YOSEMITE -- Some people wonder why such an opulent lodge was built in the heart of Yosemite Valley. But on one night every year, when the Great Lounge at the Ahwahnee Hotel is transformed into a ballroom from long ago, it all makes sense.
For 80 years, the Ahwahnee has provided an inviting retreat at the foot of some of the most breathtaking granite walls on Earth.
Its windows frame striking vistas of surrounding mountains, while its rooms shelter the rich and famous.
Yet, it's the often-overlooked wooden floor in the lounge, which becomes an alluring dance surface for a few hours during the hotel's annual Yosemite Heritage Holidays, that offers insight into this curious union of luxury and nature.
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As live music filled the air on this special night last week, dancers in vintage clothing swirled round the room with the glamor and glitz of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie. For three hours, minds were free to travel back in time and imagine what the Ahwahnee was like when it first opened.
This annual nostalgic journey, begun in 2002 to commemorate the hotel's 75th anniversary, celebrates the park's pioneer years and extols the hotel's role in generating support for the national park system. It has grown in popularity since its inception, and events requiring tickets sold out four months in advance this year. Packages already are on sale for next year's event.
This year, more than 800 people attended some or all of the Heritage Holidays activities, which included three days of concerts, dance classes, historical presentations and a fashion show in addition to the dinner and ball. At the ball, couples wearing period clothing from the 1920s, '30s and '40s danced to jazz and swing tunes while onlookers in modern garb watched in wonder.
Pria Graves of Palo Alto was attending her first Grand Ball with husband George Koerner. "We booked our reservations last fall and I've been taking dance lessons since October," she said. "This is fabulous. The music is great."
Graves wore a gown made from a 1928 pattern and accented with vintage jewelry and a fur owned by her grandmother.
Madi Major of Santa Rosa and her daughters, Angie Major and Kristi Major, both of San Francisco, came in original gowns from the 1930s and '40s.
"Just getting ready for the ball is a lot of fun," said Angie Major, referring to the research and hunting that goes into assembling authentic clothing and accessories from the 1930s. "Back then, a woman wore a hat so that part of her would be hidden -- and make men want to peek under her hat."
But you don't have to scour thrift stores or visit vintage clothing vendors to create an authentic look for the Grand Ball.
Carol Sheerin of San Rafael, who was attending her sixth Grand Ball, came in a brand new "old" dress.
"I bought it at Gottschalks," she said, showing off an elegant black gown that looked like something out of the 1930s. "You don't have to own original clothes to capture the look."
Jimmy and Eileen Keck of Providence, R.I., who heard about Yosemite Heritage Holidays from California friends, marveled at the Ahwahnee's exquisite setting.
"It's the elegance," Jimmy Keck said, explaining his fascination with recapturing the past.
It began with 75th anniversary
Cherie Oliver of Redwood City, a member and former president of the Art Deco Society of California, came up with the idea for Yosemite Heritage Holidays.
"I've been going to Yosemite for 35 years, but it took me 10 years to work up the nerve to walk into the Ahwahnee in 1983," she said. "When I saw the Great Lounge and its wooden floor, I thought, 'This is where they danced.' "
Although she longed to see the room cleared of furniture and given over to dancing once again, Oliver never thought her dream would be realized until she helped Tom Bopp put together a program commemorating the 100th anniversary of Camp Curry in 1999. She told Bopp then that they ought to do something for the Ahwahnee's 75th anniversary, and that got things started.
"One of the things we do in the Art Deco Society is re-create the times of the 1920s, '30s and '40s," she said. "We reinhabit spaces of the past with the music, dance and fashion of that period. It brings it all to life."
Bopp, a Yosemite historian who also plays piano at the Wawona Hotel, said Oliver's Art Deco approach was the perfect way to step back in time.
"Our goal was to re-create the cultural climate that gave birth to the Ahwahnee," he explained. "When you immerse yourself in the culture of the period, you understand why it made sense to create the hotel."
Today, destination hotels are built outside national park boundaries, said Ranger Scott Gediman, spokesman for Yosemite National Park. But things were different in the 1920s.
"When Stephen Mather was appointed to lead the National Park Service, there wasn't a lot of support for the park system," he said.
With the country's population concentrated in the Northeast, Mather needed a way to interest people in visiting parks in the West, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. He also was convinced that support for the park system could be generated if people of influence could see nature's beauty firsthand.
"But Mather knew wealthy socialites and politicians didn't want to go camping," Gediman added. "He wanted a grand hotel where they could stay, a building that really fit into the landscape."
The result of Mather's vision was a luxury hotel done in rustic architectural style, which sought to blend buildings into their surroundings through the use of natural materials, such as stone, and by keeping dimensions in scale with the building's environment.
"Rooms at the Ahwahnee are expensive," Gediman said. "They're out of the price range of most people. But the public spaces inside the hotel are open to everyone. The building is owned by the park service and it belongs to the American people."
Gediman said the Ahwahnee has done just what it was supposed to do -- serve as a venue for extolling the virtues of the national park idea.
Hotel opened in the Roaring '20s
When the Ahwahnee opened July 14, 1927, Babe Ruth was on his way to hitting 60 home runs. Memories of World War I were fading, automobile travel was booming and short skirts had freed legs for a dance called the Charleston.
Music and dancing in the Ahwahnee during its early years reflected the high spirits of people who came to Yosemite for fun in addition to scenery.
"It was common to have dances in the Ahwahnee almost every night," said Fresno native Don Neely, director of the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra, which played for the ball. "Our band is a 10-piece band, which is the common size that played for dances in the 1920s. The Grand Ball is magical. It's like going back in time."
"I love the glamour and the feeling of optimism that flourished back then," said Laurie Gordon, creator and director of the Deco Belles, a Bay Area dance troupe that performed during the ball. "A lot of what we do comes right out of the movies. We can escape to the period and draw from it to create interesting entertainment."
Bopp said two kinds of people attend the grand ball -- those who sit and watch and those who want to be part of the show.
"If you want to get into it, you've got to do a little research," he said. "You've got to learn how people dressed for a ball back then and you've got to find the right clothes."