October 11, 2016

Moisture Festival Roots

Notes from a conversation with the Festival’s Ron W. Bailey 

By Steve Wacker

The story of how Moisture Festival came into existence is drawn from many threads. It’s summarized quite nicely on the Moisture Festival website, but what about the motivations of the principals? How did they hit on the notion of varietè? A few months ago we heard from Festival cofounder Tim Furst, who brought a great deal of experience to the table from his years with the Flying Karamazov Brothers. A recent conversation with Festival Artistic Director and cofounder Ron W. Bailey shed a bit more light on how it all came together.

RB at Rainbow with the Dynamic Logs
It’s fairly well known that Bailey and Maque DaVis (long-time Fremont performance art finagler and one of the instigators of the Fremont Solstice Parade) were inspired by the Oregon Country Fair (OCF). But when Bailey first attended OCF, his primary performance experience was as a street musician in Seattle, playing in places like the Pike Place Market with the Dynamic Logs, a band of some renown in the late 1970s. So how did a Seattle street musician get turned on to varietè?

“The first time I went down there (to OCF) I was with a friend, and it’s a great little gathering – they do a lot of vaudeville circus stuff,” said Bailey. “It’s in the woods, and they have music and vaudeville, but it really comes to life at night, after the public has gone home in the early evening. The people who work there hang out in the woods at night, performing and playing music, and it’s a rare and beautiful scene.”

Inspired by acts like the Flying Karamazov Brothers, Bailey and some friends with circus skills started combining street music with circus performance. This concept evolved over time, and came to include members of Bailey’s family. They called themselves gutter performers because of their origins as street musicians. However, because they also had a sense of style and knew that everything sounds better in French, they became known as the Royal Famille Du Caniveaux. (Yes, caniveaux is French for gutters.)

Bailey has been attending OCF and performing there since the early 1980s, and over the years he has met a lot of people in the varietè arts. One person he met early on was Tom Noddy (known to Festival fans as the Bubble Guy), and a friendship developed. Through Noddy he met the gifted and hilarious German clown Hacki Ginda, who had started a varietè/comedy festival in Berlin. By the early 1990s, the Royal Famille Du Caniveaux had been to Europe a couple of times and performed at street fairs in Barcelona and Amsterdam. It was around that time that Noddy and Bailey got the opportunity to fly to Berlin and experience the festival that Hacki Ginda helped establish.

“There was a varietè theater called the Chameleon, and a small circus tent as well as a medium-sized one, right in the heart of Berlin,” Bailey recalled. “Empty storefronts and basement rooms also became performance venues. There were jugglers from Africa, varietè acts from around Europe, and it was just a ball – some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever seen – great shows. People would mingle in the bars and cafés after the performances, and Tom and I were thinking, ‘Man – is there a way to make a festival like this happen in Seattle?’”

Back at OCF, Bailey and DaVis used to run into each other and say “I wish we could think of some way to bring the energy from OCF up to Seattle.” But OCF was out in the woods, and such a different scene – they weren’t able to figure out how to do it. “When I came back from the festival that Hacki put on, I said to Maque ‘I think I know how we can do it. We’re going to have a comedy/varietè festival.’ And he was like ‘Okay – let’s try it.’”
Du Caniveaux and Friends photo by Michelle Bates

OCF is almost like a carnival midway or a small village, with vendors and crafts in addition to performance venues. “What Hacki did in Berlin was show me what a really good varietè show was like, with really good acts,” Bailey said. “He sets the tone, and he has this way of disarming everybody and making them feel comfortable, but he was presenting it. We wanted to combine quality of performance with the funkiness of OCF – we didn’t want to get it too tight or refined.”

Bailey noted how the looseness of the OCF performers enhanced their connection with audiences – almost like a signal, a willingness to have some fun. “If anything, it’s like what you get from playing on the street. The people are like ten feet away from you, you’re looking them in the eye, you’re seeing them smile, you’re seeing them laugh, you see them get the jokes or appreciate the music, or start dancing, and there’s a certain power in that. When you go from the street into the theater, you don’t want to lose that.”

“It was the performing on the street that made me think ‘This is the kind of energy that I like to get from the audience.’ That’s why I loved the kind of stuff that was going on at OCF. When we decided to do the Festival, everybody understood that kind of chemistry. We wanted it to be like that, as if we were performing on the street. We wanted the energy of OCF, but we wanted to present the varietè acts in a good way, with good lighting and sound.”

It’s hard to describe what people sitting in a room laughing together does for making them feel like they know each other. But that’s what happens each spring at Hale’s Palladium when the Festival rolls around. “The vibe in the Palladium is a phenomenon,” Bailey says fondly. “Part of its charm is that it’s just a brewery warehouse with wooden ceilings and walls, and so when there’s applause in there it brings the house down. And when people are laughing it just echoes off the walls.”

So there you have it – a bit more background on how the Moisture Festival came to be the rollicking and awe-inspiring event that it is. Homegrown in the Pacific Northwest for your enjoyment – may your next Festival experience be an enriching one.

Seattle's Moisture Festival of Comedy/Varietè, founded in 2004, is the largest and longest running comedy/varietè festival in the world. Learn more at http://www.moisturefestival.org/. Thanks to Kirby Lindsay for background information.