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In 1963, a Los Angeles schoolteacher, Phyllis Patterson, staged a small Renaissance fair as a class activity. It was held in her backyard in the Hollywood Hills. Phyllis and her husband Ron presented the first “Renaissance Pleasure Faire” as a onetime weekend fundraiser for radio station KPFK. The event drew over 8,000 people. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Later, the Patterson’s created a fall Renaissance fair, with a harvest festival theme at what is now China Camp State Park in San Rafael, California. Two years later they created another at the Black Point Forest in Novato, California. Both fairs became local traditions and began a movement that spread across the country. Later fairs copying the original frequently usually were not noted for concentrating on a high degree of historical accuracy.
Some believe fairs should be as authentic as possible. Others believe entertainment is the primary goal. Richard Shapiro, who founded what later became the Bristol Renaissance Faire , said he favors entertainment aspect. "We were so authentic back then it was almost painful.”
Since then, Renaissance fairs have become an increasingly popular family attraction, usually held in the United States and open to the public. Not only are they educational but lots of fun. Many plan their vacations around these events which are scheduled way in advance and listed in directories. Fairs are held around the country at various times of the year and vendors, participants and crew often work the circuit going from event to another.
A Renaissance fair can be described as an outdoor weekend gathering emulating a historic period set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 of England. However, some are set earlier or later in history such as during the reign of Henry VIII. Others might set the scene at the time of the Vikings or even 18th century pirates. Some are permanent theme parks while others are short-term events held on fairgrounds or other large gathering places.
The jousting and swordplay exhibited at Renaissance fairs are not real. As with professional wresting they are usually carefully choreographed and scripted. Some jousts however, are real lance passes, but performed by professional stuntmen.
The stocks and pillories displayed at some fairs are also not real. They are often provided merely for atmosphere enhancement and amusing photo opportunities.
Renaissance fairs generally display period costumed entertainers, musical and theatrical acts, art and handicrafts for sale. Visitors are often encouraged to enter into the spirit of things with costumes and audience participation. The fantasy aspect is also promoted with people dressing up as wizards, elves or other imaginary characters of the times.
Chicago journalist Neil Steinberg said: "If theme parks , with their pasteboard main streets, reek of a bland, safe, homogenized, white bread America, the Renaissance Faire is at the other end of the social spectrum, a whiff of the occult, a flash of danger and a hint of the erotic. Here, they let you throw axes. Here are more beer and bosoms than you'll find in all of Disney World.”
These festivals generally feature Shakespearean plays as well as audience participation comedy routines. Other performances usually include dancers, magicians, musicians, jugglers, and singers.
The 'lanes' are lined with 'shoppes' and stalls where vendors sell medieval and Renaissance themed handcrafts such as clothing, books, and artworks. There are also food and beverage vendors, as well as game and ride areas. Games are basic skill events such as archery or axe-throwing. There are sometimes the well known “Drench a Wench” and “Soak a Bloke” attractions which allows visitors with a good aim an opportunity to hit a target and dunk an employee. Rides are typically unpowered as there were no engines or electricity during those times. Therefore, animal rides and human-powered swings are common. Live animal displays and falconry exhibitions are also commonplace. Larger Renaissance fairs will often include a joust as a main attraction.
In addition to staged performances, another attraction are the scores of both professional and amateur actors who play various historical figures and roam the fair, interacting with visitors. Visitors are also encouraged to wear costumes. Many vendors sell or rent costumes for those wanting to participate in the fun. However, many fair enthusiasts often design their own as Renaissance Lords and ladies, peasants, pirates, belly dancers, or other fantasy characters.
In some cases both actors and vendors are required to successfully complete workshops in period language and accents, costuming, and culture, and to stay "in character" while working.