How an epiphany about old island buildings became a wildly popular festival
Pandemic notwithstanding, lately the annual Dickens on The Strand festival has attracted more than 35,000 people to Galveston’s historic downtown. Many take advantage of its longstanding tradition of free admission for anyone in period garb, resulting in a sea of stovepipe hats, fancy waistcoats, clinging corsets and spitting images of Tiny Tim.
The scene was very different as the 1970s dawned. Interest in the district had reached a low ebb, and several of its distinctive cast iron-front commercial buildings already had been demolished. The ones that remained were largely vacant; broken and boarded-up windows looked out over broken sidewalks. The onetime “Wall Street of the South” had become a skid row.
Enter Evangeline Whorton. Wife of a University of Texas Medical Branch professor and active in the Galveston Historical Foundation, Whorton happened to be in San Francisco when she attended a Dickens-themed festival in an old armory. Comparing its fake Victorian-era buildings with the real ones back in Galveston, she had an epiphany.
“I was flabbergasted at how we could reuse our old buildings for this,” Whorton told The Galveston County Daily News in 2013.
Inspired by the fact that Galveston and London both have a Strand, Whorton and a few of her colleagues began organizing an event that would draw attention to the old buildings’ faded but still-intact glory. Costumes were mandatory. Lit by gaslamp and candlelight, the original Dickens Evening on The Strand in 1974 resembled more of a covered-dish supper than the freewheeling block party Texans know today.
“There were a lot of buildings that did not have electricity and various other things,” said Dwayne Jones, Galveston Historical Foundation executive director. “So, they brought lights and various other things that were not electrical, and began creating what I would call an atmospheric event — trying to create the mood and the setting of a Dickens holiday.”
Vendors were assigned different buildings to set up their wares, often by candlelight; others peddled goods from a cart on the street. Only period-appropriate food and beverages, such as Guinness, were served. Roving performers recited excerpts of “A Christmas Carol” and other Dickensian works. Peter Brink, Galveston Historical Foundation’s executive director in those days, often went as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Jones always wears a costume at Dickens, but not necessarily dressed as Scrooge, he said.
In their efforts to attract attention to a dying part of town — and stir up a little holiday cheer in the process — Whorton and company created a completely unique experience.
“I don’t think you could get that anywhere in Texas, or even in this part of the country,” Jones said. “There just weren’t those types of connections during the holidays.”
The event stuck. The Galveston Historical Foundation began charging admission and today Dickens on The Strand is the organization’s primary fundraiser. The Strand Historic District was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976, the U.S. Department of the Interior noting at least 45 buildings “of architectural interest as representative illustrations of the types of commercial structures used and preferred in their era.”
Gradually, the city officials who had begrudgingly given Dickens their blessing — it was easy enough to block off streets that were practically abandoned anyway — came to embrace the festival as visitors — and their money — poured into the island. Certain things had to be sacrificed, though.
“They had fires in barrels and things like that, things that we can’t do anymore because the fire department frowns on that,” Jones said.
The festival also has forged a lasting bond with Dickens’ extended family. Several of the author’s descendants have become regular visitors — signing books, performing, appearing in the Queen’s Parade, etc. — and have developed proprietary feelings toward the festival, Jones said.
“We often turn to them,” he said. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of a new part of the event; do you have an idea for a name?’”
Although Dickens didn’t pan out last year, with a pivot to the safety-conscious “Dickens on The Squares” scratched by a last-minute spike in COVID-19 cases, Jones expects it will bounce back at full strength Dec. 3-5 this year. After all, the cancellation didn’t prevent scores of costume-clad revelers from descending on The Strand early last December anyway.
“That’s really remarkable to me, that people feel so passionate about an event and connected so strongly to the island,” Jones said.