A couple of moderne girls and their squires take a trip to a bawdier time.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
“Ladies, I do address you, and undress you in my mind.” The man speaking so impertinently appears to be a peasant of some sort, so we turn away.
Another man, wearing a jester’s cap, walks up to us with his hands wrapped around the necks of two limp geese.
“Would you like a goose?” he asks suggestively. We shake our heads no, trying to get away discreetly.
“It would be the best goose you ever had!” We keep walking. The man won’t give up. He holds up a musical instrument of sorts, with a bell hanging off it. “Well, ring my ding-a-ling at least,” he pleads.
We push past him, to enter the gates to a small town north of London. We don’t have time for such nonsense. It is an important day in Elizabethan England. The Queen herself is about to pay a visit.
Just then, a plump couple decked out in tennis shoes and baseball caps ambles past us, interrupting our trip to the Renaissance.
Suddenly we are back in 2005, in dusty farmland next to the Casa de Fruta, in Hollister, California. Clumps of RVs are parked nearby. We have Nikes on our feet. Would-be wench Jesssica is wearing a tank top that says, “Today I Want to be a Pop Star.” I have Kate Spade sunglasses on. But all around us gentlemen in tights and tall leather boots are bowing and saying, “Good day, m’ lady.” Corseted women with breasts spilling out brazenly are milling past.
It is time for us to get in line with the first weekend of the Northern California Renaissance Faire. The event spans six themed weekends from Sept. 10 to Oct. 16 and offers the chance for regular folks to spout British accents, wear flamboyant costumes, and flirt outrageously while pretending they’re doing it all sometime between 1490 and 1630.
Donna Lyon, the Ren Faire’s PR rep, hustles us to a costume shop.
“The parade is about to start, so you guys need to change fast,” she says.
Our clothing is placed in plastic bags and filed away, while a dressing room attendant assists us in donning puffy blouses, full skirts, and fur-trimmed tweedy lace-up corsets.
Then comes the delicate point of how to adjust the, um, twins.
“To fix the girls, reach right in and pull them up,” the attendant tells us helpfully.
I have no time to tell if I’ve managed the right amount of cleavage, because Lyon bursts in to tell us the queen is on her way, and we must come along now. We are introduced most quickly to Sir Henry, a noble old gentleman with a dangling pearl earring who is in charge of alerting the townspeople to the queen’s movements. Elizabeth Rex must not be upstaged: the people must not walk before her.
As we are chatting with Sir Henry, our squire Ryan appears, holding his 2-year-old son Jackson. He gives the slightest of eyebrow raises as he takes in our attire, and then it’s a non-issue. We’re inside the Ren Faire world now. Ryan is wearing baggy pants, a loose shirt with patches, and a fairly shabby vest. He is of a lower class than us. Because Jackson is so cute, we decide to let Ryan walk with us. We are startled by a creature wearing black body paint and fangs, lolling in netting, high up in the trees.
“Did you see the troll?” Ryan asks. “It totally freaked out Jackson.”
We are all as wide-eyed as Jackson. We stroll among the trees and past candle-makers, broom-makers, women selling flower garlands, and, everywhere, smooching couples.
“It’s our Romance and Revelry Weekend,” Lyon explains. “We’ve got scavenger hunts for couples and singles. If couples are caught showing public displays of affection, or doing random acts of kindness, they can get tokens to turn in for prizes.”
As if on cue, an olive-skinned man with a dark mustache and a feather in his cap approaches Lyon. He sets down his carved silver cup of ale, fixes his intense dark eyes upon her, then takes her hand to his lips and gives it a lingering kiss. He does the same to Jessica and then to me, and we both giggle and swoon a little. Okay, a lot.
The Renaissance does have its charms.
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The Northern California Renaissance Faire is the second oldest such event in the country, having been started by the Patterson family in Marin County in 1967. After the family closed the Faire in 2003, a group of actors, vendors, and patrons of the Faire decided to form a corporation and take over.
Michael Gardner is director of marketing and PR for Play Faire Productions. He’s been attending the Faire since the ‘70s and aims to take it back to its bawdy origins. He says in recent years the Faire had become a more family-oriented event.
“We had lost the adult themed-orientation,” he says. “None of us gets tired of being flirtatious and playing. So we stopped advertising for kids. The problem is mom and dad are with the kids and they don’t drink beer and they’re not going to play.”
Gardner is frank about what he views as the more meaningful aspects of the Faire.
“For years, the adage has been the Faire is all about boobs and beer, and we wanted to get back to that,” he says. “Which I really like.”
The marketing change up has resulted in a drop in the number of Faire-goers; Gardner says the Faire used to get 100,000 visitors a season. Under his management, the numbers last year dropped to around 42,000. But Gardner attributes the change in part to only allowing paying customers.
“We’ve made it a policy not to give away tickets,” he says. “They’d have 80,000 people coming and only 30,000 of them paying. We want more people in costumes, more people buying stuff.”
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As the day progresses, it certainly seems that people have been spending at the Faire. The Tarot booth seems quiet, and it’s hard to tell if the foundry’s done a lot of business, but there seem to be plenty of folks indulging in a cup of ale or mead. A man in peasant attire lets out a resounding belch that spans several octaves.
Some of those imbibers are also trying their hand at archery and knife throwing, and we give a wide berth as we pass by.
A buxom group of lasses, who seem exponentially drunker each time we run into them, call out challenges such as: “Have you seen enough of us? Would you like to see more? You want nakedness? I’ve got a big old fat hiney you haven’t seen before.”
We decline, and instead choose to watch the parade of Queen Elizabeth and her entourage make their way through the town. Elizabeth is carried on a chair by her servants.
“Make way, make way, the Queen approaches,” Sir Henry bellows as peasants scurry out of the path.
The queen is slowly and gently lowered to the ground and escorted to do some shopping in the village.
This regal red-haired Elizabeth is so convincing that both Jessica and I are actually nervous as we greet her.
“Don’t you wish to be in the shade, madam?” asks Sir Henry.
“I do not glitter in the shade,” she retorts.
The queen doles out favors, such as brooches and ribbons to be pinned on her loyal subjects, including a faux pearl necklace for a youngster. Sir Henry tells of the sumptuary tax that he pays the queen to wear his fine garments.
“I want to be as foppish as I can,” he says.
We also catch on that Puritan women in the crowd consider us to be immoral in our dress, specifically our short-sleeved shirts.
“You painted hussies,” one calls out. “Shame on you for exposing your elbows.”
We leave the crowd to gawk at Elizabeth and head to watch people spin lazily on the maypole carousel.
A peasant tied to a rope behind the carousel is advertising something called fool’s maze. He manages to capture Jessica by the hand and attempts to lure her in. When Jessica tries to pull away, he begs for a kiss.
“I’m married,” Jessica says.
“I don’t care!” he retorts.
Jessica reluctantly gives him a peck on the cheek, and he grabs her for a big dip before releasing her.
A woman nearby is eyeing Jessica and saying something.
“I think his girlfriend is pissed,” Jessica whispers.
Wary of a potential lovers’ brawl, we duck into a shop to browse through silver jewelry and colorful skirts. We notice a woman walking past with a dagger stuck between her breasts.
Next time, we’ll be better prepared.
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The Knights of Avalon will perform three times today. (See second story.) Running the show is Sir Eaton Blackheart of the Sweetbush Shire, who gallops into the ring astride an enormous white horse known as a Percheron. He rallies the crowd sitting in bleachers to cheer for four different knights from four parts of the world. Our section gets to cheer for Sir Andrew from Scotland.
“If you see blood, it’s not fake,” Sir Eaton warns. “These animals weigh 2,000 pounds, are going 30 miles per hour at each other, with a knight bearing a 25-foot lance of solid wood.”
The ominous pall is lightened by some nutty squires having at it in the ring as the knights gallop past to the cheers of the crowd.
We are instructed to cheer “Huzzzah!”and “God save the Queen!” as Elizabeth is ushered in to watch.
One of the squires is so impertinent that on the Queen’s orders, he is taken to a nearby castle. He suddenly appears at the top of the tower, shouting rudely as he throws the body of a guard over the side. Sir Eaton orders the other guards to shoot, and after a blast, the squire falls over the side of the tower, never to be seen again.
The crowd is mostly indifferent to the squire’s fate, ready to watch the knights do battle.
Sir Andrew is being outfitted in his helm, which only offers a tiny slit to see through. He and another knight are running smack at each other. The crowd is riled. Jackson is standing up on Ryan’s lap. There’s a hit but I can’t tell who hit who. The mounted knights go at it again; there’s another hit.
Sir Andrew ties for the win, as Sir Eaton shouts, “To the victor go the spoils!” After asking the Queen, it is decided that both victors shall be paid in gold.
A knife fight in the ring has broken out between two other rival knights. Squires are being knocked over. It’s getting messy.
Sir Eaton’s English accent breaks a bit as he reminds the crowd, “Please drop a little something in the box on the way out and visit the T-shirt booth. The knights will pose for autographs and pictures now.”
I feel strangely shy as I ask if I can have my picture taken with Sir Andrew, but he is gracious and throws his armored arm around me. He gives a knightly raise of an eyebrow and a steely stare as Jessica snaps away. When we’re done, he gives me a little squeeze.
I show the photo to Ryan afterwards.
“That’s great,” he says. “You look like you could get a job at Disneyland.”
Donna Lyon wants to introduce us to William Shakespeare and Sir Francis Drake, but frankly we’re beat. We slam some Gatorade and stare dumbly at a show by a chap named MooNIE the Magnif’cent, that is supposed to be hilarious. Jessica and I quickly surmise that the humor is geared toward folks who’ve been drinking something other than Gatorade.
Jessica’s also grumpy because she realizes she won’t be able to make it to next weekend’s Pirate Invasion.
“Imagine, pirates everywhere,” she says dreamily. “It would be so cool. Maybe I could skip my friend’s wedding…”
We’ve both realized that the line between pretend and real has been totally blurred. By now we’ve fully admitted how much fun it is and how wild it is that people get into it so deeply. I’m still curious what these people do in their everyday lives. Are they all computer programmers?
I have to ask at least one of them to step out of character.
Carly Honfi of Sunnyvale is pretty and wearing a noblewoman’s costume that doesn’t expose anything. She looks extremely normal. It turns out that she’s 26 years old and works for the city of Sunnyvale’s training department for police. She does theater in her free time. This is her 10th year of coming to California Ren Faires, and she says she couldn’t imagine skipping a year. She has four costumes—costing up to $500 apiece—that she rotates depending on her mood.
“It all depends on how you feel,” she says. “If you want to be noticed, you dress like royalty and people bow and say nice things and back out of the way. If you’re dressed in peasant clothes, you get brushed by.”
Honfi says that Ren Faires provide a chance to unwind and allow for a “time warp” into another world—a world that breaks down barriers.
“It makes men feel braver and it makes women feel beautiful,” she says. “Inhibitions are totally down and people aren’t afraid to talk to you anymore. I wouldn’t say it’s a love fest, but it’s a great place to experience something different. Men get to be knights and women get to be princesses and everyone lives happily ever after.”
By now we are so involved in the transformation that on the way out, we almost forget to return our costumes.
It feels odd but also wonderful to change back into an outfit that won’t provoke a reaction.
But the men at the gate don’t miss a beat.
“Ladies, lovely ladies, don’t go, don’t go,” they beg, tipping their hats and bowing. We both feel pretty dirty and sweaty at this point. I’m certain I don’t look particularly lovely. Jessica confirms this for me later. But it doesn’t matter. The magic of the compliment and attention wafts along with us as we head through the dusty parking lot to our car, back to our cell phones, away from the glitter.
THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA RENAISSANCE FAIRE RUNS WEEKENDS THROUGH OCT. 16, 10AM TO 6PM. $20/AT GATE; $90/ALL WEEKEND PASS; $10/KIDS 5-11; FREE/UNDER 5. CASA DE FRUTA, 10031 PACHECO PASS HIGHWAY, HOLLISTER. (408) 847-FAIR OR WWW.NORCALRENFAIRE.ORG.