Originally published July 2018, Clinton A. Harris
The first thing that hits you when you walk onto the Boulder airfield is how well everyone is dressed. Women in vintage dresses and classy shoes, men with nice shirts, bow-ties, suspenders, etc. There isn’t a fanny pack, beer t-shirt, or string bikini top in sight. This is a rarity for a summer outdoor event in Colorado. The 1940s Ball isn’t just any concert or even costume event. The people here are serious about their history and their class. I walked into this event not quite knowing what to expect. As I began to acclimate myself to the venue, I realized it’s like Renaissance Festival for people who are really into the mid-20th Century.
The next thing that strikes you is the overwhelming, almost cloying scent of old canvas. This is a smell that took me back to my younger years, going to military surplus stores with my dad and anything and everything that was OD Green canvas was on my Christmas wishlist. Among the vintage cars and airplanes lined up everywhere were tanks, jeeps, command cars, and tent after tent displaying anything from mess tent equipment to rifles and mortars.
Men and women were in full military uniforms, WAC and WAV gear, and all shades of civilian circa 1938-45 in between. Rosie the Rivetter, the Peaches from a League of their Own, dog faces, Marines, swabs, and flyboys rubbed shoulders with Zootsuits, 4F Playboys, crooners, and average Joes. The ladies were decked out in their dresses, pantsuits, with as many hairstyles as there were heads of hair. The whole event was evocative of an era where people could be sexy, strong, modest, and strong all at once. There was a flavor of modesty and austerity, combined with the electricity of a high school dance where the boys and girls were checking each other out throughout the night.
Money got you drink tickets and tickets got you water, beer, or booze. I had a rum and Coke, but the bartender was impressed with my ordering an Old Fashioned, so he mixed me a little stronger than most. I was flying most of the rest of the evening. Cigarette girls sold candy cigarettes on trays (for a $2 donation per box), and I am proud to say I corrupted one of them by letting her bum a “smoke” off me as she had never tried one before. I warned her that they are addictive. (Which they really, really are.)
At the VIP tables, they honored several of the WW2 vets who were in attendance; not a single one a day younger than 92 years old in the whole bunch. The actress who played Zu-zu in It’s a Wonderful Life was there, as well as the car George Bailey crashed on the way towards his nervous breakdown in the movie. Somebody in Johnstown owns it and sent it up on loan for the event. In the crowd, a young Frank Sinatra and pith-helmeted Bob Hope walked among us mere mortals as well as Generals Patton and MacArthur. A squad of 6 vintage fighter planes flew over as air raid sirens wailed their ghostly wail, circling and circling overhead.
When you get past the displays and the costumes, you get to the meat of the event, which is the live music and the dancing. I danced for over 4 hours. From about 8pm until shortly after midnight when I turned into a pumpkin and had to drive home. My dogs were barking and the event was winding down anyway. It did take a while for the crowd to get dancing, unfortunately, since a lot of people seemed to be reluctant to compete against the seasoned swing dancers and competitive groups that were showing off during the daylight hours. But once the sun started to go down and the blood alcohol levels started going up, inhibitions were crushed, the dance floors were packed and people started to really cut a rug.
I mostly danced with two ladies from Boulder (both, oddly enough, originally from New York) who I stuck with as their on-demand dance partner most of the night. They were very forgiving of my novice dancing, near-collisions with other dancers, but like me they were just interested in getting out and having a good time. There were quite a few men and women out there on the prowl, but mostly they were sequestered to the Tango Tango bar which reeked of surplus canvas and desperation. In total, my dance card was more than filled after four hours (after dancing with several classy women) and once I got back to my car, my heels and legs were so sore, I wondered if I could stand the hour long drive back home. It made me wonder what happened to those times, when the music was fun, people could have a good time, and…man, just a long gone era, maybe as different from now as the Renaissance was to then.
In a lot of ways, things were different, and I can see why the Greatest Generation romanticizes that era. It might have been the last time in our country’s history were there was good and evil, right and wrong. People took pride in their morality, their appearance, they were not ashamed to be patriotic, they went to church on Sundays, they volunteered for causes greater than themselves. They took pride in the things they made and lived in anything but a disposable society. (Sure, there were blemishes on the era: rampant racism, crude medical technology, a world war going on, etc.) Things were simpler back then, and yes, I know it is a cliche to say that, but even in talking to someone from that generation, I think sometimes they were baffled at just how difficult we have made our lives today. After so many things they sacrificed, challenges they overcame, and all the worrying we have packed full into our lives.
I don’t know. There are a lot of things to think about when you look at a bygone era that isn’t that far back on the horizon. Anyway, like any kind of art, good art elicits an emotional response. Maybe the 1940s is a wonderful time to visit, but maybe it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be to live there? What do I know? What I do know is it was great to slip back in time for an evening, dance to some hoppin’ music, and see some old warplanes buzz the airfield at dusk. To see people walk tall and proud, classy, refined, almost naive when compared to the world we live in. Echoes of a world where men and women were strong and classy all at once. Where rolling up your shirtsleeves meant facing down some hard work, and people were closer to being Atticus Finch than they were Mark Zuckerberg.
Just for one night, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to remember who we were back then, and bring a piece of it back with us to our strange world where a lot of these things should still matter. Nostalgia means “Pain from an old wound.” Maybe it’s old wounds like these that remind us how far we have come, while showing us how much that has cost us in a relatively short time.
The 1940s Ball takes place in a forgotten corner of Boulder, CO, every June…in a time where patriotism, machine guns, women in pretty dresses and men in suits were still a thing. Buy your tickets early, dress up and bring your friends!!