From basements to attics, illegally operated speakeasies worked to stay hidden. Owners bribed officials to avoid raids or employed secret passwords to get in. If those measures failed, speakeasies like the 21 Club had systems to eliminate evidence: built-in shafts to dispose of alcoholic bottles. At the bottom was a pile of rocks to shatter the glass and make the alcohol disappear.
To capture this illicit mood for your Jazz Dinner, there are a few essential items you’ll need to help your guests feel like they’re breaking the law.
"Definitely NOT a Speakeasy"
The first item you need is a misleading sign. Speakeasies were often disguised as jazz clubs, soda shops, or cafes to stay hidden. By disguising it as a legitimate business, it made it harder for police to bust them. Some decoy sign ideas could be:
Monthly Women’s Book Club Meeting
Art Appreciation Exhibit
Annual Gathering of Tea Enthusiasts
(Name of your school or organization) Parents’ Meeting
(Name of your school or organization) Historical Society
Next, decorating the entrance hall with urban lighting will set the scene of your sketchy establishment. Outdoor pendant lighting is ideal. The visible wiring and bare light bulbs give it a makeshift look. Fitted with Edison light bulbs, which are easy on the eyes, definitely adds to the underground feel.
Stacking empty crates and wooden pallets screams a gritty storage room. If you want to highlight these wooden stacks, place old wine bottles on them. Peel off the labels and plug the empty bottles with aged corks. Try to pick glass bottles with a color tint rather than clear ones, as those will visually disappear into the background.
Loot boxes are also an option. Take an old luggage trunk, leather briefcase, or cross-body bag and stuff it with loot. If you pad it with packing paper or newspaper and then stack valuables on top, you can make the box look fuller. Items may include liquor bottles, cigar boxes, bags of money, or pearl necklaces.
Another idea is to take cardboard boxes wrapped in brown paper. Glue labels like “moonshine” or “whiskey” to the sides of the boxes. Stacking these alcoholic crates around the venue adds visual texture to the room.
Time for Lockup
If you include raids as a part of your Jazz Dinner, you need a prison cell! Posting bail is another fun way to raise money for your fundraiser.
Getting a black outdoor kennel can make for a makeshift jail. Fashion a massive sign for the front reading “County Jail,” and decorate the sides with “most wanted” mobster posters. Inside, you may include wooden benches or chairs for guests to sit on until bail is posted.
Usually, you could bribe your way out of raids. But, if that failed, some speakeasies had drop shelves and secret cabinets to hide their booze. Free-standing glass cabinets fulfill this function. Hiding bottles behind knick-knacks or books is a nice touch.
You may also use cabinets to hold wine and cocktail glasses for your faux bar. But, having pieces of furniture like a cabinet or side tables adds to the residential tone since many speakeasies were in basements or attics.
Finally, free-standing brick walls give your venue an underground feel. Whether you paint a canvas background, carve and texture foam pieces, or use brick paneling from a home improvement store, this will add to the gritty setting of your Jazz Dinner.
Illegally Great Jazz Dinner Sets
Putting all the pieces in place will transform your dining hall into an underground speakeasy. While most elements are cheap and simple to add, you can build up your set collection over time. Sets are a fantastic way you pull your audience into a story and transition them into the 1920s. Also, well-made sets add to the value of the experience, ensuring your guests feel like they got their money’s worth. This way, you’ll guarantee your audience will come for the next one!