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Citywide steampunk festival pays homage to Waltham's history

Posted by Leslie Anderson  February 16, 2011 09:26 AM

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A celebration of steampunk, a subculture that imagines a Victorian world with modern technology, is taking over the city of Waltham the first weekend in May, with steampunk bands, rides in a 1922 steamroller and glimpses into the city's role in the Industrial Revolution.

Although steampunk conferences are not uncommon, organizers, including the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, say The International Steampunk City event is larger than any other similar festivals. Elln Hagney, the museum's executive director, said organizers are hoping to draw as many as 15,000 visitors to the three-day festival in Waltham.

"We're converting the entire downtown of Waltham into a Jules Verne-esque city," she said. The event has the support of city leaders.

The museum helped sponsored the first-ever New England Steampunk Festival last year, but after flooding last March caused $500,000 worth of damage to the museum, organizers decided to go even bigger this year. They hope the festival will raise $50,000 for the museum, which has received only $137,000 in federal funding for cleanup and restoration. The museum is housed in the former Francis Cabot Lowell factory, on the banks of the Charles River.

Last year's festival draw about 1,000 attendees, and most were dressed in Victorian garb, Hagney said.

"It's part of the movement to dress up for the part, to don your goggles," she said.

This year's festival will be centered downtown but also have events across the city. The three historic estates in town will participate, including tours of the Victorian greenhouses at the Lyman Estate. Five stages will offer music, lectures and other entertainment, including performances by steampunk bands, groups that infuse Victorian music with technology -- for instance, a Scott Joplin rag combined with rap.

A steampunk band, Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band, will lead revelers to the Mount Feake Cemetery for a Victorian picnic.

"I think this is the first time that somebody's trying to use a whole town to do the festival," said Bruce Rosenbaum, a museum trustee whose company, ModVic, specializes in steampunk interior, home and object design. Rosenbaum was the curator of the museum's first steampunk exhibit last year: Steampunk Form & Function: An Exhibition of Innovation, Invention and Gadgetry.

The museum is trying to position itself as the home of the steampunking movement, as one way to secure its future. As long as the city and the community continue to support the event, the museum will continue to host the festival, Hagney said.

"We need to start training a younger generation on how to use the antique machinery," she said.

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