Blame It on Scott and Zelda
A peek inside the Fitzgerald Museum’s annual gala, where the Jazz Age lives on and the champagne flows freely.
by Willie Thompson
“Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
On October 29, 1929, paradise was lost. The post-war boom ended on Black Tuesday, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s infamous “Jazz Age” – the Roaring Twenties – crumbled into the history books. Its like would never come again.
But somehow “would” never “could.” The Jazz Age, apparently, lives on.
The scene March 2 at the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum would have left your great-great grandmother’s jaw hanging somewhere around her collarbone. There was a gala, and there was a party, and sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between the two.
The gala is the Fitzgerald Museum’s largest annual fundraiser, and has been for 19 years running. Billed as a “flapper party,” the event is something of a novelty in a town that’s more flip-flops and jeans than tuxedos and glitter. But that didn’t stop this party from swelling into a full-blown Fitzgerald-toned throwdown.
Blame it on the two bands. The seven-piece Lo-Fi Loungers played under the tent, and Henry Pugh and Ted Mann played in the museum; both belted out Jazz Age numbers like they just got back from the crossroads. Blame it on the three bars – wine, martini and cocktail – and the five bartenders. Blame it on the user-friendly “Hollywood Dressing Room” themed catering. Blame it on the preceding Wednesday and Thursday and the two-day Alabama State Art’s Council-funded Art and Film Festival “Canvases,” which included a Zelda Art Exhibit at Stonehenge Gallery, a Zelda Art Auction at the Capri, as well as screenings of “Midnight in Paris” and the Allan Ladd led 1949 “The Great Gatsby.” (Or blame it on the new “Gatsby” film.) Blame it on youthful foolishness. Blame it on Scott and Zelda.
Just don’t blame it on the weather; judging by the crowd, you’d have thought it was mid-February in Rio (that’s summertime in the Southern Hemisphere), and Carnival was in full swing. Be proud, Montgomery: at 919 Felder Avenue in your fair city, the Roaring Twenties live on.
Yet it was not always that way. The Fitzgerald Museum had a rocky road making its gala Montgomery’s affair of the year. Julian and Leslie McPhillips, the founders of the museum, first had to negotiate with the city and the Old Cloverdale neighborhood before the museum could even open its doors back in 1988. Then, as any Montgomery native over 25 can tell you, there was the problem of tourism – or lack thereof. It was not until the Biscuits came and downtown was reborn that tourists started thinking Montgomery boasted enough attraction to hold their attention. Still, the Fitzgerald Museum needed something extra: it needed local recognition as an indelible asset to both the city and its people. Now, thanks in large part to the efforts of several board members, the Alabama State Chiropractic Association and the Alabama Humanities Foundation, as well as numerous local business and volunteers (not to mention, its parties), the Fitzgerald Museum is firmly seated among Montgomery’s top attractions.
Janie Wall of Wall Landscaping, along with a select group of dedicated volunteers, has been decorating the gala since its inception in 1994. Wall is a Fitzgerald Museum board member, and this year she created three magnificent bouquets, each standing between 6 and 7 feet tall. The bouquets towered over the tables in the outside party tent, and above them a “Gobo” projector kept the Fitzgerald Museum’s new logo – created pro-bono by Montgomery Artist Arthur Leslie – doing cartwheels against the white canvas. The tent was well-heated, the dance-floor was cozy, and Tommy Cauthen led his “Loungers” through number after number of piping hot jazz.
KayMarie and Michael Briddel, Montgomery’s director of public information and external affairs; Mike and Val Winkelman; Irby and Anne Thompson; Dudley Griffin and Margaret Sylvest; Steve Murray, director of the Alabama Archives; Tim Higgins of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society; Aaron Head and Ian Crawford, director of the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion in Tuscaloosa; authors Daniel Serafin Lliteras and Kathleen Touchstone; Dr. Don Noble, host of Alabama Public Television’s “Bookmark” program; Kenneth Shinbaum; Brian Jones, regional director of the Alabama Department of Tourism; Carol King, curator of collections at Old Alabama Town; and a host of others supped and wassailed to their hearts’ content. But the tent held only half the party.
Inside the museum, the gala seemed a different party entirely. Whereas the party tent on the lawn had a somewhat dignified air about it – despite the scandalous Charlestons being played out on the dancefloor – the downstairs of the Fitzgerald’s old home was a riot. A mob of young artists, dancers, writers, craftsmen, musicians and sundry others created a ruckus fit to rouse Zelda’s ghost. They were nearly all dressed in their twenties finest – tuxedos and beaded dresses in particular vogue – and the energy they brought was nothing short of a Jazz Age hysteria. Henry Pugh and Ted Mann played mad and wild, and Scott and Zelda – if they weren’t there – would have been proud. The gin bar was in the library, the wine bar and the cheese bar were in the parlour, and there was not a low-spirited soul in sight. The Fitzgerald Museum and its guests, it seems, stole a page out of the history books; or perhaps they’re rewriting them.
Once in a while an event comes around that emblazons its mark in the lore – the very fabric – of a city. The Fitzgerald Gala in 2012 seemed to do that, but now it seems that 2012 was only an asthmatic whisper compared to what happened last Saturday. The gala, with its silent auction, grossed over $12,000, and that number increases to well above $20,000 if all donations are included. Thanks to all the support, the Fitzgerald Museum let the Roaring Twenties rumble once again at 919 Felder Ave. Scott and Zelda would have been proud. The museum is taking its job of preserving the Jazz Age quite seriously – just ask anyone who attended.
Photos courtesy of Fitzgerald Museum.
Willie Thompson is executive director of the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.