The party was established in 1905 by legendary socialite Billy Gamble and his high-society cohorts, who banded together to break up the doldrums of winter in Chicago by inaugurating the Widow & Widowers Ball. From the start, it was a party with an irreverent twist: Gamble & Co. drew up a list of all the couples in their social circles, decided which member of each couple they deemed the more fun half of the pair, and invited that person alone to attend the Ball. Not having their spouses or significant-others on hand, the "chosen ones" were free to let loose their inhibitions and go wild (which remains the ethos of Twelfth Night to this day).
To shroud the event in secrecy, guests were not told in advance where the Widow & Widowers Ball would be held; rather, they were instructed to state in their RSVP where they would have dinner the evening of the party. A phone call or message was dispatched to each guest during their pre-party dinners instructing him or her as to the location of the Ball later that night.
In order to preserve domestic peace, the following year those excluded in 1905 got the nod; by year three (1907) the restrictions were relaxed and both members of the couples were invited. Shortly thereafter, the party was rechristened the Butchers, Bakers, and Candlestick Makers Ball. By 1920, the event's name was changed to The Twelfth Night Masque and the secret Committee of Twelve was christeneda band of individuals whose identities are kept secret and whose responsibility it is to plan and produce Twelfth Night. Billy Gamble died in 1921, but the party continues as his lasting legacy to Chicago social life.
Twelfth Night has been a fixture on the Chicago social calendar for over a century and, for many, attendace is a family tradition: quite a few current attendees have parents (and even grandparents!) who attended (in some cases, who still attend) Twelfth Night.
Awareness of Twelfth Night is spread primarily by word-of-mouth; in order to receive an invitation one must be known to The Committee of Twelve, have attended the Masque previously, or else know an attendee who would be willing to "sponsor" one's petition to The Committee for an invitation. Over the past half century, attendance at Twelfth Night has averaged about 400, with an all-time high of 550+ at The Drake Hotel in the bicentennial year 1976 (the theme of which was "Yankee Hanky Panky").
Twelfth Night has been attended by scions of prominent Chicago families, captains of industry, notable politicians, media personalities, sports figures, actors & actresses, etc.all of whom relish the chance to revel in costumed anonymity. Stories of "the rich and famous" indulging their Bacchanalian natures are part of Twelfth Night lore.
In 1964, a reporter described Twelfth Night as "a party with a past," adding that "planners of the Fete have remained faithful to only one tradition of the partythat of providing a bang-up good time." In fact, Twelfth Night has developed multiple traditions in its century-plus history. A fixture at Twelfth Night is the Grand March, which commences shortly after the party starts: all guests are encouraged to participate individually, in small "krewes", or as part of the larger skit groups; as they parade by the panel of judges (whose identities are secret), many participants find ways of bribing the judges or finding other ways to curry favor and draw attention to their costumes and rehearsed routines in the hopes of winning a prize later in the evening.
Another cherished institution is the performance of short skits. In the period between the Twelfth Night theme announcement (mid-November) and the party itself (late-January), a half-dozen or so skit "krewes" (comprised of anywhere from a dozen to 50+ members) will convene "meetings"really, just thinly-veiled excuses for gathering to eat, drink, and be merry in January when the Chicago social scene is otherwise hibernatingto plan, write, and ultimate perform short skits for the entertainment of the crowd at the party.
One of the most-coveted awards of the evening is the Grand Prize in the skit category, which gives the winners bragging rights for the year. The skits weave the theme of the party together with prominent news stories of the day (many of which are suggested by the "inspirations" in the party invitation). For example, among the targets of skits at the 2010 Olympics theme party were ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, Michael Jackson (a perennial skit favorite), Mayor Richard M. Daley, the City of Chicago's failed bid for the 2016 Olympics, Susan Boyle, Tiger Woods, the Underwear Bomber, Olympian Michael Phelps (and his bong), Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan, etc.
The theme for Twelfth Night is announced at a kick-off party approximately two months prior to Twelfth Night itself. Recent themes have included:
Twelfth Night 2014 will afford an opportunity to those fortunate enough to receive an invitation to out-do the outrageous attire and behavior of Twelfth Nights past. Those who attendance will do well to recall these words, which the Committee of Twelve state in the invitation...
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For more information, contact The Grand Vizier.
This page was last updated on August 30, 2013.