had the opportunity to enjoy the event with relatives who were alive during the Art Deco years. “The first time we came here we brought my aunt who was like 75 to 80 at the time,” said Honora Forscutt, who was sporting an authentic 1920s parasol and dress she’s worn to previous Gatsby Summer Afternoons. “And she remembered this from her wild and crazy youth, the cars especially. She didn’t speak specifically about the backseats of the cars but she probably could have.”
Some even credit the Art Deco Society for introducing them to their future families. This year’s “Miss Art Deco” Jenna Hueckstaedt met her fiancé, Jason Hesse, two years ago when she was a member of the Deco Belle dance troupe. “I was running the silent auction,” she said, “and he came up and said, ‘I’ve been waiting all night for you to come downstairs. Is there any way I can have a dance with you and go out with you at some other point?’ And I said ‘yes!’”
She smiled at her fiancé. “Oh, yes,” she continued, “you’ll meet many, many strapping handsome young men here who know how to dance.”