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Steampunks Change the Face of Galveston at Dickens on the Strand

12 January 2011 by

Members of Steampunk Illumination Society (DFW Chapter)

Per the information on the Galveston Historical Society’s Website:  “Dickens on The Strand is a holiday festival, where Bobbies, Beefeaters, and the Queen (Victoria) …recreate the Victorian London of Charles Dickens.  Characters from Dickens novels walk the street. Food and entertainment fill the area with sights and smells that take you back to another era.”  This year in Galveston, Texas, the 37th annual festival put together by the Galveston Historical Society was invaded en mass (with the Queen’s permission believe it or not) by Airship Pirates, Time Traveling Privateers, Steampunk Inventors, artists, and craftsmen, and a host of creatures from realms foreign to the standard fair goers.

Airship Isabella & friends in the daytime parade

This festival is so strict (normally) about proper historical recreation that all entertainers are required to fill out a detailed form about what they will be presenting, and to present the entertainment committee with photos of costumes and recordings of performances to ensure that all clothing, melodies, and lyrics are from “pre-1900s sources.”  In spite of this, representatives of Airship Isabella convinced them to make an exception so large this year that the square around the “Crystal Palace Stage” had a huge banner across the entrance reading “Steampunk Square” with the sponsors listed jointly as the Galveston Historical Society and Airship Isabella.

The only obvious change at first was the plethora of colorful characters that blended underlying historical ensembles with very anachronistic and often futuristic accoutrement.  Then it really got strange!  More and more very unusual looking Airship Pirates, Time travelers, and even the “Mad Hatter” from another universe all together made their appearance on the streets and in the photographs of people from across the country.

Airships Isabella & Neo Dulcimer's Wonderland Crewmembers

Airship Isabella was out in full regalia along with friends from as far away as Mississippi that came specifically for this event.  They and several other vendors ran a brisk trade in Steampunk jewelry, clothing, and other items.  They also set up a “Steamunk Museum” where their friends and visiting Steampunks were encouraged to display their most interesting and elaborate Steampunk weapons, inventions, or armor pieces for all the visitors to see.

Steampunk Museum

Other standard acts were still there and provided an amazingly performance heavy environment with good professional acts on most of the three stages and the three street performance areas throughout most of each day.  All performers were required to provide a professional resume, photos of costuming, and recordings or their performances.  They were also required to guarantee that their attire, lyrics, and music were all pre-1900s.  Exceptions had to be made for the special Steampunk Guest performers, mostly Airships Isabella and Neo Dulcimer, but also with representatives from several other Airships and a few other Steampunk Performance Art Troupes, like Airship Dionysius (“Steam Circus” acts) and the S.S. Kali’s Hourglass (“Steam Nautical” comedy), in attendance by special invitation at this event.

Airship Dionysius

The list of standard performers is too long to present here in total, but it focused mostly on excellent Texas choirs, bagpipe and drum bands, fiddlers, jugglers, and magic acts for the most part.  Some of the performers included The Rogues (Celtic Pipe and Drum band), The Bilge Pumps (pirate comedic singers), Iron Hill Vagabonds (Celtic fiddler/singers), Thom Sellectomy (comedic sword swallowing), The Merry Mary (high wire act), The Bayou City Pipes & Drums, The Cambell and Wilson Duo, Pirates Ahoy,  and The Magical Illusions of Cherie Kay & Lanny Kibbey.  The Jugglers were out in force with The Other Brothers, Those Darn Jugglers, and Brian Wendling who all mostly mixed comedy with skillful juggling. The Other Brothers were a little different in that they always managed to finish the stunt at hand wrong with hilarious results.  All of them were good, and all of them (Airship Isabella excluded) were Victorian era style entertainment.

The Bilge Pumps

One unusual act of note was a one man performer that played absolutely beautiful Celtic traditional tunes by vibrating glasses partly filled with water.  He didn’t even get on a stage, but simply played most of the day at his booth where he sold his albums of recorded vibrating glass music.  It sounds simple, but stopped me dead in my tracks when I heard one of my favorite Celtic ballads played in such beautiful and unusual tones.

The Elissa

The most fascinating item, for sea loving types like myself, had to be the tall masted sailing ship the Elissa.  It was magnificent!  I would live on the ship if I could.  It was made at the end of the 1700s and was a sleek merchant ship that actually traded with Galveston back in it’s prime.  It is now a floating and fully operational, fully restored sailing museum and training vessel for those desiring to learn the traditional arts of sailing a tall masted ship.

Union General wth his Lady

Other items of great interest ranged from a very proper Victorian Gentleman and/or lady’s costume contest (and even a facial hair contest) to a brass bed race where pairs of men in Victorian nightgowns raced brass beds on wheels throughout the fair grounds.  Other special events included an incredible bagpipe and drum high school band, a young lad (maybe age 5?) playing a violin in the street, The Queen and her Beefeater Guards, The Highland Regiment, and the Texas Army, a Confederate recreation society that had a full camp that was very impressive indeed!

Admiral Ramon and SS Kali's Hourglass

When time came for the evening parade, the historical society was uncertain where to place their strange assortment of guests in the parade, (at least this reporter was told that was the case as we had never been there in such large numbers before) so we were placed at the very end behind the Queen, her beefeater bodyguards, Highland guardsmen, Bagpipe bands, many other groups, and even the “Texas Army” which is a Confederate Army reenactment group.  The leader of that rather impressive group of Confederates asked one of the event staff members, loud enough to ensure we could hear, if our motley looking group were ruffians  that had been lined up for them to throw off the island.  In his usual shy and retiring way, Admiral Ramon Leon del Mar (Kali’s Hourglass) answered equally loudly that “No.  We’re the pirates that are here to take over the island!”  The Texas Army Captain  looked a bit nervous at first, but the laughter and friendly, jovial attitude seemed to put him at ease.  Just the same, the Admiral’s words proved to be prophetic, for take over the island they most certainly did!

Cpt Cedrick Whittaker of Airship Isabella

Much of the credit for this goes to Captain Cedric Whittaker, who made a sincere plea to friends and Steampunk associates across the country to attend and support this project to bring the Steampunk subculture and movement to the mainstream people of Texas at this festival.  He convinced many to attend that had never before considered this festival or typically traveled to gatherings this far from home.  What really made the difference though is that, just before the parade, Cedric told all of us assembled that (I’m paraphrasing here as I didn’t have a recorder on hand)  he wanted to humbly thank us for traveling so far and coming to support this effort.  He then said (best I can recall) “This parade is for you!  It’s for every time someone called you a freak because of how you dressed or because of how you think.  Let’s get out there and let them see who we really are tonight!”

"Steampunk Army" in the Night Parade

Needless to say, the crowd then cheered, and screamed themselves hoarse yelling in a celebratory and happy way at pretty much every intersection in downtown Galveston or any time we stopped.   The audience watching the parade responded wonderfully to this.  It seemed that the sedate parade ahead of us had always been dignified and sedate, but never terribly exciting, and here were a bunch of oddly dressed (and heavily armed-or so it appeared) that were so welcoming, friendly, and happy to be there, that our joy was contagious!  The crowd watching began cheering, yelling, and waving back.  We actually got a standing ovation at many intersections just for dressing so wild and sharing so much joy and enthusiasm with the crowd.  Airship Isabella and Airship Neo Dulcimer also led parade groups of Steampunks during the day parades on both Saturday and Sunday.  The papers the next day and on Monday gave extremely favorable reviews and specifically stated that this year’s fair had the highest turnout for many years.  It seems our performance of simple joy at being alive and sharing our happy madness with the crowd brought out people in droves the next day that otherwise might never have come.

Even Carribean Pirates came out to see the Steampunk Pirates

On Saturday Evening Airship Isabella put on three short shows and a dance on 3 different stages.  The shifting stages every 30 minutes or so was sort of a Dicken’s tradition, so they had a large number of friends helping them carry everything from props to fire extinguishers several blocks at a trot between each performance.  They might have lost a few audience members at each stage change, but they seemed to gain more each time as well, so each performance was well attended.

Lion Tamer skit

The first act was a comedy about a lion/man combination creature that they had picked up somehow in their travels, but instead of wanting to eat them, he was offering them cupcakes and tea.  Yes, it was supposed to be strange, but the audience got it well enough that two people I interviewed said it was their favorite of the three acts.  The second act got even stranger in that Commander Leroux brought out a talking head in a jar who could tell people’s futures.  Airship Isabella’s first mate, Javert Marchand, did a fabulous job of appearing un-human, otherworldly, totally mad, and sneering down his nose at the silly humans that came to look in his jar.  Kudos for a job well done!  That act was also a comedy in which three local celebrities from the anime community, Chris Ayres, Greg Ayres, and Carli Mosier, were supposedly selected randomly from the audience and then told the worst futures imaginable insulting and exchanging insults with the head in the jar all the while.  The third act was fire spinning with first fire poi, then flaming sticks and finally belly dancing with flaming iron fans.

"Javert In a Jar"

This was followed by a dance in which Airship Isabella once again broke stereotypes by playing tunes from Swan Lake, much to the surprise of everyone.  I have to say that I believe in breaking stereotypes in a big way and that seemed to work just fine.  It is difficult; however, to get Americans to dance much to a waltz, so after about 30 minutes, they managed to convince the historical society staff to permit the DJ to shift to more modern music.  The DJ played excellent dance music, and we were really enjoying it, but unfortunately time ran out for the dance after only a few of his livelier selections.

Empress Kelsey leader of "The Wild Lost" (street team for Marquis of Vaudville)

By the end of Sunday, we found people from all walks of life, including the Texas Army, the Bobbies, and the Beefeaters, had become very friendly, wanted to take pictures with us, and thanked us all for coming.  There can be no doubt this invasion was a huge success for both our Steampunk community (worldwide as well as locally) and for one of the most popular historical festivals in America.  This sort of mutual exchange and support should continue to help many different parts of society come together and make the world just a lot more healthy and fun for all of us in the future!

DFW Steampunks (AS Nocturne)

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