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You'll Need A Different Mask At This Year's Labyrinth Masquerade Ball — And A Vaccine

People wear elaborate costumes, including a black gown with a skull mask, and a group in native-style garb with straw-like hair.
Masks on at the Labyrinth Masquerade Ball.
(Vanessa Selik
Courtesy Labyrinth Masquerade Ball)
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We’ve spent a long time behind masks, but thousands of fans are getting ready to put on one more — along with ballgowns and other finery.

The Labyrinth Masquerade Ball, first held in 1997, draws thousands in their best fantasy couture to the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Attendees explore a maze-like array of rooms, beholding sights like a goblin party and lounging mermaids, watch elaborately choreographed stage shows, see meticulously crafted costumes others have labored over, and befitting the event, they dance.

In 2021, they’ll also find a vaccine requirement.

The event is inspired by the 1986 David Bowie classic Labyrinth, originally known as the Labyrinth of Jared Masquerade Ball. Over the years, other influences have been incorporated. Founder Shawn Strider credits the Venetian masquerade ball tradition, along with other '80s fantasy movies like The Dark Crystal.

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The ball also brings its own story, with an original mythology built on top of the idea that it’s set within the world of Labyrinth.

A person in a red cape and carrying a red sword prepares to face off against another person in a cloud-like ball gown and tiara.Other masked figures in white carry the figure of a creature on a pole.
A choreographed battle between the forces of the Labyrinth.
(John Truong
Courtesy Labyrinth Masquerade Ball)

It feels like you’re stepping into another world.
— Kimberly Mills

Kimberly Mills first attended the masquerade in 2019 and spoke glowingly about her experience.

“I still think about it. Like every day,” Mills said. “The doors open, and it’s literally the Labyrinth. It feels like you’re stepping into another world. My big thing at the end of it was, I felt like it was the prom I deserved and never got. … I didn’t want to stop dancing.”

Mills’ friend explained to her that the event was not like the cosplay at Comic-Con, but about “who you are in the costume you wear.”

“There’s almost a Burning Man quality to it, because there’s different little worlds and places,” Michael Lucid said. He covered the ball for the World of Wonder blog for several years. “It is very Labyrinth-like — both the movie, and being in a labyrinth.”

A large dragon head puppet, with "cryo" smoke shooting out of its mouth. The dragon is blue and white, with solid white glowing eyes, against a blue background.
The ball's ice-breathing dragon/karaoke diva.
(Clarence Alford Photography
Courtesy Labyrinth Masquerade)

The event is produced by volunteer artists, including sculptors, puppeteers, costumers, choreographers, and more. As they prepare, the team has been doing concept art, creating hundreds of costumes, and rehearsing the performances. Oh, and prepping their 20-foot ice-breathing dragon.

“[She] used to be an antagonist in some of our stories, and she’s now our big diva,” Strider said.

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They do a section of the night called “dragon dance,” where the dragon shoots its ice breath as people sing karaoke.

“You can’t really replace the experience of standing up on stage with a dragon that is singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with a crowd that’s singing along,” Strider said.

Not Ready To Go Back

A large hotel lobby room with high ceilings, with dozens of people standing around talking, eating, and more. Instruments for a live band are in the front left. The hotel has a large window above its entrance, with high off-white columns along each side.
The ball crowd at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel mingle during a previous year's event.
(Violet Schrage
Courtesy Labyrinth Masquerade Ball)

It seemed like a threshold into the rest of life.
— Markeia McCarty

Not everyone’s ready to head to the ball and party past the stroke of midnight.

Markeia McCarty had a ballgown ready to go for this year’s event, and was set for it to be her first time attending. She had a half-mask with gold foil and rainbow coloring, a stylish commedia dell’arte mask with feminine Phantom of the Opera vibes — that was paired with a floor-length, champagne gown, and had been preparing to add her own set of wings to the outfit as she became a faerie.

With the delta variant bringing a less-than-magical feeling to the moment, McCarty considered skipping the 2021 fantasy.

“I was extremely excited,” McCarty said. “Life was on pause for 14, 15 months before vaccinations could happen for almost anybody, then this to me was going to be a celebration of moving forward — first time at this glamorous ball event, celebrating one of my favorite childhood movies, Labyrinth, and being able to be decked out and see people with similar passions, and creative sense, and artistic freedom. … It seemed like a threshold into the rest of life.”

A man dressed up in a plant-covered costume, with a leaf mask, hair of leaves, a scepter with a light inside with leaves on it, green face paint, and more, on the left; on the right, a smiling woman with a shiny red and black top and brown hair.
A mossman and a friend.
(Ryan Summers
Flickr Creative Commons)

McCarty was initially unsure — but after hearing that vaccine cards would be checked at the door, she decided to head out.

“I didn’t go through quarantine, and vaccination, and everything to then get sick at this event and unwittingly pass it on to someone else that has chosen not to get vaccinated. That’s the big fear for me,” McCarty said. “I personally would prefer to keep my hands clean — both in the tally of things that I’ve done to people in life, and also with hand sanitizer.”

Despite the vaccination requirement, Mills said she doesn't feel comfortable attending such a large indoor event right now.

For those who skip the event, their tickets will remain valid — the ball is continuing a policy implemented last year that allows people to defer their tickets to another year. They’ve also capped attendance, including tickets sold, complimentary tickets provided, and number of performers. With all those giant ballgowns and costumes, it’s already an event that allowed additional room beyond fire codes for people to move around. The event isn’t set to hit its cap, but will be close.

While he’s personally feeling cautious, Lucid expects the masquerade to be well-attended.

“There’s just a lot of people who are eager to get back out there, and are done with all of this, and want to have fun and be together,” Lucid said.

Strider said that he expects about 75% of the attendees seen in a normal year, which can include more than 5,000 masked revelers.

Closing The Labyrinth In 2020

A group of nine dressed in goblin costumes, with green body paint and large fake noses and ears.
The goblins are ready for you to come back.
(KVE Photo
Courtesy Labyrinth Masquerade Ball)

The masquerade was forced to put the music on pause last year due to the pandemic. Just before the disease took off in the U.S., masquerade organizers held their annual spring event for the cast known as “story time.” They’d seen the effect coronavirus had in Asia already, and they started working on contingency plans. By the time June arrived, they knew that the August 2020 event just couldn’t happen.

Plans for new stages, stories, and costumes were scuttled. The live nature of the experience meant that it wasn’t simply something that could be live-streamed.

“Labyrinth is a visceral show,” Strider said. “It’s something you can feel on the edge of your eyes, and the scent and the energy that’s in the air. So not having it was like having a great void of creativity that we’re used to.”

A person in an elaborate costume including skin paint, pointy ears, contacts, and more. They wear battle armor with bedazzling and have long blonde, fantasy-styled hair.
In deep character at the 2012 Labyrinth Masquerade Ball.
(Ryan Summers
Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons )

Fans put together their own online celebrations, and Strider and other organizers joined in some of those. They also made some new friends during the pandemic: health care workers. As one of the world’s largest masquerades, they had storage facilities filled with elastic, according to Strider. And during personal protective equipment shortages last year, they connected with USC Keck Medicine to provide elastic for masks to protect workers from COVID-19. They also donated sewing machines and had seamstresses who contributed to the efforts.

Those medical community friends — including advisors from USC Medical, Cedars-Sinai, and Alameda Hospital — are helping to bring back the in-person experience. Organizers get updates every 48 hours.

“We’ve got targets that we’ve said, even if it’s 24 hours before the show, if we hit these targets, we close the doors before anyone else has to tell us,” Strider said.

But, he added, COVID-19 numbers aren’t getting close to hitting those targets.

COVID Safety In A Fantasy World

A young woman with long hair wearing a green cape. She wears a small amount of face paint and has pointy ears.
This elf will need a mask on her nose and mouth this year.
(Clarence Alford
Courtesy Labyrinth Masquerade Ball)

This year’s return brings added precautions. That includes a vaccine requirement for both attendees and cast and crew.

“It has not been a popular decision, because Labyrinth is something that draws a lot of people together. It crosses political bounds, across culture bounds,” Strider said. “We voiced this as, not a political opinion, just as, ‘Look, we’re looking at the numbers. We see the vaccine rollouts that are happening on the clinical side, in the hospitals — our medical advisors are saying this is the way that they’re able to get back to work. We’re going to have to do this.’”

According to Strider, both attendees and some of the artists who participate responded, “Well, that’s not the right choice for us.”

“And our answer has been, ‘Well, this is not the right year for you to come, because we want you to stay safe. And in our estimation, this is the best way to do this safely,’” Strider said.

They’ve also had to change plans for the way that performers interact with the crowd and the number of personnel they have on site.

“We’ve tried to tailor it to make it a little more intimate,” Strider said, “and not have stage shows with 45 people on stage that then rush out into the crowd at the end.”

Attendees will also need a mask that safely covers their nose and mouth. Lucid praised the mask requirement.

“Because it’s a masked masquerade. Sometimes when limitations are put on people, that can make the creativity go to places it wouldn’t have gone otherwise,” Lucid said. “This could be the perfect motivation for people to just go all out with their masks.”

McCarty noted that she’s happy to see events requiring both masks and vaccinations.

Whether that requirement remains in 2022 remains to be seen. But attendees who may be taking a pass this year are excited to return. McCarty hopes to be able to attend more events next year, including Comic-Con, Burning Man, and more extensive travel. But she'll want protections in place.

The Labyrinth Masquerade is this weekend, Friday and Saturday night.

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