The Sunday Salon: The History of the Renaissance Festival

I attended my first Renaissance Festival in sixth grade. Earlier in the year, my fannish destiny had been revealed to me when I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but I hadn’t the remotest idea of where to look to pursue those passions. (I didn’t even know Dragon*Con happened every year, a mere hour away from my slice of suburbia, until my sophomore year of high school—the same year I discovered television shows came on weekly. Yeah, it was like that.) When the mother of a friend of mine invited me to join them on their yearly outing to the Georgia Renaissance Festival, my mind was absolutely blown.

Since then, I’ve been attending the Georgia Renaissance Festival regularly. Yesterday, however, I had the opportunity to attend the Colorado Renaissance Festival and compare notes. It was a blast, but it made me realize that I didn’t know how something I do my utmost to go to every year got started. Whoops. Well, the Internet raised me better than that, so let’s correct that gross oversight, shall we?

In 1963, Los Angeles schoolteacher Phyllis Patterson was unimpressed with the lack of arts education provided to her students. Along with her husband Ron, she decided to start providing after-school art and theater workshops in their backyard. The workshops proved so popular that, on May 11th and May 12th, the Pattersons expanded them into a weekend fundraiser called “The Renaissance Pleasure Faire & May Market” for a local radio station KPFK. The station actually broadcast from the event! That six-hour broadcast was recently edited down to forty minutes by David Ossman and paired with photos from the event by Kevin Patterson. As someone obsessed with twentieth century fan history, this is amazing.

The Renaissance Pleasure Faire & May Market became an annual event. By 1967, there were two faires in California—the Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California and the Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Northern California. Both were organized by Patterson’s education-focused nonprofit Living History Center, which went bankrupt in 1986. While the southern faire was purchased by the Renaissance Entertainment Corporation, handed off to Renaissance Entertainment Productions, and rebranded as the Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire, I can’t quite find out exactly what happened to the northern faire. It looks like it evolved into the Northern California Renaissance Faire, based on location alone, but there was definitely a significant change in ownership. In any case, the Pattersons’ work inspired other faires to open across the United States, the first and foremost being the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in 1971. (Fun fact: Penn and Teller’s first show happened at the Minnesota festival in 1975. The more you know!)

@ minnesota renaissance festival

While the Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire still adheres to Phyllis Patterson’s vision of a 1580s Elizabethan marketplace, each festival has its own approach towards historical accuracy. (This Renaissance Faire worker considers them to be “historical fiction,” which I quite like.) Some have specific dates; others are more general. For instance, the St. Louis Renaissance Faire, which is put on by a charitable education corporation, aims to recreate a 16th century French village, while the Great Lakes Medieval Faire and Marketplace hosts both an “Alter Ego Tyme Travel Experience” and a Roman theme weekend.

Colorado Renaissance Festival: Entrance

But whatever your nearest Renaissance Festival’s historicity (look it up on Wikipedia!), it’s still an interesting time. It’s often said that fandom is not what you love, but how you love it, and the people I encounter at faire every year absolutely live up to that. Yesterday, I learned about candlemaking, scenting sculptures, and endangered big cats, just to name a few things. Plus, there’s something magical about an event that combines costuming, fantasy, and history with the atmosphere of state fairs. Case in point: fried ice cream.

Colorado Renaissance Festival: Fried Ice Cream

(Of course, this is merely the foodstuff of the timid West. Georgia has boasted fried Coca Cola and fried brownies, among other delicious abominations. I can only imagine what you can get in Texas, the home of fried bubble gum.)

This, of course, is just what I could glean from a variety of sources online. Rachel Lee Rubin’s Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture looks like the book to pick up if this history is interesting to you. There are also a few documentaries about Renaissance Festivals available. Renny: A Festival Way of Life is available on YouTube in its entirety, while Faire: An American Renaissance is available to purchase on DVD.

My time here at the Denver Publishing Institute is halfway over. It’s almost jarring how quickly the time is flying, especially since I feel so exhausted at the end of the day. I did manage to finally finish Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life yesterday, proving to myself that I can do this and keep up my reading at the same time.

This week’s links:

This week’s acquisitions:

Purchased: None
Added: Death by Misadventure by Kerry Greenwood (via Tor.com), The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd (via class), Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes (via class), The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald (via class), His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon (via class), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (via class), The Old Man Mad About Drawing by Francois Place (via class), The Rebel by Leonor Villegas de Magnón (via class)

What are your experiences with Renaissance Festivals? Got a favorite? Never been?

9 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The History of the Renaissance Festival

  1. At my first Ren Fair I seriously irritated the proprietor of the knife throwing booth by hitting the target every time. Then I went on to do the same at the throwing star booth. Never let a martial arts teacher near your edged weapons concession…

  2. Oo, interesting! I love a Renaissance Festival. Oh I should go to one this fall! There probably is one somewhere. In Louisiana there’s a really excellent RenFest at which they have CAMEL RIDES CAMELS ARE MY FAVORITE ANIMAL IN THE WORLD, and I always regret not being able to go to that. And ride a camel. Because camels are so damn cool.

  3. Oh I’ve been to the Colorado Renaissance Festival! In fact, it was the first one I ever went to. My aunt and cousin were both actors in the Festival on the weekends. I’ve also been to the Maryland and Pennsylvania Festivals. As one of the performers said, these Festivals are one of the few places in the U.S. where vaudeville-type acts still thrive. They are my favorite aspect of these Festivals. Your post reminds me that I haven’t gone in a few years. I should do something about that this fall.

    Also thanks for the links to the Ask Polly column. Good stuff.

  4. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: The Cover Art of Elizabeth Malczynski | The Literary Omnivore

  5. I love your perspective and am most appreciative of the link to the 1963 YouTube video. As to what happened to NRPF, the merchants banned together and “bought” their faire as shareholders, moved to Casa de Fruita and the rest, as they say, is history . . .

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