Matt Tolentino and Danielle Bennignus are a black and white photo brought to life. She bobs her hair, wears trousers and dances the Charleston; he wears swallow-tailed suits and trilbies. They're your friendly neighborhood hep cats, with a mid-century lifestyle decorated with boudoir dolls, 78's and pocket squares.
"We're encouraging people to dress vintage, there will be a dance floor, my band the Sinagpore Slingers will play and we'll have vendors selling everything from jewelry to ice cream," Tolentino says. "We're encouraging people to pack lunches and spend the day with us. It's just a big party."
Victrolas and parasols aren't a fly-by-night hipster trend for Tolentino and Bennignus, it's taken years to build and perfect their pre-war life.
"It's a fun way to live, I have to admit it," Tolentino says, over a cup of Joe at Oak Lawn Coffee. He was easy to spot, as he's the only one in the coffee shop wearing a blue-striped suit. "For me, this obsession started with the music."
Growing up in Dallas, Tolentino wore jeans and t-shirts, but from a very early age he was fascinated with the music of a long-gone era. The way he remembers it, he was 8 years old when he first heard music from the 1920's. It was the spark that led to a life-long fascination with the movies, the cars, the clothes, the literature. "I devoured anything I could get my hands on," Tolentino says. "When I was a teenager, I'd make my parents drive me to Borders or Half Price Books so I could dig through cds or records. It seems strange that there was ever such a time."
Tolentino funneled this love of pre-swing dance music music into an eighteen member orchestra he founded in 2007, the Singapore Slingers. The group plays American popular songs from the turn of the 20th century through 1935. Think ragtime through the foxtrot. The Slingers play forgotten tunes like "You're the Cream in my Coffee" or Tolentino's personal favorite, the 1929 love song "I may be wrong (but I think you're wonderful)."
"It's got that catchy 20's beat, but it has a sarcasm to it that captures the spirit of the era," Tolentino says, singing a line from the song, "You said that Edison would never make the light.... it's just about a guy who can't out clothes that match, he has terrible taste, but he's finally made the right choice in picking out his lady friend."
Other than his '93 Chevrolet (which he describes as "vintage enough"), the only modern exception in Tolentino's wholly anachronistic life is his use of technology. He's got a flip phone, a computer and a Facebook. But he owes his love life to social media. Five years ago, he met Danielle on Myspace.
"He was a friend of a friend and I saw his picture and was like, can this person really exist?" Bennignus smiles. "We became pen pals for about three years. Then he was traveling through Cincinnati, where I was living at the time, and he asked if he could stay with me. Being a trusting person, I said yes. Months later I was moving to Dallas."
Bennignus is a graphic artist, who sews her own clothes and grew up shimmying and jitterbugging. Their Internet affair was destined for love, because she's got the moves and he's got the rhythm. Tolentino describes their life as the "best of both worlds," one foot in today and one in yesteryear.
"Thanks to the internet, it's easier to find people who are like-minded or interested in the same things you are," Toletino says. "I mean I couldn't exist like this in the 1920's. You'd be interviewing Cole Porter or some fabulous artist. Back then, everybody was doing what I'm doing, today I'm re-introducing it to a new generation."
There's certainly no one else like Tolentino in Dallas. Outside of his band, he's a multi-instrumental musicians who can be seen in pit orchestras and quartets around Dallas. That accordion you heard a few weeks ago at Klyde Warren Park? Might've been him. Last year he was one of the founding members of the Art Deco Society, a group committed to the historical preservation and presentation of architecture and the art of Dallas.
"Years ago people would ask me if I felt like I was born in the wrong era and I would answer absolutely," Tolentino says. "But today people are interested in the past and I get to introduce them to the wild, raucous 20's. I love it that way."
Glimpse into the Roaring Twenties at the Jazz Age Sunday Social, March 30 at Dallas Heritage Village, 1515 S Harwood St. Tickets are $10. There won't be food trucks or booze for sale. Because, prohibition. I'll be the one with a flask tucked into my garter, it's only fitting.
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