The Press Has a Ball

A Litte Flirtation and Flaring Tempers Lent a Bit Too Much Old World Charm; But in Vienna, the Situation is Rarely Serious

Concordia Ball

The opening ceremony of the Concordia Ball, Jun. 6 at the Rathaus ballroom | Photo: Walter Henisch

Sweeping up the red-carpeted stairs of the Vienna Rathaus for the Concordia Ball, arm in arm with my escort, we felt transported back to another age, the timeless era of gowns and gallants that lives on in the Viennese Ball tradition.  The magnificent gothic arches, pillars and chandeliers of the Rathaus that have been the scene of Press Association’s annual gala since the 1960s are a perfect setting for all this, and seemed to tell of the countless glamorous balls that had been held there over the years, and we were carried away into a fairytale world.

We entered the ballroom just in time for the entrance of the debutantes and the presentation of the opening committee under the direction of ORF- hostess Barbara Rett. According to the motto Ein Ball für Europa- Europa am Ball [“A Ball for Europe – Europe is on the Ball] as the ball was held on the day before the opening match of the European Soccer Championship between Switzerland and the Czech Republic, the ballroom was decorated with lamps shaped like soccer balls, marking off the table area and the dance floor.

To the strains of the Austrian National Anthem and the European hymn, my friend and I toasted with a glass of Champaign with the 18.5-meter high ceiling vaulting over our heads, as intimidating as it was impressive.

The Concordia Ball has a long history that stretches back to 1863, when the first ball was held in the Sofiensäle, a former Russian steam bath and swimming pool in the Viennese third district. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the Rathaus was chosen as a new location for the hosting of the ball.

Especially in the 19th Century, the ball enjoyed popularity among Vienna’s beau monde. For example, Crown Prince Rudolph and Johann Strauß II, who dedicated several waltzes to the press club, graced the event with their presence. And chancellors, like Bruno Kreisky in the 1970s, have on many occasions themselves opened the ball.

But what has shaped the ball’s appeal even more, according to the secretary general of Concordia, Dr. Ilse Brandner-Radinger, have been the Damenspenden, the Ball Favors given to the ladies by their escorts or hosts, which in monarchy times were exclusive and very expensive.

Today, these invariably have something to do with the writing profession; this year, for instance, the women received a USB stick and a peacock feather.

These Viennese traditions quickly put a spell on my American escort, who, finely decked out in a tuxedo, white dress shirt and a black bow tie, grabbed my waist, and dragged me outside, where, in the arcade courtyard, we stepped out into the intoxicating turns of a Viennese waltz. The fact that the band was not playing anything remotely resembling a waltz didn’t seem to matter that much to him, nor in fact to me. The twirling made the gossamer over layer of my black lace evening gown dance in the lamplight, as we lost ourselves in the gallant atmosphere.

After the Mitternachtseinlage, a Johann Strauß Quadrille, and several glasses Champaign, wine, and beer, however, the plot thickened.  A group of soldiers dressed in the ceremonial uniforms of the Guard had been trailing us all night, and while my escort disappeared for about 30 minutes (which in my inebriated state seemed like an eternity) they walked over to talk to me. Arriving back to our table, my escort was less than pleased, particularly when he noticed one soldier making a grab for my bottom. He took in one good look, and exploded. I was (of course!) secretly pleased. Annoyed by his disappearance, I barely looked at him and continued talking to one of the young men dressed in uniform.

The soldiers soon forgot themselves, and their assignment of safeguarding the dance floor, puffed out their collective chests, and seemed determined to fight. You know, a gentleman’s honor, and all that. They started provoking my companion, mocking him for being American, and whispering amongst themselves that flirting was de rigeur.

In an attempt to put an end to this awkward situation, my friend pulled me into his arms and staged a dramatic – and wonderfully passionate — smooch. Unimpressed, the group of about five soldiers sandwiched him and pushed him headlong down the stairs.

Later, as we patched up his surface wounds and bruised ego, I thought of Lieutenant Gustl, the hapless soldier in Arthur Schnitzler’s short story, whose dimly understood sense of honor requires a dual with the baker, equally forbidden by a difference in social class: the only way out, he decides, is suicide.

But fortune intervenes and while he is mulling over methods, the baker has the good grace to die from a sudden stroke. Gustl, to his great relief, is off the hook.

In Vienna, after all, even when the situation is hopeless, it is generally not all that serious.

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