Afterthoughts: The Party That Ended All Parties

A night featuring debauchery so extreme, people are still talking about it 62 years later.

Photo: Linny Morris

This time of year, you hear a lot about party etiquette. “Prepare a list of current events for small talk,” or, “Don’t photocopy your rear end.” Also taboo: Flirting with your coworkers, gaudy outfits and injudicious quantities of booze. Some of these social constraints exist for good reason—drunk driving just isn’t funny. But the other straitlaced rules, well, blame them on the hedonists who overdid it and ruined it for the rest of us. I point the finger squarely at the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

To understand why, step with me back into the night of Saturday, Sept. 18, 1948. A Beaux Arts costume ball, sponsored by the local AIA, “will be held at the Ala Moana pavilion tonight,” the Star-Bulletin announces, “In a setting so lush it will make the moon look cheap.” 

The event has a surreal theme, “A Night in Bali with Dali,” and, as at many upscale shindigs, an orchestra is playing. But they are performing in the pool.

The 1948 Beaux Arts Ball.

Photo: Archives of Honolulu Magazine

You walk over a glass floor, with live, nude women underneath. You drink cup after cup of a cocktail called “Missionary’s Downfall,” until you notice the punchbowl is cluttered with cigarette butts. Acrobats perform, and a woman swishes by in a see-through dress, her buttocks winking at you. You overhear someone say that they spent $4,110 to throw this bash [$36,227 in today’s dollars]. Deciding it’s time to leave, you step over businessmen, engineers and a professor, some passed out, others making out with their dates.  

I know these juicy details because people were still reminiscing about the debauchery two decades later, when HONOLULU wrote about the party. “There was too much booze and not enough food and what resulted was a first class bash, commonly pronounced ‘firsh clash bash,’” the magazine wrote in 1968, blaming the party for why “our parks today sport signs that say have fun, but no drinking, please.”

The party had not only scandalized the town, but possibly the entire country, because Life magazine had a photographer there and published evidence of the bacchanalia in a four-page story that ran nationally.

The Honolulu AIA “were heavily criticized, and told they couldn’t have anything in public like this again,” says 89-year-old local architect Frank Haines. Haines arrived in town in November of 1948. “That was after the notorious party, but people were still talking about it.” He later served as chapter president.

According to Haines, the following Beaux Arts Ball was held at the Queen’s Surf (a restaurant and nightclub that closed in 1969) and was not nearly as risqué. “The whole thing was more sane. My wife and I attended that one. But it wasn’t like you had to pay for scrip. You paid for the ticket [and then it was an open bar]. Architects can get awfully drunk, you know.”

Despite some lingering debauchery—one architect’s wife cavorted bare to the waist with glowing Christmas lights on her breasts—the chapter was clearly growing up, and the following years featured no Beaux Arts Balls. “They talked about it but it never got off the ground,” says Haines. 

So if you want to live large this year, don’t aspire to party like it’s 1999, or party like a rock star. You want to party like an architect.                                         

For more of Wagner’s writing, see her online column, “Guilty Pleasures."