Monday, April 30, 2012

Regina Quondam et Futuram

My son ran headlong into an odd bit of Portland history last week; Queen Thelma.A group sponsored, I believe, by an outfit known as the Royal Rosarians turned up at his class to tell the kids about the history of the Rose Festival.

Now - as I've mentioned before - Rose Festival is a very odd sort of Portland thing in a place that treasures its oddity.
First of all, it's not really a "thing" at all; there's no real theme or purpose behind it, and it's span is so vague as to be almost meaningless. No one knows exactly when it begins, or ends, or what is or isn't part of it.

We know that it's not a purely musical event like, say, SXSW or Sasquatch, but there is music in it. It doesn't celebrate a historical or national event, like Cinco de Mayo or Fourth of July, or an event of significance to any particular group of people, like Kwanzaa or Christmas or Ramadan, but it has a sort of a history.

It does have parades, of several different types, and times, and themes. It has races, human and vehicular. It has an airshow, and dragon boat races, and a nasty carny (which is always held along the downtown stretch of the Willamette River and for years was known as the "Pepsi Fun Center" until one of our local weeklies published a story titled Face-down in the Fun Center, pointing out that the goddam centerpiece of the Rose Fest was a nasty carny filled with drunk frat boys and girls from fucking Beaverton and Gladstone gatoring in a vile mix of mud and used lager. I don't know what they called it after that, but it sure as hell wasn't the "Pepsi Fun Center") and several god knows what.

There's also a weekend when a small group of military and coastguard vessels turns up and ties up along the waterfront, adjacent to the whatever-they-call-what-used-to-be-the-"fun-center". This used to be entertaining for the locals, who got to visit the ships, and for the crews, who got to visit a liberty port not expressly designed around separating a sailor from his or her cash in the most nastily expeditious way possible.
That was pre-2001. Now security is so damn tight that nobody but invited guests get to tour the damn ships, which in return for very little entertainment value tie up traffic for several hours during Monday rush hour causing the bridges to raise when they head downriver. So sorry, sailor, you can stuff your "Fleet Week", in my opinion.
In fact, most Portlanders I know fall into two categories; those who sorta-kinda know that there's this "Rose Festival" thing that happens every spring but don't really care or take part in any of the events, and those who have some deep and passionate connection with one specific event that is part of the whole magilla but don't really care or take part in any of the other events.

For example, I have two friends who race in the dragon boat competition every year.

But that's all. They don't go to the parades, or down to the carny-formerly-known-as-the-"fun-center", or the air show, or the concerts. They don't know who the Queen of Rosaria is, or what the theme of the Starlight Parade is.

They do the dragon boat races, and nothing else.

And that's the way a LOT of Portlanders take this rascal.

Some get excited about one of the parades. Or the airshow. Some love the ships. Some - mostly young men from Gresham - come to get shitfaced at the carny and fall face-down in the mud and spew of Waterfront Park. But I honestly cannot think of anyone I know who gets all jiggly looking forward to "Portland's Official Festival".

So I got a kick out of my son - who has never given a rip about the thing other than the time that we got caught downtown in the middle of the Grand Floral Parade and the float caught fire, which he considered genuine quality entertainment - coming home stuffed full of information about Queen Thelma and W.J Hofmeister, her "Prime Minister", and Silas Christofferson, the ragtime aviation freak who rocked the RoseFest 100 years ago by flying off the roof of the old Multnomah Hotelin his Curtiss biplane and then, pioneering the tradition of Oregon residents fleeing to Clark County to avoid our income tax, landed fifteen minutes or so later at the Army airfield in Vancouver.

I find it mildly amusing that nowhere in the Rose Fest publicity for the centenary of this stunt is there a mention of hos insane it was and that this poor mook had only about four more year to live because of his enthusiams; like a lot of early aviators, he augered in - in his case on Hallowe'en Day, 1916;
"Silas was flying several hundred feet over the aviation field on Halloween 1916 in Redwood City, California when his engine went dead. He ‘volplaned’ but could not regain control of the aeroplane and was hurled to the ground. His plane overturned in a 100 feet fall during a trial of a new military biplane with a new innovative control system. His wife and two brothers watching the flight with a pupil of the Silas Christofferson Aviation School rushed to his aid; he was taken to a hospital were he died from his injuries."
Sucked to be him, but those guys had the life expectancy of caddis-fly larvae. It's pretty amazing when you think of how blase' we are about flying. A century ago it was like combat diving or panther wrestling, a sport only for the truly mad...
Imagine; 50,000 people stopping to watch an airplane fly overhead; it makes sense when you think that it had a damn good chance of falling ON their heads. It was a very different time

And that was not the only difference in the times. I get the sense that back in the teens the Rose Festival really WAS something. Certainly it seems to have been everything to young Thelma Hollingsworth; she spent the rest of her life connected to the thing, and appears to have had a splendid time living in the corona of the year she reigned as Queen of all Rosaria. What I find intriguing about her is how difficult it is to find her; do an Internet search for her picture; all I could find was the Oregonian shot of her "court" I have at top, this one, from about the Fifties or late Forties;

which seems to have been taken at some sort of Rose function; you'll note the skimmer-sporting Rosarian squiring Her Majesty.

The strange part about this is that all the articles about her talk about how the Queen and her court of pretty young ladies toured all over the Portland area and much of the Northwest that year, drumming up interest in the Festival. Photography was quite the rage in the Teens, and I cannot imagine that any young Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco camera-nut passing up the opportunity to get some snapshots of a pretty girl in fancy clothes amid a bevy of other cuties; men may have changed since 1914 but not in that respect...

My personal favorite, though, is this enlargement of the Oregonian photo;

It is the only one that I could find that gives you an actual sense of the young Miss Hollingsworth as a person. It's worth looking closely at her; go ahead. I'll wait.

So physically she seems to be a conventionally "pretty girl"; oval face, straight nose, dark eyes. She has a bit of a full chin, suggesting that she was pleasantly rounded in the fashion of the times, before the brutal modernity of the Twenties demanded a woman's figure lose all its womanly curvature.

It's hard to tell, since the background around her head appears to have been retouched, but she seems to have had a cloud of dark hair in the Edwardian style. The rest of her is buried under the pile of clothing she's been dressed in as her robes of "state".

But the worthwhile part is in her expression. Look at her again.

She's looking at something or someone down to her left; she's cocked her head a bit, and her glance is slightly hooded, as if she's trying not to be too obvious about not staring. But what- or who-ever it is seems to be providing her with a certain amount of amusement, given the traces of her smile.

And the smile is the good part; Queen Thelma seems to have a lovely, subtle smile, the corner of her lips tucked neatly away in a wry little curve that floats up from the old silver and black salts like a fragrant curl of smoke from snuffed candle.

It seems to contain a good deal of sense, and a good humor that bolts across the divide of nearly a century, jolting me into thinking that I would have enjoyed a lazy afternoon's company with this woman, hearing her talk of her work, and her excitement at her celebrity, and thinking up ways to provoke that fleetingly adorable smile.

I am not one of those who long for the past. For a person of my class and age 1912 would most likely have been an generally drudging and occasionally (e.g. typhus epidemic, financial panic, labor-management war in which I was beaten by strikebreakers or shot by the National Guard...) fearfully frightening time. I am very glad I live in 2012 and not 1912.

But looking at Thelma's smile I cannot but stop and think that there must have been something worthwhile about the then that made this young woman and her beloved Festival; for all that we cannot and I would not if we could, return, I wonder; what was it that has changed so that we are ourselves so much alike in so many ways, and yet in so many others so strange?

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