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Sunday, February 06, 2005

DECORATIONS FOR THE VALLEY OF DEATH: 1920s Entertaining with Corinne Wentworth

No sooner had I walked into the little Rochester bookshop and asked "Do you have any bizarre books?" , what I can only describe as an 'irresistible force' led me to pick up the little yellow book on the shelf near the desk.

Nostalgists decry television shows such as JACKASS that feature people injuring themselves for fun. The entertainment was better in the old days, nostalgists claim. Mass Media, say the nostalgists, did not appeal to the lowest common denominator and entertainment stressed talent, not humiliation.

Nostalgists do not know what they are talking about.

ENTERTAINMENT FOR ALL OCCASIONS proves that there is nothing new about making people look like idiots for the entertainment of others...there are only new media! And why go to mass media for humiliation when you can get it at home?

It's difficult to picture people actually performing some of the antics in ENTERTAINMENT FOR ALL OCCASIONS: Parties Completely Planned for Evenings, Luncheons, Afternoons, Holidays and Other Occasions by
Corinne Wentworth (Barse and Hopkins, Newark, NJ 1921). My copy is a second edition from 1926, so Miss --I feel confident that she was a Miss-- Wentworth was obviously onto a good thing. Miss Wentworth was, in her own words, a professional Entertainer (with a capital E). It is clear that she took her job seriously. There is a distinctly peremptory tone to her writing, starting with the first paragraph of the Preface:

"To the clever hostess every day is a good opportunity to add to her list of parties, and every party is a good opportunity to add to her social success. But even the most clever agree that "two heads are better than one." So, isn't it a good idea to let an experienced Entertainer make the second head in conference with the clever hostess?"

This motivated at least one reader, presumably a woman perusing this book in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, to add her second head. But I somehow doubt that she realized any 'social success' from the advice offered by Miss Wentworth, whose party hearty motto was "Nothing is too good to be true."

I added my 'second head' when I turned to Page 13 and read the subheading
An irresistible come-on if there ever was one.

The Decorations were intended for a Halloween party, not a poetry reading. Halloween was not commonly celebrated in America in the 1920s. This book proves why. Miss Wentworth's suggestions are ominous from the
"Remove all the usual furniture from the room in which the Hallowe'en games are to be played. On the floor in the middle of the room make a pumpkin head witches' cauldron."

Said cauldron is of crepe-paper covered cheesecloth stretched over 'light weight wire' and illuminated by Christmas lights placed underneath with 'sticks of wood
, as for a fire', though "if electricity is not available, candles may be used, great care being taken to place them so the flame will not catch the cauldron."

When you have extinguished the resulting conflagration, you are exhorted to make ghostly robes for your guests out of crepe paper. "When your guests arrive, dress each in the white costume, then open
the door of the "Valley of Death" and push one guest in at a time."

Likely she had to, too.

Various antics are planned for the Valley of Death which read more like a ritual for Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society, than a cheery holiday party. Miss Wentworth's 'entertainments' include presenting 'pieces of cat' to the Devil as party favors, and partaking of the River Styx (coffee) and Chill of Death (ice cream.)

Miss Wentworth has many chapters devoted to parties for 'every occasion' that would not normally appear on the American social calendar in this or any other century. The Aeroplane Party, Luncheon or Tea for Picnic, Porch, Lawn, Beach or Indoors
(Wentworth covers all the bases) is clearly a nostalgic tradition that is sorely in need of revival.

The 'entertainment' for this party is as follows:

"Blindfold the guest, and have two persons lead her (emphasis in the original) into the decorated place. Have a wide, long board put on two stools far enough apart so the board will have quite a spring to it. Stand the blindfolded person in the middle of the board, placing her hands on the shoulders of the two persons who have led her in, and who stand on the floor in front of her. Turn an electric fan full on the blindfolded person, or have someone fan her, slowly at first and then furiously."

When everyone is suitably furious, two more people step 'noiselessly' up to the victim and

"begin to spring it (the board) gently, then more vigorously, up and down, and at the same time...have the persons on whose shoulders the blindfolded guest's hands are placed gradually begin to stoop...the swaying of the board underfoot, the breeze, and the shoulders slowly receding beneath one's hands, fill one with an uncanny high-up feeling."

The guest would have to be high-up from Prohibition-era liquor to be doing this in the first place.

When 'she has ascended as high as she is willing to go', the Aeronaut is handed a small parasol, told to open it over her head and "Jump if she wishes to save her life." If, of course, she hasn't already crashed to the floor along with the board, stools, fan, and four other guests.

"When she lands, turn her so she will see the sign given below, and take the bandage off her eyes: the sign may read, "WE'RE ALL UP IN THE AIR."
We certainly are.

We end the Aeroplane chapter with a spirited patriotic reading, "Aeroplaning Around The World in the Good Ship "America Over All", which confirms my suspicion of Miss Wentworth's
other occupation.
You have been a naughty, naughty go and worship my shoes....

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