Day One at Big River Steampunk Festival
September 19, 2015 by David T. Allen
Labor Day weekend was a combination of quaint anachronisms and stunning performances at the Second Annual Big River Steampunk Festival in Hannibal, Missouri.
After countless hours spent planning, sewing, gluing, papier-mâchéing, and painting, our outfits were ready and so were we for the eleven hour drive from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the hometown of Mark Twain and Margaret Brown.
We were specifically drawn to this steampunk festival for the atmosphere. No hotel or convention center fits the feeling of a steampunk festival quite like a town frozen in time to the turn of the 19th century.
When we needed to cool down, we stopped in an ice cream shop set in a Victorian building. As we strolled the streets, a Mississippi riverboat serenaded us with the calliope. There were beautiful gardens, quaint antique shops, and lots of friendly, if confused, locals. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect, and the acts lived up to this endearing first impression.
Saturday Morning: A Smattering of Events
It began with a parade heralded by The Steampunk Stompers, riding in style atop an antique fire truck, featuring a mad scientist playing a sousaphone with a rotating gear affixed to its bell. The procession was followed by an enthusiastic penny-farthing cyclist and a Mark Twain reenactor, who shouted, “Mark Twain for president! Vote in a real scoundrel!”
Needless to say, Leslie and I had to explain a thing or two for the non-festival tourists that had gathered to watch.
We then stopped by the main stage, where Beard and Bean accompanied The Scallywags for a comical retelling of Peter Pan. They chose three people from the audience and retold the story, where Hook is the protagonist and Peter Pan is cast in a shady light. To round out the performance, the band Clearly Guilty played a song about the 1808 duel between Monsieur de Grandpre and Monsieur de Pique … that took place on hot air balloons.
Our next event was a 19th century baseball game in Clemens Field. The kilted referee summed it up better than I ever could: “Notice the bare hands. Gloves are for the cold, people.”
One of the largest gatherings we saw was for the costume contest. Leslie and I weren’t feeling brave, so we watched from the sidelines as dapper gents and ladies vied for the approval of Queen Victoria.
The heat took its toll on our constitution, so we headed to the Mark Twain Brewery. We returned there every day for the beer, food, and atmosphere. It’s usually difficult for us to find vegetarian fare, but the house-made black bean burger was fantastic, and the portobello mushroom appetizer was deep fried to perfection. Even the staff participated by dressing to the weekend’s theme.
On our way to Remembering the Titanic with the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, we stopped to listen to Ned Behrensmeyer play exceptional ragtime piano on the streets. Beside him was a falconer, whose bird stole Leslie’s heart.
The engrossing story of Molly Brown was told, in character, by historian Lisa Marks, detailing her rise to high-society, and her unfortunately timed return trip from Europe aboard the Titanic.
Saturday Evening: Vaudeville Review
Leslie and I are huge fans of small, live shows that showcase diverse entertainment. We feature performances in Dream Eater’s Carnival and our upcoming novel, Echo Chamber Heist. It’s no surprise that our second favorite event was the Vaudeville Review, which was only outshined by the Burley-Que Late Night Cabaret, where the same performers were allotted more time to astound us.
The Vaudeville Review featured a variety of five-minute acts. Doc Phineas kicked off the entertainment with a snake oil sales pitch, where drinking his own medicine inspired him to tap dance to the accompaniment of The Steampunk Stompers.
Sammy the Tramp, a Chicago woman dressed as a man in a style reminiscent of Tipping the Velvet, did a silent performance that spanned comedy, dancing, and the art of balancing things on her head. I was thrilled to see a Masher in the tradition of 1800s European Music Halls, and must admit to some sort of playful man crush that developed over the weekend.
Sideshow Dobbs from Dead Man’s Carnival stepped on next, juggling at one point in a mechanical manner like a human Rube Goldberg machine.
Beard and Bean broke up the silent performances with comedy. I won’t include the punch line of their jokes here, out of respect for their material, but they left an impression, because Bean had some rowdy … admirers … during the Burley Que Burlesque Show.
The contortionist Mary Pat Letourneau gracefully slinked up a silk rope, then let gravity unwind her as she plummeted to the ground. I especially appreciated this act because silk rope dancers are rare, and we feature one in the Bitlather Chronicles cabaret, The Iron Peacock.
Clearly Guilty changed the tone, where Horatio reminisced about his favorite 80s cartoons with the lamenting chorus, “Michael Bay, please stop killing off my childhood.”
Sanjula Vamana, who had performed on America’s Got Talent, was rolled in, straight-jacketed and chained to a wheelchair. He only said one thing about his TV appearance: “They told me I was the grossest act they’d ever seen, and that was the real prize—not being on TV.” He did manage to escape, tumbling with another performer, Vorteque, and using him as dead weight to loosen the arm straps.
Yet again came a tone shift, where Cat Connolly, who up until now was dressed as Selia the Steampunk Selkie, sang a beautiful, throaty lounge song about love.
Violet Vendetta stumbled from behind the audience, stealing sips from people’s glasses. In another act like we’ve never seen before, she performed balancing acts on a chair, using tremendous strength and balance to support her entire body with just one hand.
The Steampunk Stompers played a song from the 1840s, “When Pigs Begin To Fly.” Here we learned the drummer was a Broadway performer, and had played everything from the xylophone to the typewriter in a national tour of The Producers. Every member has a staggering repertoire of performances, and you can read more on their about page.
Vorteque rounded out the show with tightrope walking, where he feigned a struggle. Upon success, he was offered a giant wooden mallet as an additional challenge. Through determination coupled with fictitious trial and error, he crossed the rope with aplomb.
All of this was just a tame preview for what would happen on Sunday night, at the Burley Que Burlesque Show.
After a brief respite, we attended the Electro Swing Dance Soiree DJ’d by Vorteque. It was interspersed with small performances when the crowd took a break from dancing. We finally heard Sammy the Tramp speak, using her fast-paced wit and anxious charm. It was at this moment I became enamored with her stage presence.
Leslie and I went wild when Sammy introduced Sideshow Dobbs from The Dead Man’s Carnival, as we were familiar with the troupe from our days living in Wisconsin. Dobbs called a woman up to the stage and asked her to pick a card. He looked at it, with everyone else, then asked her to write her name on the card. He proceeded to pull her card from his pocket three times, the fly of his pants once, then coughed it up from his mouth.
Vorteque restarted the electro swing, to which the audience, now sufficiently rested, rose to the dance floor. These dance breaks filled with top notch acts kept the atmosphere energetic. If we still lived in Wisconsin, I would head to Chicago just for Vorteque’s monthly electro swing events.
Among the many enjoyable facets of the Big River Steampunk Festival is its community, which didn’t seem to truly understand what had happened to their town. A few events were hosted in a backroom stage at Finn’s Irish Pub. As we left the dance soiree, two local gentlemen peeked into the dance party and the befuddled look on their faces was a priceless end to the night.
This was just our first day; the best was yet to come. My next article will cover Sunday, which encompassed tea dueling, a steamboat party on the Mississippi River, and the Burley-Que Late-Night Cabaret.