Jazz Age Lawn Party Remembers America’s Golden Age
America’s Golden Age conjures up multiple images in people’s minds from the shameless flamboyancy depicted in Mae West films to the gilded ballrooms once filled with the music of Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers. The art deco architecture of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria hotel and the showgirl-esque grandeur of the Ziegfeld Follies also come to mind. The Golden Age made an indelible impact on pop culture, and though its period of glitz and enlightenment lasted the few short years between the two World Wars, its music and glamor lives on through the Jazz Age Lawn Party (JALP), which has been held on Governor’s Island off of Manhattan for the last eleven years.
Helmed by its founder Michael Arenella, the Jazz Age Lawn Party has enjoyed being a New York City staple for one weekend in both June and August since 2005, culminating into four days of jubilee. Arenella and his Dreamland Orchestra is the anchor for the celebration.
Arenella tells Modern Jazz Today why the party, an annual New York sensation, still excites him to perform. “The thrill of being a vessel for these songs never fades, and it is my hope that the joy reaches the audience, and is the chief purpose in being a musician.”
The outdoor show, which attracts tens of thousands of spectators and participants features live music, vaudeville-inspired acts, and dance contests that lure audience members to show off their Charleston kicks, Suzie Q heel twists, and foxtrot strides. The party brings American swing back into fashion with vocalist Gregory Moore wearing various fashions typical of the Golden Age from the savvy archeologist who explores Egyptian ruins to the debonair dandy in the formal wear of top hat and tails. He is accompanied by the Dreamland Follies decked in showgirl costumes reminiscent of Radio City Music Hall’s Rockettes of yesteryear.
Moore shares why people from diverse walk of life flock to the party. “I think it’s the unbridled joy that was expressed during the Jazz Age that remains infectious today to all generations and races.”
He describes. “America, specifically, was bursting out of its Victorian restraints in the 1920’s and through music, dance and fashion, an entirely new world of ‘style’ was created. There was something of a 1920’s revival in the 1950’s though it was sort of treated as ‘campy,’ whereas, I believe, this current 1920’s era revival is more ‘respectful’ in that we aren’t performing with an ironic ‘wink-wink-aren’t-we-cute?’ attitude. Quite the opposite, in fact. Our take on the music/dance/style of the 1920’s is that it was just right the way they did it originally, and it is so worthy of being revisited that it’s hard to imagine NOT wanting to do it! I’d like to think that our core followers at the Jazz Age Lawn Party also tap into this burst of creativity from 90-or-so years ago and love having the opportunity to try to re-live that joyously imaginative era…if only for a few days each summer.”
Recalling when he and his dancers became a part of the annual affair, Moore cites, “I’ve been attending the Jazz Age Lawn Party since the early days of the event and had ‘guested’ as vocalist on occasion. In 2011, Michael Arenella proposed the idea of starting a troupe of dancers called The Dreamland Follies with a leading man singer in the format of the Ziegfeld Follies, and other revue-style performing groups of the 1920’s. We rather quickly created our ‘template,’ in which the ten lovely dancers, choreographed by Jordana Toback and costumed by Gretchen Fenston, and I perform production numbers in a sort of 1920’s-30’s ‘pastiche’ style. We’ve quite extensively researched the dance, fashions and music of the Jazz Era, in order to create a resonant style of that marvelously stylish era.”
“I’m very fond of my ten dancers and their choreographer,” he beams. “This year we welcomed the internationally known pianist Simon Mulligan as our musical director. And there is an endless list of songs that we’d like to bring back to life in one of our production numbers. It’s wonderful to be able to expose new generations to the great music and dance style of the first part of the 20th century. So, as long as we’re invited to return, I’m delighted to do so.”
An added incentive is audience members are encouraged to join in the festivities attired outfits reflective of the Prohibition Era. Eton crop flappers and their dapper partners are dressed in the vane of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. The audience transforms the dance floor into a steady stream of straw hats, twirling parasols, stovepipe hats, and Fedoras with a gangster flare. Men don an array of suspenders modeled after workingmen of the Prohibition Era, musclemen T-shirts, gentlemen golf caps, and schoolboy culottes topped with snazzy Oxfords on their feet. Some comb their hair into Rudy Vallée-streaked pomade coifs complete with a pristine linen ascot around their throats. The women dazzle in Josephine Baker bobs, a variety of fringed, beaded and sequin dresses, feather and diamond-studded headbands, belle shaped cloches and bonnets with Mary Pickford-patterned bows. Pearl necklaces, pleated skirts, and Carol Lombard-sweeping lashes were a popular site throughout the crowd.
Local crooner Martin McQuade has been a devoted audience member of the party since its inception touting, “Every year there is something new to enthrall me. The Dreamland Follies, with crooner Gregory Moore leading beautiful chorus girls, is a stand-out. These presentations change every year with a new edition. Each summons the magic of what we think of as The Ziegfeld Follies. There are also throngs of people from all walks of life and all ages who share a fervor for the electrifying music of the twenties and thirties; and, most especially for me, the early unrivaled sound of the great Bing Crosby.”
2016’s celebration featured a tribute to New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, which moved McQuade as he muses, “In particular, Gregory Moore’s touching tribute to New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham was unforgettable. Gregory honored the recently deceased master with an emotionally woven medley of ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ (including the seldom-heard verse) and ‘You’ll Never Know.’ In addition, famed pianist Peter Minton is always a marvel in his solo turns, this year being no exception.”
What motivated McQuade to attend the party from the start continues to persuade him today. “I first learned about JALP from pianist Jesse Gelber, who has been playing in Michael Arenella’s Dreamland Orchestra for many years, and also appears under The Dreamland banner playing with his wife Kate, under the name Gelber & Manning. Jesse has often accompanied on my shows honoring American pop music from the Golden Age.”
The vaudeville-inspired duo of pianist Jesse Gelber and vocalist Kate Manning have been a mainstay at JALP from the beginning as Gelber asserts, “I’ve been involved with the Jazz Age Lawn Party since its inception. Michael Arenella and I have worked together for over 15 years.”
He applauds, “Michael has created an amazing environment to play traditional jazz music. Sometimes I have to explain to people why I play stride piano, but at the Jazz Age Lawn Party, no explanation is ever needed. The kind of music that I play and the event are matched perfectly. Also, it is wonderful to see so many fans and friends all congregated in one beautiful setting.”
“The thing that attracts me,” Gelber purports, “and many people to the music of the 1920’s and 30’s is the level of craftsmanship of the songs. You can’t find the same level of poetry, or harmonic development, or tunefulness in contemporary pop.”
Some of the other artists who also took part in 2016’s JALP celebration included bathing beauties and their gentleman beaus Roddy Caravella and the Canarsie Wobblers, blues singer Queen Esther, stride pianist Peter Mintun, the flapper-clad pair of the Minsky Sisters, magician George Dubin, and torchlight vocalist Molly Ryan. Though the celebration has concluded for 2016, the party will return in 2017, beginning in Miami, Florida for one weekend in January.
Moore reveals, “We’ll be traveling to Miami in January of 2017, as well as performing at all four Lawn Party dates on Governors Island next summer. As we begin our sixth year with the Dreamland Follies, we’d like to think that we’ve become something of a fixture at the event. I think I can speak for all the Follies dancers as well as Jordana Toback and Simon Mulligan when I say that as long as there’s a Jazz Age Lawn Party, we hope to continue to be a part of it!”
Music that once echoed through the halls of the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom long ago emerges in the 21st century at the Jazz Age Lawn Party. America’s Golden Age is embraced by party-goers and its performers as the good-time atmosphere that swept across the country between the two World Wars is remembered and revered on Governor’s Island for two separate weekends every summer. It’s a Manhattan staple whose luster doesn’t wane with time but grows more virile and vibrant each year.