Video: Somerville band Emperor Norton hunts for a circus

S.H. Bagley

Emperor Norton is leading a movement.

A Somerville-based band named for a 19th-century San Francisco resident who declared himself Emperor of the United States, Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band is an 8-member group of saxophones, oboes, a violin, standing base, and, of course, drums. Band leader Chuck Lechien said when he started the band last year, he was inspired by his days as drum major for his college marching band. He called his music circus music, and wanted a circus for it to perform with.

To do that, he’ll need to get artists together from all over the Boston area.

The circus community in Boston includes burlesque artists, street performers who act as statues, jugglers, puppeteers, stilt walkers and people who perform acrobatics on hanging curtains, called aerialists.

“The Greater Boston community needed more circus,” said Lechien, “and the circus of the Greater Boston area needed more community.”

Lechien said he wanted to start a nonprofit organization to provide performers with a space to perform in the city. “Everyone was doing their own thing, and some didn’t have performance outlets,” Lechien said, “So I wanted to do something to change that.”

Lechien wants to host a show as soon as May, and wanted to raise $10,000 last week to get the show off the ground. He came away with $4,500.

Both the circus community and regular community members came out in full force for a benefit concert and auction at the Dilboy Post the evening of Thursday, March 3. The line of community members stretched out the door and around the Post. People with orange hair, dreadlocks, Goth makeup, and blue jeans gathered together to support the band.

Somerville residents lined up to go to the show. The Dilboy was packed with interested Somerville residents and circus performers walking between tables displaying items featured in the night’s silent auction.

“We just wanted to be different,” said Alicia Leung, Somerville resident, when asked why she wanted to go to a circus show on a Thursday night.

“It’s very Somerville,” Leung said, laughing.

Beth Storrs, one half of Boston-based baking duo Tarts and Carafes, praised Lechien’s band. “It’s very social, lively, party music,” she said over the din of the crowd at the Dilboy Post. “They were at Honk Fest. Outside is the perfect venue for it.”

Storrs was offering a meal from Tarts and Carafes. The pair would go to the winner’s house, cook a full dinner and dessert, clean up after themselves and leave.

Photographer Molly Tomlinson, a member of Somerville Open Studios, sold two poster-sized photographs at the evening’s silent auction. She said the Somerville arts scene featured a lot of musicians and painters, but the “crazy circus people” were unique. “This is a community-galvanizing force,” she said about Emperor Norton’s music, “something people want to watch.”

Arts Council member Rachel Mello, who offered one of her paintings up for auction, said the circus performers and band showed how vibrant the city’s arts community is. “I love, love, love how active we are in the arts in Somerville,” she said. “Somerville benefits from having something so stupidly fun. We have these cool arts things, but [Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band] fills a need you didn’t know was there until they came along.”

Auctioneer Paulo Adams, a personal friend to band leader Lechien, was momentarily silent while he tried to describe what he thought of Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. “It’s an absolute visual and audio menagerie,” he said after a moment of fumbling. “It delights all the senses.”

At the end of the night, Lechien did not reach his goal, but he didn’t walk away empty handed. “It’s a good start,” he said.