Renaissance Faires Make History Come Alive

What began 35 years ago on a single stage in California is now sweeping the country

For eight weekends each year, the noon air in this fictional English town grows thick with the plaintiff wail of a Scottish bagpipe beneath the heated cries of men at war - "Malt-horse minion!" "Dunghill groom!" "Purple-hued worm!" "Rascal!" "Wretch!"

Rascal? Wretch?

Did I mention that the period was (roughly) Elizabethan?

This is southern California's Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where spectacle and impeccable costuming, not to mention a madcap mingling of history, bring alive a period regarded fondly through rose-colored glasses as a time for monstrous cleavage, clotted cream, and thick-as-a-thigh veal pyes.

Not to mention the verbal magnificence required to deal with milling knots of prating coxcombs and vile braggarts of 17th-century London.

At the noontime skirmish, the Scots, in meticulously draped kilts, are fighting the equally dazzling Queen's troops, augmented with a contingent of splendidly turned out German mercenaries.

Halt, good tickle-brain, you might feel compelled to say. Surely, this is for a carefully researched historical reason? Nay, comes the answer and with it an insight into the very heartbeat of the Pleasure Faire itself.

The Germans are there because a group of enthusiastic volunteers came forward in possession of some really swell (and authentic!) German costumes - enough for a small army, one might say. Which led someone in charge to say, "Hey, how about...?"

"The Faire started on a single stage," says Kevin Patterson, the Faire's general manager, whose parents launched the first one 35 years ago. "From there, the community of artists and actors that was created found ways to grow the concept."

Today, the improvisational enterprise is bursting its bodice with more than 1,100 performers on nine stages such as the Maypole Common, Maybower Theater, and the Mud Pit. There are 1,100 more participants in specialty booths with names like "Nobless Oblige (costumes)," "Rosies's Posies," and "Moonstone Pottery," along with more toad-in-a-holes, shepherds pyes, trifles, and turkey legs than you could ever hope to throw your lip over, by your troth.

Mr. Patterson's parents, Ron and Phyllis, were art and drama teachers who saw the Faire as a learning opportunity to augment what they felt was missing in their children's schools. He adds, "it came to life in the fertile and creative period of California in the '60s. They wanted to bring to life an earlier, magical, idealistic time when thinking was beginning to expand."

Patterson says Americans can relate to the Renaissance "because it was a time of freedom of religion and the expansion of other ethics of our countries, some of the foundational ideals, freedom of expression...."

Well, maybe. Careful historians among us might privately wonder if Patterson is referring to the same period in which Queen Elizabeth's sentence upon the esteemed Sir Walter Raleigh included castration and disemboweling, and the Tower of London's prime decorative motif was heads-on-pikes, with special emphasis on those with crazy, religious ideas like the Puritans.

But these be picks of the nit, laughs Macalester College history professor, Jim Stewart, "the Faire is fun and playful," he points out, "not a history museum."

Pointing to the recent TV airing of "The Odyssey," as well as Disney's "Hercules," which opens in theaters nationwide June 27, Stewart believes this country's turn toward history is good, adding that if people love something, they'll investigate more on their own. What he objects to is "the elitist people" who complain the history in these sorts of things is incorrect.

"For a country that has a hard time keeping track of anything historical, [the Faire] is great. It reinforces a sense that the past is good." If vox populi be any indication, the past is wondrous fare, indeed.

John Lowe, a father from Chino, Calif., who says the Faire has prodded his family into thinking about the past. Noting the parade of Danse Macabre performers in full ghoulish costumes, he observes, "I think it's really educational. Now my kids are asking me about the Black Plague," not to mention how they might make some of those cool costumes.

Mr. Lowe's wife, Deedee, says she had no interest in coming, thinking it would just be "another dusty street Faire with a bunch of booths."

"I couldn't be more impressed," she grins. "The whole period is romantic, so much great language and wonderful, playful costumes." At which point, she glances coyly at her husband and adds, "we're going to come in costume next year!"

Volunteers who actually want to participate in the Faire (apprentices), take an hour and a half "language workshop," in which they study a handbook entitled, "The Elizabethan English Book," written by the theatrical coordinator, Gerald Zepeda (who started with the Faire as a mere monger). Their costumes must be approved. From there, the aspiring mongers, nobility or merchants must then be accepted by one of the 17 or so guilds in the Faire. Only then, may they participate. And participate they do as well as induce newcomers to do the same.

At "Lady and the Fool," a booth of bountiful bodices, an ample customer models her choice for her approving husband. The mistress of the booth, clucks her disapproval of the loose fit. But the woman, moving into the world of serious wenchdom, laughs, "this will do!" She swirls for all to observe and slyly reaches for a posy garland which just happens to match her dress.

Were ever the fruites of schooling so fun?

* The Renaissance Faires are nationwide. Besides San Bernardino, which ends June 21, they are also in Sterling, N.Y. (July 26-Sept.4); Novato, Calif. (Aug.23-Oct.5); Bristol, Wis. (June 28-Aug. 5); and Fredericksburg, Va. (thru June).

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