Nite Trax: Edwardian Baller Justin Katz tells of Gorey origins, steampunk youth, more

Edwardian revelers show their phantasmagorical stripes

In this week's Super Ego nightlife column in the paper, I write about this coming weekend's giant Edwardian Ball at the Regency Ballroom, which spans five events and welcomes thousands into its playful goth-steampunk-burlesque embrace. Named for Edward Gorey but encompassing more than a few winks at the Edwardian Era of the last turn of the century, the all-ages ball has come to act as a summit for a certain essential, instantly recognizable San Francisco nightlife subculture.

The ball was launched in 2000 by Justin Katz of "premiere pagan lounge ensemble" Rosin Coven and Mike Gaines of the neo-cirque Vau de Vire Society, and has grown enormously in the 12 years since -- including branching out to Los Angeles. I interviewed the genial Katz over email about the ball's Gorey origins, the challenges of expansion, combatting the dreaded FOMO, and welcoming a new generation of Friends of Ed.

SFBG Congrats on 12 years of the Edwardian Ball. When you started this, did you think it would take off in this big a way? Can you share a couple of your favorite memories of the Ball since the "turn of the century"?

JUSTIN KATZ Thank you! Each year in the history of this event has been such an adventure, with unpredictability even for us being a constant! Our first year we used a slide projector to show images from a Gorey book. Slides! The second year we did our first interactive theater with the audience, inviting friends to come up and be part of “The Curious Sofa.” Our fifth year was the first with Vau de Vire Society, one of the best decisions Rosin Coven ever made, and I can’t believe the amount of theatre, aerial, and huge open flames that we fit into the back room of the Cat Club. From then on it’s been astounding to see the growth and participation, first the Great American Music Hall, then up to three nights there before waltzing into our current home, The Regency Ballroom.

SFBG You're extending the festival over six events this year -- can you tell me a little about that? Have you ever had this many events, and is this in response to demand?

JK This is definitely our biggest offering to date. The event has developed in so many ways concurrently that there is just too much to see and do during a nighttime event. The Vendor Bazaar (afternoon of Sat/21) has grown into a world of its own and people want more time to shop and mingle amongst the dozens of amazing artisan vendors we now house for the weekend. It gives people a chance to focus without dreaded FOMO -- fear of missing out! -- with all of the revelry of the Ball afterwards. And this year’s tea with Professor Elemental (also afternoon of Sat/21) is a new one. We are so pleased to have such an excellent artist flying all the way from the UK that it only seemed proper to have a tea party, and give fans a chance to get up close and personal in a more relaxed setting. So it’s about opening up and spreading things out a bit, to enjoy.

SFBG This year's theme book is the Iron Tonic -- will there be specific references to the book, or do you adopt these just as general frameworks to work within? And what are some of the special things you're looking forward to this year?

JK: Each year Rosin Coven & Vau de Vire Society, co-hosts of The Edwardian Ball, choose a featured Gorey story to bring to life on stage. So this year’s tale is “The Iron Tonic”, which will be presented on Saturday night with original music, staging, choreography, and video as our “big show.” So you will see the story in its entirety. And more, actually, because Vau de Vire always goes to the next level in creating the story – showing you what Gorey doesn’t. One of the most intriguing things about Gorey’s work is that he shows you so little, and implies so much. Vau de Vire plays with character, back story, scenes between the scenes, and really draws you in. Rosin Coven works closely with them developing this and creating the music and narrative that drives and showcases all of the amazing theatrics.

Another addition to this year’s event that I just can’t wait to see is our new Museum of Wonders – we’ve added an entire third floor of The Regency to the event, a dense, dark playground of eccentric collections, unusual artifacts, circus sideshows, mechanical dolls that sing you songs, fortune telling, tarot reading, a haunted pipe organ, and a living statue garden by Vau de Vire performing more Gorey stories. We’ve taken the wonderful art that has filled our ballroom and given it its own home, a whole new world to wander during the event, and a place to get away from the crowds for a different experience. This also allows us to open the Ballroom up even more for dancing and enjoying the show – more space to tango!

SFBG I'm fascinated by the general culture that's coalesced in the past decade or so around the Edwardian Ball -- it's such a San Francisco signature style incorporating burlesque revivalism, playful goth, circus and steampunk, various aspects of Victoriana and Edwardiana. You guys seem to be the major exponents of this certain culture. Have you had any thoughts about it as you've seen it develop? What changes or developments have you seen in the Edwardian Ball culture through the years that you're proud of or that have really made you think?

JK It’s an honor to be recognized as an influence on San Francisco’s style and trends, I’ve always seen us almost more of a great receiver of ideas and influences. We provide a creative, permissive space for people to inspire each other and cross-pollinate. By creating a mood but not strict rules, people have developed their own interpretations and styles over the years, the sum total of which become “Edwardian.” We initially used the name Edwardian just to dress up Edward Gorey, but its been fascinating to see people develop the historic elements of the event on their own. Steampunk is an interesting one too – when we started that word didn’t even exist. We’ve never self-promoted as a “steampunk” event, any more than we would be a “period recreation” event, but we’ve enjoyed the dovetailing of the trend and it’s expansion into more elaborate costume and character. I’ve enjoyed seeing people take Gorey’s work and meld it into their own creations too – characters and monsters and oddities from the pages of his books have been found in the most wonderful corners of the events.

SFBG How has the Los Angeles Ball been going and do you plan to expand further?

JK Los Angeles has been inspiring and challenging. Our first year was gorgeous, held in the mostly-defunct, run down Tower Theater in Downtown LA. It was moody and intriguing, and difficult from a production standpoint. So last year we moved to The Music Box, which is such a great venue. We had a little hiccup when the venue double-booked the night and bumped our date, and we had to push it back a month. But this year The Music Box outdid themselves and shut down a week ago, out of business, so we’re hard at work on finding a new home and date in time to announce at the SF event. LA is just good at tossing us curveballs – but aside from the nuts and bolts we have a wonderful time down there and are inspired and impressed by how ready the crowd is to step up, dress up, and immerse themselves in the Edwardian world. I see no reason not to keep expanding the reach of this event: New York, Seattle, New Orleans, there are so many places that the Edwardian Ball could pay a delightful visit.

SFBG You welcome all ages to the Ball. Do you find that, as steampunk and burlesque enter the mainstream consciousness more, that more younger people are drawn to the culture that the Ball represents?

JK I think that’s a good assessment. I think we’re seeing a couple of groups of younger people – there are those that are drawn to live music, circus, and performance, and this gives them a place to go when most shows are 18+. It’s such a well-behaved crowd – playful but respectful – that we feel good about including all ages and creating a safe space for young people. Their presence adds a really vital energy, and I think affirms that we are creating something that can continue on, it’s not just for the producers and their own social circles. New, young ideas can and will influence where this event goes.

Also, some of the longtime fans are getting older and having children themselves, and starting to bring them to see this unique world. We’re starting to see the “Under-10” crowd show up for the first few hours – they watch the show, climb aboard a bike-powered carnival ride, play midway games with clowns, pose for photos, and head back to school for an unbelievable round of show-and-tell.

Fri/20: Edwardian World's Faire Kinetic Steam Works, Cyclecide, Vau de Vire, games, and more

Sat/21: Edwardian Ball 2012 "The Iron Tonic" with Jill Tracy, The Fossettes, Miz Margo, and more

Both at Regency Ballroom, 1300 Van Ness, SF. All ages, see for prices, times, and more events.

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