The Imaginary Birth of Mrs. Field’s Mikado Ball
By Melissa Ehret
For those of you who are parents, you no doubt have among your acquaintances that one family that is compelled not just to raise the bar on the “Wow” factor of their children’s parties, but to blast that old bar into the stratosphere. You may think the Best Kids’ Party Ever competition is a relatively new phenomenon. You would be wrong.
For this entry, we are going to take a bit of creative liberty as to how a certain Prairie Avenue family decided to put on the Kids’ Party of All Kids’ Parties. The cast of characters includes Marshall Field; Nannie Field, his wife; Marshall Field, Jr., age 17; Ethel Field, age 12; and their cook.
Marshall Field Residence at 1905 S. Prairie Avenue.
Sometime in the autumn of 1885 in the parlor of 1905 South Prairie Avenue:
Mr. Field (because it is unimaginable that anyone, even his wife, would have called him “Marshall”): “Well, Nannie, have you started making the guest list for the children’s tree-trimming party?”
Nannie: “Um, about that, dear. You do know we have been having tree-trimming parties since Junior and Ethel were toddlers. Don’t you think it’s getting a bit old?”
Nannie Field with children Marshall, Jr. and Ethel
Mr. Field: “Why, no. Everybody likes tree-trimming parties. The smell of fresh pine, the gingerbread houses, the hot chocolate, Christmas carols, the butler ready to clean up the broken ornaments. What else could we want? And besides, even if we served nothing but cold tea, all the neighbors would send their kids anyway. And we could serve that candy that cook of yours, what’s her name, Frances, makes. Fran, go get us some of those mints.”
Cook: “Fran go do this. Fran go do that. If I had a buck for every time I heard ‘Fran go,’ I’d be rich.”
Nannie: “Father, I think we need to shake things up a bit this year.”
Mr. Field: “Okay, this year, we’ll go all out: I’ll send the butler to the Jewel. He can pick up Armour hot dogs, burgers, Jay’s Potato Chips, Berghoff Beer, Green River, and Twinkies.”
Nannie: Turns pale. “Nothing against old Philip D., dear, but have you read The Jungle?”
Mr. Field: “Then how about we get Portillo’s to cater? Italian Beef and Cake Shakes? Or Giordano’s Deep-dish pizza? Uno? Malnati’s?”
Nannie: Sniffs in high indignation.
Mr. Field: “So we get a clown. While walking to the store today, I saw this performer on State Street. Orange hair and a big red nose. A real bozo.”
Junior: “Ah, no, Pops. Television won’t be around for about 50 years, and then, there’s that John Wayne Gacy thing.”
Mr. Field: “Right-o, my boy. No clown. So then we’ll have sleigh rides. We’ll rent a bowling alley.”
Ethel: “Daddy, noooooo!”
Mr. Field: “We can book that band, the Rolling Stones.”
Junior: “What, they’re still performing at their age?”
Mr. Field: “Maybe I’ll ask that bright young Mr. Selfridge at the store to come over and decorate our windows. Put a plastic Santa, a leg lamp, and a statue of my Uncle Mistletoe right here in this window facing Prairie.”
Nannie: “Decorate windows? That’s absurd! Whoever heard of such a ridiculous idea? Who in their right mind would be remotely interested in looking at the Field’s windows?”
Mr. Field: “Uh, yes, dear.”
Nannie: “This year, I’m thinking opera.”
Junior: “What the …”
Mr. Field: “You mean we get a few of Teddy Thomas’ students over at Orchestra Hall to come over so they can come over and warble a few arias? Splendid idea.”
Nannie: “Not exactly. Remember when we saw The Mikado last month?”
Mr. Field: “Um, maybe. I slept through most of it.”
Nannie: “Well, that’s just what you get, Mister. You’re going to see it again.”
Mr. Field. “Okay, if I must.”
Nannie: “The costumes. The sets. The works. The stage lights. The orchestra.”
Mr. Field: “Shall I order tickets?”
Nannie: “Tickets, schmickets. We’re having it here.”
Mr. Field: “Um, what?”
Nannie: “The Mikado. We’re going to have it here, right in this house. The whole shebang.”
Mr. Field: Gulps. “But Nannie…”
Nannie: “Nannie nothing. I’m tired of that Bertha Palmer upstaging us with her wacky paintings she keeps buying from those myopic French guys. And what’s with George Pullman dedicating an entire town to himself? And Philip Armour getting into all the best restaurants in town by calling himself the Sausage King of Chicago. No. It’s time we do something. We’re going to have the party to end all parties!”
Mr. Field: “I need a drink.”
Junior: “Hey, great idea, Pops. Let’s net some butterflies at the Everleigh Club!”
Mr. Field: “Watch it, buster.”
And so it came to pass that Nannie Field organized what would be known as the most spectacular children’s party Chicago has ever seen. Her husband spent an estimated $75,000.00 (more than $2 million in today’s dollars) on what became known as the Mikado Ball. It is not known as to whether Nannie used an event planner, but the January 1, 1886 party would raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded of socialites.
The Chicago Tribune gushed, “There was such a bewildering mass of rich and costly stuffs that no detailed description could well be given.” Let’s start with the spotlights. Yes, spotlights. This was when incandescent lighting was still considered exotic and dangerous. The Fields had the lights placed along several blocks of Prairie Avenue so the guests could make their way.
Once people had arrived at the mansion, they realized with delight that it had been transformed into a Japanese palace. Where the main entrance used to be was a huge copy of one of the sets from the original New York production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s beloved Mikado. Inside, the Johnny Hand Orchestra played from a miniature pagoda. Costly doors inside the home were removed and replaced with beaded curtains. Electric lights glowed inside silk lanterns. Satin tapestries covered the walls. Bronze and porcelain sculptures were ordered especially for the event.
Having previously established that no Chicago eateries would cut the mustard for this occasion, Nannie had delicacies shipped via specially equipped railroad cars from New York’s exclusive Sherry’s restaurant. Silver and china from the legendary establishment accompanied the food. The Fields commissioned British artist Paul Whistler to design the party favors, which included peacock feathers, satin sashes, silk flowers and miniature lanterns. Little feet trod across antique Oriental rugs. Live Japanese cherry trees in full bloom graced the ballroom.
Alice Keith, Ethel Field and Florence Otis
She built it, and they came: Some 400 teens and children of the nation’s elite arrived not just from Chicago but from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cincinnati. In an age when the term “politically correct” had not yet entered the American lexicon, the Chicago Tribune described the attendees as “Happy Young Japs.” Dressed in kimonos, obi sashes, and clasping fans, the children danced, ate, and were photographed in their Far Eastern finery. In taking pictures of the guests, society photographer Steffens performed a feat which, in 1886, was virtually unheard of: He used his camera at night. No daylight, no studio. He took photographs in a darkened house, and he developed them. And the results were beautiful.
Parents were also welcome at the fete, but many declined to attend and instead presented at the more sedate reception Nannie held the following afternoon. Immediately after the reception, the decorations came down, the mansion’s doors were reattached to their hinges, and the Field residence looked the way it did just a few days ago. Was it all a dream? Or was it the kids’ party for the ages?