A “Babylonian Revelry” and a “Staggering Bacchanale” at the Mardi Gras des Artistes at the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, 4 March 1924

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When it comes to the celebration of Mardi Gras, we generally associate such an event with the world famous one in New Orleans, but there actually was a variation held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on 4 March 1924. Styled a “Mardi Gras des Artistes,” the event was referred to as a “social and artistic affair” comprised of dance, art, pantomime, participants dressed in costumes, elaborate decorations of the Fiesta Ballroom, and the sale of artistically created dolls known as “limousine dolls” and which were, purportedly, very popular in Paris.

Proceeds from the sale of the latter were to go to the California Hut, an organization at Figueroa south of 9th Street (Olympic Boulevard) where the Luxe City Center Hotel is today near today’s Staples Center and which provided opportunities for disabled soldiers, especially those from the First World War, to receive occupational training, and some of whom made the dolls. Rent in the building was paid for by the City Council and the Los Angeles Community Chest, a consortium of charitable entities in the Angel City and which also provided for a bookkeeper and some operational support.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 27 February 1924.

A manager and social worker were paid for by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors while instructors in classes for the veterans were paid by the city’s Board of Education. Materials to make products sold by the Hut were provided by the Los Angeles Needleworkers Guild, while a fund provided by Arabella D. Huntington, the wife of capitalist and book and art collector Henry E. Huntington and who was herself a widely-known collector of art until her death in September 1924, paid for materials at wholesale cost.

The California Hut offered nine vocational departments for the men, including design, fancy work, leather working, metal working, decorative modeling, wax modeling, weaving, woodwork, and work in reed, willow or straw. While there were standard weekday busines hours, visitors were allowed to see the men at work in the shops each Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Los Angeles Times, 29 February 1924.

The president of the Board of Directors as of the beginning of 1924 was Frances Widney Workman, wife of [Andrew] Boyle Workman, the president of the Los Angeles City Council, and the daughter of Robert M. Widney, a well-known real estate developer and attorney, but whose statue at the University of Southern California, of which he was a founder, was recently removed because of his purported involvement in the vigilance committee that hung accused murderer Michel Lachenais in December 1870, although Widney was also widely credited with saving lives during the Chinese Massacre the following October.

The dolls were sold at the Mardi Gras des Artistes “by a bevy of young society girls under the supervision” of Mrs. Workman. There was also a “moving stage, festively decorated which will be wheeled into the ballroom and on which novelty dance numbers will be given.” One of these performances was characterized as a “character dance” that manifested as a “terpsichorean representation of Maxfield Parrish’s picture, ‘The Lanterns’,” though this actually referred to the renowned artist’s 1908 symbolist work The Lantern Bearers, now in the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, established by Alice Walton, daughter of the founder of Walmart, at Bentonville, Arkansas. Among those working on the decorative elements were women students at the Otis Art Institute, established by the late Los Angeles Times founder Harrison Gray Otis and which is now the Otis College of Art and Design.

Los Angeles Record, 29 February 1924.

The Los Angeles Record of 29 February stated that the “Mardi Gras des Artistes will call together over 2000 artists of Southern California” for the ball “when everybody and their friends will be present en masque and gorgeous costumes to take part in the most colorful and dazzling assemblage the local art colony has brought to notice.” It was added that

Every path of amusement has been searched for new and bizarre ideas for entertainment for the guests and while promises have not been made, yet it is known that nothing has been left undone or undiscovered to make the event a crashing cymbal of color and a panorama of the most original and daring in costume.

It was reported that 7,000 invitations were sent and that the “Los Angeles art colony hope[s] to make the Mardi Gras Des Artistes an annual affair.”

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 2 March 1924.

The Illustrated Daily News of 2 March stated that “artists of Southern California will discard smocks and tams and throw aside their palettes and brushes for a few hours” for “an affair that promises to be ‘different.'” The paper continued that “serious-minded miniature painters will masquerade as gay butterflies; Mephistopheles will probably be there in legion; [and] nymphs in shimmering georgette and ballet slippers . . .” It was added that “all the fable and fiction heroes representative of the animal and insect kingdoms, the futuristic and ancient fantasies, will be well represented at the gathering.”

A featured performer was dancer Olive Ann Alcorn, recently featured at the revue at the New York Winter Garden, who was also a silent film actress but best known at the time for her many artistically presented nude photographs. She was a product of the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, which opened in Los Angeles in 1915 by the husband-and-wifetram of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. The school was open to all forms of dance from around the world and such legendary modern dancers as Martha Graham and Charles Weidman were students until the couple divorced in 1931. The School presented what was billed as an Algerian dance with the representation of nomads “in all their abandon to the accompaniment of wild and exotic music.” This was one of several dances presented on the wide expanses of lawn outside the ballroom.

Times, 6 April 1924.

The Los Angeles Express referred to the affair as “the last of the large affairs given during the pre-lenten season” with dinner parties held in the famous Cocoanut Grove at the hotel prior to the ball. It noted that the hotel lobby’s pillars were to be painted by fourteen artists, while Cornelia McLaughlin, granddaughter of former Senator Cornelius Cole, whose town of Colegrove is often considered to be “South Hollywood,” was crowned queen of the event. In a caption for a photo of Alcorn, the paper stated that some 3,000 members of the local art colony were expected to attend to see the dancer’s “startling interpretive expressions” and partake in what was promised to be “a staggering bacchanale in revival of Dionsian [Dionysian] spirit.”

The day of the event, the Los Angeles Record reported that “demands for boxes and tickets for the artists’ frolic en masque . . . are fairly swamping the committee with work checking up on celebrities.” The paper added that “the affair will not only be the first Mardi Gras Des Artistes for Los Angeles, but promises to be the most gorgeous, shimmering, Babylonian revelry that the local artists’ colony has yet witnessed.” The Record also featured a photo of Benda dancers Theda and Vera Baldwin, “who promise to create a sensation” at the event, with the term Benda referring to the famous masks of Polish-American artist Wladyslaw Benda.

Times, 27 January 1924.

There was ample pre-event press coverage along with several photos of performers and attendees in costume, though there wasn’t any post-Mardi Gras analysis located. Nor was there a second edition of the event in 1925 or afterward. So, it is not known whether it was considered an artistic or financial success.

The featured artifact from the museum’s holdings for this post is a partial Guests of Honor list from the Mardi Gras Des Artistes, with those including Boyle and Frances Workman; the mother of their son-in-law, Nathaniel Jeffras, married to their daughter Audree; Cornelia McLaughlin; Cornelius Cole’s sons George and Seward and the latter’s wife Eleanor; a few of the artists mentioned above, including E. Roscoe Shrader and Edouard Vysekal; well-known artist Maynard Dixon; Merle [misspelled as “Merrill”] Armitage, a polymath set designer, producer of plays and operas, writer and book designer and who helped found the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association in 1924; German-American artist Jean Mannheim; artist J. Bond Francisco; and the legendary film comedian Charles Chaplin.

Whether or not the event was successful, it was one that showed a growing public presence of the city’s artists “colony” and its connection to the Workman family and the California Hut for disabled veterans gives the Mardi Gras Des Artistes added historical interest in 1920s Los Angeles.

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