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, Gettysburg (PA) and most recently Washington, DC. This year’s Browncoat Ball will be held September 27-29 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The 2019 Browncoat Ball is the result of a joint bid by the Las Vegas Browncoats and the Pennsylvania Browncoats– the first of its kind. It is also the third time that the PA Browncoats have organized a Browncoat Ball, and the third time that the Delaware Valley Brigade, more commonly known as the Philadelphia Browncoats, have played a major role in the preparations.
Matt Black is the head of the planning committee for this year’s Browncoat Ball and a friend of many of us here at Take Back the Sky since 2013, when we spent a weekend working side-by-side at the Browncoats tables at Wizard World Philadelphia Comic Con. You may recall that back in 2017 we asked him to answer some questions about the Browncoat Ball, that particular year’s host city of Gettysburg and why he thinks naming a SpaceX Crew Dragon Serenity would be all kinds of appropriate. If you haven’t read that interview, we’d encourage you to take a few moments to do so.
But seeing as how Matt’s back at the helm this year again for Browncoat Ball Las Vegas, we decided to ask him if he would talk to us once again and tell us a little bit more specifically about this year’s shindig. He was kind enough to answer a few of our questions…
Take Back the Sky: It’s rather unusual, if not unprecedented, that a Browncoat Ball is being organized by two different Browncoat groups from two different states, let alone two different time zones. How exactly did that come about?
Matt Black: The germination of Browncoat Ball Las Vegas 2019 actually dates back to 2014. Towards the end of that year I did a survey of everyone who was currently on the Browncoat Ball email list– either prior attendees or people who had expressed interest in the Ball by signing up for emails. We learned a lot of interesting things about what people expect and want from Browncoat Balls. One open-ended question was, “(In) what location would you most like to see a future Browncoat Ball?” Of course the most common reply was “my town,” but discounting that answer, the top three were New York, New Orleans and Las Vegas.
Several different members of the Browncoats of NYC have valiantly tried to put together proposals for Browncoat Ball New York, but it is a very expensive destination and it has been challenging to develop a budget and a proposal with ticket prices and room nights in the ranges to which Ball attendees are accustomed. The idea of a Browncoat Ball New York isn’t dead because it gets revisited every couple of years, but it just hasn’t made it to a formal proposal to the Browncoat Ball Steering Committee– the group that evaluates bids, selects the locations from those bids, and supports each year’s local committee with advice as requested.
There used to be a fairly active group of Browncoats in Las Vegas, but as with many groups, regardless of fandom, there are ebbs and flows of interest. I started researching the real possibility of a Browncoat Ball Las Vegas in 2016. In 2017, I discovered a new group of Las Vegas Browncoats forming and I flew out there for their Can’t Stop The Serenity event in late 2017. There I met two of their organizers and started talking to them about the possibility of a Browncoat Ball Las Vegas. They were definitely interested and excited about the possibility, but were concerned about whether or not they would have enough local support. That’s where the idea of a collaboration between the Las Vegas Browncoats and the Pennsylvania Browncoats originated.
The Pennsylvania Browncoats had already proposed, planned, and executed two Balls– Browncoat Ball Philadelphia 2007 and Browncoat Ball Gettysburg 2017. It was the local Las Vegas Browncoats that put us onto Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino which is off “the strip.” Until then, we had only been looking at hotels on “the strip” and were having similar budget issues as planning a Ball in New York City or Boston. Moving off “the strip” made the budget, ticket prices, and room night costs so much more manageable. And Sam’s Town is currently one of the only hotels in Las Vegas with a Western theme which suits Firefly and Serenity very well. I had spoken with the former Mandarin Oriental on “the strip” for their Asian flair, but our group and budget were just too small.
We put together our bid for Las Vegas 2019, the Browncoat Ball Steering Committee selected us, and it was announced at Browncoat Ball Washington, D.C. 2018. There was an attendee from Las Vegas, who I don’t think had found the Las Vegas Browncoats at the time, that was very excited about the announcement and immediately volunteered to help. She was the third Las Vegas local to join our committee. The fourth was later introduced to us by the first two Las Vegas Browncoats to sign up.
Browncoat Ball Las Vegas 2019 will be the third Ball for which I served as chair, the other two being Philadelphia 2007 and Gettysburg 2017. Two other of our key committee members and several of our volunteers hail back to Philadelphia 2007. Several we’ve picked up over the years doing Can’t Stop The Serenity events and other local activities. We have a couple more from Gettysburg 2017 as well as some others from other Balls over the years. So the planning committee for Browncoat Ball Las Vegas 2019 is made up of more than just the Las Vegas Browncoats and the Pennsylvania Browncoats.
TBTS: Have the Vegas Browncoats and PA Browncoats faced any unique challenges while planning this year’s Browncoat Ball due to the distance between them?
MB: There are always challenges when you are trying to plan events remotely. When we did Browncoat Ball Gettysburg 2017 we only had one committee member who lived within 45 minutes of the venue– the rest of us lived much farther away. But several of us were able to drive out there a few times. Pennsylvania to Nevada is a whole different story. That’s why having four members of our committee on the ground in or near Las Vegas has been extremely helpful. They were able to do the site survey of Sam’s Town, take photos, and report back to the rest of the committee. We’ll be shipping some things out to them and having them buy some things locally for the Ball.
In this day and age, communication isn’t really a challenge. We’ve used email, Yahoo!Groups (old school!), Facebook, and Facebook Messenger to communicate– not just between Pennsylvania and Nevada, but even locally as we all have day jobs and full, busy lives. When we have meetings, we use Skype for the committee members who can’t attend in person– and it’s not just our Las Vegas crew, but sometimes our “locals” don’t have the time to make the commute. After all, one of our “locals” is in Pittsburgh, a good 6+ hours from Philadelphia, around which most of our Pennsylvania contingent is centered.
(NOTE: This Pittsburgh Browncoat can usually make the commute to Philadelphia in about four and a half hours, provided no “purple bellies” are of a mind to impose any unexpected delays!)
TBTS: Besides the way it was planned, what else will make this year’s Browncoat Ball unique?
MB: Every Browncoat Ball has its own unique flavor. The first thing that impacts this is obviously the location. Las Vegas is different from Philadelphia which is different from Albuquerque which is different from Providence and so on. So attendees can definitely expect the excitement and grandeur of Las Vegas. Secondarily, each year a different local committee of Browncoats plan and execute the Ball, so they add their own flavor. While I’ve learned things from my two previous Balls, the committee I work with has grown and changed over the years. In fact, I’m not even the same person I was back in 2007 when I ran (and attended) my first Browncoat Ball.
More specifically, we have a lot of great things planned for Browncoat Ball Las Vegas 2019. We are partnering with local geek hangout The Millennium Fandom Bar for our welcome reception Friday night. While Ball attendees will have their own space for appetizers and mingling, there’ll be a cosplay contest, trivia contest, and LIVE music open to Ball attendees and local nerds alike. We are bringing in Comedy Rock Star Mikey Mason of “She Don’t Like Firefly” fame AND “The Celtfather” himself, Marc Gunn of “Firefly Drinking Songs” renown. They’ll be playing separate sets and one together, probably featuring some original songs from their In The Verse podcast. A midnight bowling tournament is also in the works. And that’s JUST Friday night!
We have a lot of different fun track activities to choose from for Saturday during the day. This is where I direct you and your readers to www.browncoatball.com for details. Saturday night will feature the Banquet/Ball itself with food, music, dancing, raffles, auctions, and more. People always want to know this– we are bringing in a professional dance caller and a LIVE band for the called dancing. There will be an option of taking a class with the dance caller earlier in the afternoon. There are some premium tours Sunday and the Hospitality Suite will still be open to just hangout with friends old and new.
TBTS: Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but if my math is accurate, this will be your 11th Browncoat Ball. As someone who has been to so many Browncoat Balls, what are you most looking forward to about this one?
MB: Stalker much? I have attended 10 of the 14 Browncoat Balls so far. So, this year will be my 11th and the 15th Browncoat Ball overall. I do not believe I hold the record for the most Balls attended, but I’m gaining on it! Setting aside that I’m on the planning committee, and chair for the third time, I think what I’m looking most forward to is just hanging out with other Browncoats. Some I know from previous Balls, some I’ve only “met” online, and others I will be meeting for the first time. We like to say that the Browncoat Ball is the convention where you, the Firefly fan, are the guest of honor. I know that’s what my committee, and I think every Browncoat Ball committee, really tries to achieve– create a unique experience tailored especially for Browncoats. Our bid guidelines state that every dollar that goes into the Ball should come back to attendees as value. The goal is to break even. If a local committee ends up making a profit, they pay it forward to the next Ball so the value comes back to the attendees.
TBTS: Traditionally the location of the next year’s Browncoat Ball is announced at the Ball itself. If you were allowed to choose the location for the next Browncoat Ball, where would you want to hold it and why?
MB: Asking me where I would want to hold the next Browncoat Ball is very tricky. Well, I guess the tricky part is me answering that question. Since 2007, I’ve served on the Browncoat Ball Steering Committee– the group that evaluates bids and selects the locations for future Balls. As I’ve put in bids for other Balls, I’ve had to abstain from the decision making in those years. I pitched Gettysburg twice– it wasn’t selected the first time. And I submitted Las Vegas. So, I may already be privy to the bids for 2020– and I’m sworn to secrecy. That said, no one should read anything into my answer because I’m going to answer it as a regular Browncoat Ball attendee, not as a Steering Committee member.
I still think it would be neat to have a Browncoat Ball New York, if we can ever work out the budget to make it affordable. Another popular destination according to that 2014 survey is New Orleans– I’ve never been there and want to, so I think that would be a great location. Over the years, the Browncoat Ball has taken me to destinations I might never have gone to on my own– Albuquerque and Salt Lake City are two examples of places I probably never would have gone to on my own, but went because of the Browncoat Ball and had a blast. Really, all of the Balls have been amazing in their own ways. The Browncoat Ball has been to FIFTEEN different locations, but think how many other destinations are possible! Wherever it ends up, it is going to be unique and fun and very, very special.
One last thing, the Browncoat Ball does not have to be in the United States every year. We’ve had attendees come as far as from Australia. Any group of Browncoats in any location anywhere in the world are welcome and ENCOURAGED to put in a bid to bring the Ball to their location. Even if they’ve never hosted an event of this size, they can reach out to the Browncoat Ball Steering Committee for advice on how to put together a bid. The Steering Committee is made up of at least two committee members from every Ball so far– there’s literally decades of experience in running Browncoat Balls that can be tapped into to help anyone with the dream of hosting the Browncoat Ball. I had never attended a Browncoat Ball when I put together the bid for Philadelphia 2007. The Chicagoland Browncoats and the San Francisco Browncoats were so welcoming and supportive when I reached out about putting together a proposal. It was an amazing experience that changed my life. That’s why this will be my 11th Ball. By Browncoats, for Browncoats. Stay shiny!
We’d like to thank Matt Black of the PA Browncoats’ Delaware Valley Brigade for his cooperation with this interview, and we wish him, the PA Browncoats and the Las Vegas Browncoats all the best for a very shiny Browncoat Ball Las Vegas this September!
For more information about Browncoat Ball, or to purchase tickets to the 2019 Browncoat Ball in Las Vegas, visit www.browncoatball.com.
Peace, love and rockets…