by Chris Tobias
In 2004, the Chicagoland Browncoats decided to hold a one-night banquet that was planned as a formal Sino-Western ball like the one in the Firefly episode “Shindig.” The event was such a hit that Browncoats decided not only that they would do it annually, but also that they would host it in a different city every year. This unique shindig, officially dubbed the “Browncoat Ball,” has moved from location to location, year after year, and has gradually evolved into a full weekend of social activities, sightseeing at local tourist attractions and celebrating all aspects of the Firefly and Serenity ‘verse.
Previous Browncoat Balls have been held in Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Austin, Portland, Charlotte, Warwick (RI), Albuquerque, Phoenix, Greenville (SC), Virginia Beach, Salt Lake City, and most recently Gettysburg, PA. This year’s Browncoat Ball will be held August 17-19 in Washington, DC.
I attended my first (but hopefully not only) Browncoat Ball last year, and after my weekend at the Gettysburg shindig, I am convinced that every serious fan of Firefly and Serenity should make it a point to attend this event at least once. While every ball is different, I hope that the following account of my time at last year’s ball might give you some idea of what to expect if you decide to go.
Shortly after I became involved with the Rivers and Bridges Brigade of the PA Browncoats in 2011, Browncoat Ball became something that popped onto the radar as an item that I needed to cross off my “geek bucket list.” I hadn’t been active with the PA Browncoats when the event was held in Philadelphia in 2007, and a bid to bring the event to Gettysburg for the 10th anniversary of Firefly (which I had actually co-organized) had failed in 2012. (The event went to Albuquerque that year instead, and I understand it was a mighty fine shindig.)
I had always thought that the choice of Gettysburg, PA as a host city for Browncoat Ball would be especially appropriate, given that Joss Whedon had been inspired to create Firefly after reading The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s classic historical novel that tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. So, when it was announced that the 2017 Browncoat Ball was in fact going to be held in Gettysburg, just a few hours’ drive from my hometown of Pittsburgh, I knew I had to attend.
2017 marked the second time that the PA Browncoats organized the Browncoat Ball, and it was also the second time that the Delaware Valley Brigade, more commonly known as the Philadelphia Browncoats, were at the helm of the committee that organized the event. Admittedly I don’t have any experience at other Browncoat Balls, but I can honestly say that the job these PA Browncoats did planning and hosting the 2017 event surely must have set a new standard to which all future Browncoat Balls will be held.
I traveled to Gettysburg on Friday, August 11, 2017 with a fairly large contingent from our Browncoats brigade here in Pittsburgh, most of whom were members of my crew that plans our city’s annual Can’t Stop the Serenity charity screenings. Accompanying me on the drive east were Ed Sauerland, my CSTS Pittsburgh “first mate” and roommate for the weekend, as well as my brother Michael and his wife Kelly. Also making the trip were my brother Randy and his wife Valerie, as well as my friend Buffie Fanzo, whom I have known since Kindergarten, and her husband Kevin. Another Pittsburgh-area Browncoat, Bob Averell, had served as the Treasurer on the committee that organized the event (in addition to being the 2017 Can’t Stop the Serenity Global Event Coordinator) and had already been in town for a while by the time we arrived.
Friday night’s welcome reception set the tone for what was to be a truly amazing weekend. It was held at Gettysburg’s historic train station, which was built in 1859 and served as a field hospital and a departure point for thousands of soldiers during the Civil War, as well as a place of greeting for President Abraham Lincoln when he came to town to deliver his famous Gettysburg Address. On this particular evening though, it was decked out in the colors of Firefly’s Independents, with blue, green and gold bunting and crepe paper and various Independents flags hanging on every pillar, fence and railing. Browncoats from all over the country were exchanging greetings and introductions, mingling, checking out the themed raffle baskets and PA Browncoat Mike McGuirk’s prop displays, and enjoying light hors d’oeuvres and drinks from the bar.
A series of ingenious icebreakers had been planned. There were Firefly- and Serenity-themed games, one of which involved having a sticker with the name of a character from the series or movie placed on your back, after which you had to move about the station, introducing yourself to fellow Browncoats and asking them to provide you with information that would help you guess the identity of the character you were “wearing.” In my case this was very difficult, because my character was Dr. Caron (“It’s the Pax.”), whose name only ever appears in Serenity’s credits! In addition to the games, Browncoats were encouraged to collect “guild stickers” for the official Union of Allied Planets passports we had been issued at check-in. In order to do this, one had to find the Browncoat who was representing each guild. After collecting stickers for the Traders, Miners, Smugglers, Tech and Pilots Guilds, you could then declare which guild (if any) you intended to join. I joined the Smugglers Guild, and received a special button for the lanyard of my passport holder that identified me as a member.
The entertainment for the evening was New Jersey singer-songwriter Sean Faust, who is well known in the Browncoat community. Sean has played live at a number of Can’t Stop the Serenity events across the US (including three that I’d organized in Pittsburgh), and he’s also the mastermind behind the effort to set the world record for having the most people singing “The Hero of Canton” on stage at one time. To this day he donates a portion of the proceeds from the sales of his 2014 single “Signal” (now available on iTunes and Bandcamp) to Equality Now. I’d seen Sean play live many times, but there were three things that made his performance on this particular evening special. The first was that he chose me to introduce him at the start of his set, which was something that I felt truly honored to do. The second was that fiddler Bruce Young of the folk band Smash the Windows accompanied him on stage, so many of the songs with which we were already familiar had very unique arrangements for that particular show. And lastly, Sean chose to include a cover of Rush’s “Bravado” in his set, which is one of my favorite songs by the Canadian power trio. I had never really thought about how much the lyrics to that particular song applied to Browncoats until I heard Sean play it that night. As is his trademark, Sean ended his set by pulling up as many of us as possible onto the stage to join him in a rousing rendition of “The Hero of Canton.”
It was also at the welcome reception that the PA Browncoats had very generously included one of our petitions to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and president Gwynne Shotwell asking them to name SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon after Serenity. It accrued a great many signatures that evening, as would be expected at an event that had attracted Browncoats from all over the country. Following the welcome reception, the petition was placed in the hospitality suite (a room at the Gettysburg Hotel that had been made up to look like Inara’s shuttle) for the remainder of the weekend, and after the ball I mailed it to SpaceX personally.
Browncoat Balls are known for their “tracks,” which generally come in the form of panels that have Browncoat-friendly themes or excursions that allow the Browncoats in attendance to experience the flavor of the host city. The first track at Gettysburg was a candlelit “Ghost Tour” following the welcome reception. We followed a local guide on foot through the streets of the town, listening to local stories of the eerie and unexplained as we went. While I was fascinated by the history of the various stops on the tour, I was a bit dubious as to the authenticity of many of the tales we were told. In fact, I mused that if I were a real ghost in Gettysburg, I’d be tempted to accompany a group on just such a tour, ask a bunch of questions so as to make myself conspicuous, and then disappear in such a way as to make the others in the group question whether I was a freeloader who’d managed to slip away unseen or an actual spirit who had suddenly vanished altogether! In the end, the spots on the tour weren’t any spookier than our hotel itself, since the Gettysburg Hotel has long held a reputation for paranormal activity. (I had actually hoped that my room would turn out to be haunted, but Ed and I had no such luck. My friend Buffie did report some excessive rattling of the glasses and the ice bucket throughout the night in the room in which she and her husband were staying, however. I was jealous.)
Saturday was the biggest day of the weekend, and it began with a “Big Damn Breakfast” at the Gettysburg Hotel. After breakfast, the Browncoats went off to attend the various tracks in which they’d chosen to participate. My morning track was the “Balls and Bayonets” bus tour of the Gettysburg Historic Battlefield. We boarded classic 1936 buses that took us to the battlefield, where a professional guide spent over two hours showing us around some of the 10, 000 acres and 40 battlefield avenues with over 1, 450 monuments that make up the Gettysburg National Military Park. As we listened to story after story of bravery, valor, desperation and sacrifice, it became obvious to each of us why this battle was so important to our nation’s history.
In the afternoon I attended the “My Pretty Floral Bonnet” track, which was in the Eisenhower Room of the Gettysburg Hotel. This presentation discussed Civil War fashion as well as the costume design for both the Firefly television series and the motion picture Serenity. The highlight of the track was hearing fellow PA Browncoat Mike McGuirk’s discussion of the differences between the props and costumes of the show and the movie, as well as seeing his extensive collection of Firefly and Serenity memorabilia and props, which includes an authentic costume sketch by Firefly costume designer Shawna Trpcic and the screen-used headpiece that actress Summer Glau wore as River Tam in the opening scene of Serenity!
The ball itself is the main event, of course, and the raison d’être of the whole weekend. At Gettysburg, the ball kicked off at 6pm on Saturday with a cocktail hour and photographs. While it is intended to be a formal affair, I can honestly say that the ball I attended featured a wide range of attire that boasted every fashion influence one could imagine, with Victorian, Asian and Western probably being the most dominant styles. I had chosen to include the same boots, pants and browncoat in my ensemble that I would normally wear when cosplaying Malcolm Reynolds at a con or CSTS event. My justification was that my character was first and foremost a soldier, and wouldn’t have the financial means to afford to dress in too sophisticated a manner. I entered the grand ballroom without escort, and was announced as “Captain Christopher Tobias of the Rivers and Bridges Brigade.”
Prior to dinner, Browncoats were encouraged to enter the raffles and mingle with the other guests. In order to facilitate the latter, each table in the ballroom had a planet of the ‘verse as its centerpiece, and if you visited that table and asked those who were seated there politely, you could obtain a sticker from that world that served as a visa sticker for your passport. There were 21 of them in all, so it required the guests to remain ambulatory for a good deal of the time before everyone finally sat down to dinner, which included a buffet and cash bar. The planets themselves were also up for auction, and a small clipboard at each table allowed folk to submit preliminary bids.
After dinner the folk band Smash the Windows kicked off the dancing portion of the ball with appropriate period music, and a professional caller led us in proper folk dances of the variety that were seen in the Firefly episode “Shindig.” I participated in those that didn’t require a partner, since my wife (who, quite honestly, probably would’ve supported Unification) hadn’t made the trip. Many of the Browncoats in attendance had learned the dances as part of an afternoon track that included dance lessons, but since I was more interested in the costumes and props, I had skipped the lessons and was now learning on the go much like Mal Reynolds would. The old-fashioned dances were complex but fun, and I distinctly remember a lot of smiles and laughter from those who were on the dance floor.
The band took a break, and Matt Black, who is the “cap’n” of the Delaware Valley Brigade and was chairman of the committee that had organized the ball, announced the winners of the raffles. I ended up winning no less than eight bottles of 2017 Château Chevalier Noir “Southdown Abbey Strawberry” wine that had been specially made for Browncoat Ball! Since that seemed like a pretty substantial lot of even the best of beverages that make you blind, I offered half of the bottles to the other Browncoats that had made the trip with me, and kept four for myself. Kevin had no use for the Zoe Washburne Q-Bit figure he won, so he gave that to me as well. I was all manner of grateful, since I had been eyeing it all weekend and was happy to add it to my collection. When they auctioned off the planet centerpieces, I came within seconds of winning Miranda, the “black rock” that plays a major role in the motion picture Serenity. Unfortunately I was outbid at the last moment, and simply couldn’t justify bidding any higher. My brother Randy faired much better. He ended up winning two of them, Greenleaf (a planet mentioned in the Firefly episodes “Safe” and “Out of Gas”) and St. Albans (Tracey’s home planet and final resting place in the Firefly episode “The Message”).
Following the raffles, the band returned for a few more dance numbers. Just before 10pm, when I realized the final dance of the evening was going to be a proper couples’ dance, I did what any red-blooded, fun-loving Browncoat who found himself stuck without a partner would do. I located the blonde waitress who had been serving our table all evening and approached her.
“Excuse me, miss,” I said, “but I need your help with something.” Before she had even finished inquiring as to what that might be, I took her hand and said, “It’ll only take a minute or two. Follow me.” I gave her just enough time to put down the tray in her other hand before leading her onto the dance floor. As we found a place among the dancers, I rather enjoyed watching her glance back at her co-workers with flushed cheeks and an embarrassed grin, a look on her face that seemed simultaneously flattered to have been singled out and nervous that she might get in trouble. It turned out she was a local college student who was working at the Gettysburg Hotel to earn some tuition money before heading back to school in Florida. To her credit she was a real trouper about what I had done, and didn’t seem to mind being pulled away from her work for a few minutes in such an unexpected fashion. The other Browncoats who noticed my little stunt got a real kick out of it too, and I ended up feeling kind of proud of myself for not sitting the last dance out and doing something that Mal Reynolds himself might have done—at least in his pre-Serenity Valley days.
On Sunday morning we headed to the Gettysburg Diner for breakfast. It was the true diner experience—bacon, eggs and coffee while seated at the counter—the whole nine yards. Breakfast at the diner wasn’t officially part of the Browncoat Ball, but when we arrived we found the place was positively crawling with Browncoats who had the same idea we did, and most of the conversation was about last night’s ball and all things Firefly and Serenity.
For those of us who had paid a little extra coin, there was one more Sunday morning track before the 2017 Browncoat Ball officially came to a close. That was the “Serenity Valley” track, which consisted of a bus ride back to the Gettysburg Historic Battlefield for a day spent with Civil War reenactors representing both Southern and Northern regiments. The reenactors, acting as a Rebel regiment from North Carolina and a Yankee regiment from Pennsylvania that was sponsored by the state of California, presented their uniforms, kits and weapons, and explained the maneuvers and protocols of a Civil War soldier. The reenactment included the firing of their black powder rifles as well as cannon. As much as I enjoyed watching the demonstrations, I enjoyed talking to the reenactors even more, and the experience left me with a profound respect for the men on both sides who believed so strongly in their cause that they were willing to endure miserable conditions and engage in three days of such vicious and bloody fighting.
The bus brought us back to the hotel around 2:30pm, and shortly after that we were headed home with memories of a truly unforgettable experience at Browncoat Ball Gettysburg. On the way home, we discussed the fact that since the Browncoat Ball had been held in Pennsylvania cities in both 2007 and 2017, it would not be at all inappropriate for us to try to bring the shindig to our hometown in 2027. Of course a lot can happen between now and then, but I wouldn’t rule anything out.
This year’s Browncoat Ball will take place in just a few days in our nation’s capital, and while I can’t make it this year due to work commitments, I do hope that I’ll be able to attend another one soon. I know for a fact that there will be another Browncoat Ball in 2019, and while I’m not allowed to say where it will be held (the location of the next year’s ball is always officially announced at the ball itself), I can assure you that next year’s host city has all kinds of character and no shortage of interesting sites and activities that will make for some very shiny tracks. If you’re a Browncoat and you’ve never attended a Browncoat Ball, you may just want to start saving for the 2019 shindig. Maybe I’ll even see you there.
Peace, love and rockets…
FYI, the Browncoat Ball is back! We’re spending the day in historic Salem, MA next month. Check details at https://browncoatball.com/2021