One year short of its 10th anniversary, the Moisture Festival is well on its way to joining Seafair, Bumbershoot and SIFF as a Seattle tradition.
This three-week long carnival of vaudeville, acrobatics and burlesque had its inception in the community of musicians and artists that emerged from the bar-band culture of the mid-‘70s and found its calling, a decade later, in the widespread community of performing artists that converged upon the Oregon Country Fair.
Pre-Microsoft Seattleites will remember Ron Bailey from bands such as Rose and the Dirt Boys and The Dynamic Logs. Later arrivals to the city may have encountered him as the force behind the Hank Williams Tribute Band, an entourage of musicians that brought country-swing dancing to Ballard’s Tractor Tavern. Bailey’s 1996 visit to Berlin’s comedy/varietè festival provided the impetus for his most ambitious undertaking.
Bailey had long wanted to bring some of the acts from the Oregon Country Fair to Seattle, so he joined forces with Maque DaVis, “ex-president for life” of the Fremont Arts Council who had helped organize the Fremont Solstice Parade. Tim Furst of The Flying Karamazov Brothers came on board to help organize what would become, in 2004, the first Moisture Festival.
They have come a long way from those five days under a Fremont tent to the multi-venue festival that now draws sold-out crowds to its 50 shows featuring nearly 250 performers. Half of the performers are local, and the other half has local connections.
“I rarely book performers I have not seen in live performance, “ said booking coordinator Furst. “Most are people I have known for years or met through touring.”
Choosing when and where to attend is a daunting challenge, made somewhat easier by the breakdown of venues and events into theme and audience suitability.
Most of the Comedy/Varietè shows are held at Fremont’s 250-seat Hale’s Palladium. The matinee and 7:30 p. m. shows are recommended for all ages, while the 10:30 p. m. late shows are restricted to adults only.
The varietè and Libertease Burlesque shows at Capitol Hill’s Broadway Performance Hall are restricted to ages 18 and older.
The Georgetown Ballroom, which features some intimate and daring varietè shows, offers all-ages matinees and 18-and-older evening shows.
The burlesque shows sell out early, as do most Friday-night performances. The final week of the festival (April 2 to 8) usually sells out by the beginning of that week, so it is advisable to get your tickets well in advance to avoid disappointment.
On any given day, you are liable to encounter some acrobats, actors, aerialists, comedians, dancers, singers and clowns. You might also glimpse a dancing bear or two, a puppeteer or maybe even a famous group like The Bobs or Uncle Bonsai.
Among the festival’s many unique aspects is its refusal to categorize its performers as either headliners or support acts. This is reflected not only in its alphabetic billing, which does not exploit the more familiar names to boost ticket sales, but also in the way the performers are paid.
Each act receives one share of the profits for each performance given. The result of this approach is that the audience enjoys each act on its own merits, with no additional value placed on their name recognition.
Furst explained that the festival’s unusual financial structure was a determining factor in this payment and promotion system. “It would be impossible to negotiate a hundred different contracts for a hundred different acts, and since no two shows are identical, it would be a nightmare to try to promote each one differently,” he said.
Instead, Furst, assisted by Randy Minkler, works on maintaining a uniformity of quality in each show, with just the right balance of different acts.
The burlesque shows run from Friday, March 23, to March 31 at the Broadway Performance Hall. This must be the strangest and most inappropriate venue for a burlesque show, as it is reeks of the sterile ambiance of a college lecture hall. That said, keep in mind that Hale’s Palladium, which seems tailor-made for comedy/varietè shows, is a nondescript beer warehouse for Hale’s Ales Brewery for most of the year.
“We didn’t want to do burlesque at the Palladium because its owners wish to maintain the restaurant as a family destination, “ Furst explained. “Georgetown Ballroom would have made a lovely venue, but the backstage area was too small. For a show that opens with eight dancers in large costumes and eight musicians, you need a dressing room close to the stage with wide stairways. The Broadway Performance Hall has the perfect logistics, production-wise, and we thought Capitol Hill was a good neighborhood for burlesque.”
In addition to the regular attractions, the Moisture Festival’s special events include two programs featuring silent film. On April 5 at 7:30 p. m. at SIFF’s Uptown Theatre, get a taste of what going to the movies was like in the silent era.
“The Sound of Silents with a Side of Schtick” features six rarely screened, short films accompanied by original music scores, with a host of vaudeville acts filling in the spaces between the reel changes.
On April 2 at 7:30 p. m. at Hale’s Palladium, Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin will share his views on the art of silent-film acting with clips from more than 100 films in “Silents are Golden.” Admission to the latter is free, while the former carries a $15 price tag.
Anyway you slice the moisture pie, you are going to get a mouthful of berries and cream, and nobody can eat the whole thing. I wondered what Furst would consider
the perfect show. He answered, “When the audience walks out saying, ‘That was the best show I ever saw,’ and the performers go home saying, ‘That was the most fun I ever had.’”
BILL WHITE was a regular contributor to the arts section of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its demise in 2009. He most recently was the film critic for Seattle PostGlobe. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.