Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Pow! Smash! Dance! Superheroes fly in to support the arts in Harrisburg.

Illustration by Brad Gebhart.

Illustration by Brad Gebhart.

Do you have a secret desire to be Superman? How about Spiderman, Wonder Woman or even the Green Hornet?

Then gather up that cape, tiara or mask and fly, swing or take the Batmobile next month to the Art Association of Harrisburg’s annual Bal Masque, which is calling on all “Superheroes of the Susquehanna.”

“We want this to be like Harrisburg’s own Comic-Con,” said Amy Huck, Bal Masque committee chair. “If you’re a superhero nut, a sidekick, if you have an alter ego, we invite you to come play with us. At the Bal Masque, we allow for play. It’s not stuffy.”

It used to be, though.

When the Bal Masque debuted at the West Shore Country Club in 1941, it was a haughty affair. It then was held for years at the Penn-Harris Hotel, where Strawberry Square now stands.

“It was the social event of the year”—much documented by the press, said association President Carrie Wissler-Thomas.

Over time, the Bal has become more casual. ABC’s Abbey Bar hosted the event in recent years before it returned to the Penn-Harris, this time at its location at the Radisson Hotel in Camp Hill.

Each year, the party takes on a different theme.

From “The Wonderful World of Outer Space” to Broadway, from “Love Fest” to Las Vegas, the Bal Masque explores something new and fantastical every time. One Bal theme, “Blast from the Past,” “had the most elaborate decorations that I can recall,” said Wissler-Thomas.

“The decorating committee built a pyramid and a kind of caveman area, and there was a pagoda,” she said. “We had one called ‘Blues in the Night’ at the Whitaker Center, when the Whitaker Center first opened. People came down the grand staircase all in costumes with a blue theme.”

A Hollywood-themed Bal Masque featured a large group arriving in a dune buggy.

“It was ‘Mad Max: Thunderdome,’” said Wissler-Thomas. “They came pouring out of the freight elevator.”

Now that the Bal Masque has settled into the Radisson, the Art Association is hoping to inject theatrics back into the affair. But it remains committed to keeping the event accessible for those whose idea of a great night out is not necessarily a charity fundraiser. A tiered ticketing system is in place for people who cannot afford full-price tickets.

“We welcome everyone,” Wissler-Thomas said.

Huck added that the Bal Masque also is an occasion for drag. It’s for those looking to be somebody else, or for those looking to be more themselves—the more fabulous, the better.

Huck, for one, is hoping to bring some large-scale Comic-Con nerdery to the Bal Masque. The superhero theme will be an occasion for cosplay (costume play), channeling enthusiasm and fandom, and the Art Association is aiming for an atmosphere of immersive theatricality, like that of a Renaissance Faire. There will be food, music, a silent auction, a theatrical number, a costume parade and no judgment.

The superhero-ing actually will begin well before the event. Brad Gebhart, who teaches at the Art Association, is meeting with the event’s honorary chairs—learning where their passion for their fields or causes comes from—and then will create superheroes based on them that will be rendered as life-sized standup figures that will appear around Harrisburg to promote the Bal Masque.

Also in the works from Gebhart—a comic book based on these superheroes. They begin as regular citizens who recognize issues in Harrisburg and then gain superpowers in order to save the city. Bal-goers get copies of the comic book—and they also keep the Art Association’s lights on. Proceeds from the Bal Masque support the Art Association of Harrisburg at its core: classes for kids and adults, 10 annual in-house exhibitions, the gallery and other needs and events.

Fortunately, on this one night, the important work of the Art Association can be sustained by that small act of heroism that is going out and having fun.

The Art Association of Harrisburg’s Bal Masque takes place March 11, 6 to 11 p.m., at the Radisson Hotel in Camp Hill. For more information, visit www.artassocofhbg.com.

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