You’re walking down Main Street, enjoying the newly sprung spring, when a man in a top hat walks past you pulling a wagon, which you could swear contains a baby octopus. As you stare in confusion, a well-dressed ape stumping for mayor approaches you to ask for your vote. A hot air balloon rises into the sky behind him while spectators ogle undulating belly dancers.
Is that shoddy acid you dropped in high school finally worth the $3.75 you spent on it?
Nope—it’s the Watch City Festival, thou wayward n00b.
Now in its third year of putting the “hootenanny” into “What is this, a steampunk hootenanny?,” the Watch City Festival is an annual gathering of all that is anachronistic and extravagant in downtown Waltham, the self-proclaimed International Steampunk City.
“It’s a natural fit for the city,” said Elln Hagney, the Executive Director of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, which sponsors the festival every year.
“We’re so steeped in our past and history and it’s so important, but we’re looking forward to what’s on the horizon.”
The idea spawned out of a meeting between Hagney and two members of Waltham’s Victorian dance community, who wanted to hold a ball at the Museum. After a flood damaged $500,000 worth of the museum’s property in May 2010, Hagney conceived of an outdoor festival to attract more people and generate funds for restoration of the building. They drew in over a thousand people and created a momentary refuge for the orphaned steampunks of the Northeast, said Hagney.
“This was steampunk’s coming out party—we were literally out on the streets.”
All of ye olde favorites return this year: live bands, sword dancing, and the mayoral race. Here candidates debate two fictitious issues relating to Steampunk City, and one real issue from the Victorian era.
“Steampunk City, the actual city, appears in this fictional world, so it has problems like any other city. Where will you park your dirigible? What will happen if you create all this dirigible parking? Will we have an influx of pirates that will pillage local businesses?”
This year’s festival also includes some new attractions: “We’ve brought more of the authentic Victorian in,” said Hagney, citing a hot air balloon and three calliopes—giant steam organs—from the 1890s. For the twenty-something crowd, they’ve also hyped their “Steampunk After Dark” component, which includes a burlesque show and a choose-your-own-adventure pub crawl.
But of course, the most compelling attraction is the people.
“A lot of people that are involved with it have personas, and while they’re here they’ll be in character. This really is an alternate life, this is Second Life in real time.”
One such character, named Lord Leo, was granted legit lordship by his headgear. According to Hagney, he was at an antique shop when he found a Napoleonic naval hat.
“When he got it home there was a note in the hat band, and it stated,
‘Whoever owns this hat is a lord,’ and it was dated from 1884. That’s how he became Lord Leo.”
Festival-goers often get decked out, wearing goods they found in vintage stores or, in true punker style, garments they made themselves. But whether you dress up in industrial, future-Victorian garb or not, you should still try to enter the Watch City Festival with an appreciation for the absurd.
“Have a sense of humor in everything you do,” suggested Hagney. “There’s definitely a sense of whimsy involved in the whole movement.”
WATCH CITY FESTIVAL
PRESENTED BY THE CHARLES RIVER MUSEUM
OF INDUSTRY AND INNOVATION