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A Picnic That Takes Literary License

Art Deco Society's 'Gatsby' gatherings aren't exactly the kind found in the novel, but their breezy spirit is the same.

September 17, 2002|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was, according to a guest at Saturday's Gatsby Picnic, "a ducky afternoon." The men, many of them in knickers and straw hats, and the ladies, in drop-waist dresses and stockings, had assembled around fountains and manicured patches of lawn to sip champagne and snack on picnic lunches. Some canoodled on blankets. Others tap-danced by the pool.

"The ambience is so fabulous," said Donald Henderson, one of about 200 people who revisited the '20s at the retro event hosted by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles, a preservation and education group. The 52-year-old Angeleno, his wife and a small group of friends were dining on strawberry soup, chicken salad, molded gelatin and lemonade. "It's so civilized in what is getting to be a more and more uncivilized world," he said.

Gatsby Picnics, a tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," are a fairly common event for Art Deco societies. The annual event in San Francisco, hosted by the unaffiliated Art Deco Society of San Francisco, has been going on for years, drawing crowds of close to 1,000. This year's picnic in L.A. was ADSLA's first in about a decade.

"There was no such thing as [a Gatsby picnic] even in the time of Gatsby," said ADSLA president, Mitzi March Mogul. "But if you're familiar with the story, he's always having parties at this big, rolling-hill estate, and of course Fitzgerald goes into incredible detail about what people are wearing and eating and just the whole ambience, so it's a modern interpretation."

This weekend, picnickers found that ambience at the estate of James Degnan in La Canada Flintridge--a privately owned property with a terraced lawn, pool, two guest houses and gazebo. Designed by "architect to the stars" Paul Williams in 1927, it is now owned by attorneys Rod and Gina Guerra, who bought the property three years ago and are restoring it to its original grandeur.

"We're right now standing in the Hollywood of people's dreams, the Hollywood of cinema of the '20s and '30s," said Will Ryan, a television writer and producer who was perched on a landing, listening to Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys play jazz down below. "It's 360 degrees of delight."

A trio of young women who'd set up their picnic by the pool couldn't agree more. "It's so nice to see an area where they haven't torn down the architecture and put up a mini-mall," Margaret Easley said.

The 32-year-old L.A. actress and friends Kelleigh Greenberg and Natalie Zea were snacking on pre-made sandwiches and salads bearing Whole Foods labels. They had no plans for the afternoon other than to enjoy the environment and, said Zea, "get sauced."

Like a scene from Fitzgerald's novel, the trio were dressed to the nines and sipping champagne from crystal glasses. They were even being courted by a blond and blue-eyed 32-year-old who, in his white slacks, white shirt, ascot and blue seersucker jacket, was a dead ringer for the Jay Gatsby of our imaginations.

"I thought I toned it down today," said Christian Chensvold, who won the picnic's Gatsby Spirit award. "I didn't wear my boater straw hat, and I didn't wear the white suit with the tie and the pearl stickpin."

Chensvold, a writer, is a Gatsby Picnic veteran. Originally from the Bay Area, he attended his first one six years ago and has been to four since.

"I've always identified with different eras--kinder, gentler eras," said Chensvold, referring to a time when the emphasis was on fun and fashion.

The ADSLA regularly hosts walking tours and lectures to educate people about the Art Deco era, which began in the roaring '20s and lasted throughout the Great Depression of the '30s. It also hosts more flamboyant events, such as cocktail parties and vintage fashion shows, which are open to the public.

"There's always an educational component, but sometimes you don't want to beat people over the head with that," said Mogul of the ADSLA, which has about 400 members. "You want them to come and play dress up and have a good time and forget the contemporary world that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis."

For Chensvold, that meant dancing and flirting with the ladies. He kicked up his heels, dancing the foxtrot and the Charleston with a woman in a blue chiffon flapper dress, then returned to the trio by the pool.

"They claim that they're all three in love with me," he said. "What am I going to do now?"

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