Phyllis Patterson has spent the last three decades living 500 years in the past . . . and the 60-year-old historian, entrepreneur and educator wouldn’t have it any other way.
Patterson is the founder of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, the annual tribute to Elizabethan England continuing weekends through June 21 at Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino County. The fair is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
A visit to the fair is truly a step back to 16th-Century England. Patterson and her company of 3,500 performers, merchants and volunteers have blended scripted scenes, improvisational performances, period props and sets, real-life characters and costumes that are authentic, right down to the codpiece on Sir Francis Drake’s breeches.
“What we try to do is not just give people another diversion and another place to spend their money, but to give them a chance to broaden their perspective about other times and places. We try to bring history to life so that people can actually participate in it and learn something at the same time,” Patterson said in a recent interview by telephone from the fair site.
The fair is a re-creation of a typical spring celebration in a rural English village during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. There are parades, folk pageants, jousting tournaments, storytellers, minstrels, dance and theater performances, traditional games, fortunetellers and craftsmen. Food and beverage booths dot the sprawling 40-acre site, selling everything from roasted turkey legs and authentic Cornish pasties to juice ices and heady English ales.
“Everything is either authentic to the period or created from technology of the time,” Patterson explained. “We’re very careful to make sure that there is nothing that could not have been created with the tools and technology of the period.”
The unifying theme throughout the fair is the celebration of the coming of spring, an event that was typically marked by raucous and joyous gatherings that included feasting, drinking and merrymaking.
“You have to remember that in the 16th and 17th centuries, the life expectancy was only about 45 years, and for most it was an accomplishment to just survive the winter. People were not just celebrating the changing of the season, they were celebrating the regeneration of life,” Patterson said.
In that vein, a customary “gathering of the May” is presented each weekend in which the townsfolk, festooned in brightly colored flowers and vines, frolic in a procession led by the Green Man (a mythic figure clad in green) to decorate, and dance around, the Maypole.
Throughout the park stroll familiar figures lifted straight from the pages of history, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, William Shakespeare and the queen herself.
According to Patterson, Elizabeth was extremely popular with her people, and it was common for her to go among the peasants during special occasions.
The queen makes appearances at various sites throughout the day, beginning with a grand entrance in which she and her court float across the park’s lake in a barge decorated with bright flowers and colorful streamers. From there she makes her way to the Horse Arena for a special jousting tournament.
Jousting is one of the fair’s most popular events, and under the direction of Kelly Bailey, audiences are treated to authentic, full-contact battle with lance, sword and shield.
According to Bailey, by the time Elizabeth had ascended to the throne, jousting had become a popular sport rather than the duel to the death portrayed in movies and TV.
“What we present is a joust a la pleasance, a joust for sport and pleasure,” Bailey explained. “During the 16th and 17th centuries, the jousting matches were amicable, basically just an opportunity for knights to display their skill and entertain each other at the same time.”
Good intentions aside, the jousting tournaments are not child’s play. According to witnesses, on the opening day of this year’s fair, one champion was knocked cold from a blow to the head.
Bailey, whose Florida-based New Riders of the Golden Age warhorse team has been a participant in the fair for the last 10 years, says that his jousting tournaments are authentic and well-researched.
“Our passes with lance are right on the money, as is our . . . sword to sword on horseback. Most (medieval-style dinner-theaters) offer choreographed stage battles, but (we’re) out there bashing each other in the head for points. That’s real jousting,” Bailey said.
In addition to the jousting, a Tournament of Horses is presented each weekend in the arena, featuring costumed riders competing in traditional equine games, including the serpentine (pole bending) and quintaine (ring piercing).
Another action-packed event is the daily Ceremonial Battle Pageant, a battle between English and Spanish armies re-enacted for the Queen, complete with cannon fire, swordplay and the post-battle “picking of the bones.”
The fair offers a virtual nonstop array of entertainment on six open-air stages representing a wide variety of performing arts done in the period style.
Nine dance troupes perform traditional, ethnic dance from England, Scotland, Africa and the Middle East and as many traditional musical groups and theater ensembles perform each day. In addition, there are storytellers, juggling teams, magicians, a bird show and a theater for bunraku, a form of Japanese puppetry.
A special children’s area features games, hands-on activities and pony rides.
Besides the fair’s famous barbecued whole turkey legs, there are many other culinary delights. At Tom Potters Field you can sample hot cinnamon buns and specialty pastries. Jester’s Cove offers fruit ices served in hollowed-out orange peels, along with cheese and mushroom pies. At Pot Wobblers Way, fair-goers can sample delicacies with names like “spicy thighes,” a dish made from artichokes, and “toad in a hole,” sausage cooked in Yorkshire pudding.
And at the Boars-head Inn you can feast from a menu designed for an era when the word diet wasn’t part of the vocabulary. A typical feast consists of a single plate piled high with meaty slabs of barbecued pork ribs, a whole Cornish game hen with an almond cream sauce, fresh salad and a pile of steamed vegetables. Hunks of crusty bread with mounds of honey butter are served on the side, along with real English trifle for desert. The feast is offered twice daily for around $14. Reservations are strongly advised.
According to Patterson, the fair traces its origins back to 1960, when she and a few other volunteers were directing a summer children’s theater production in their Laurel Canyon community. The production consisted of a series of vignettes tracing the history of the theater.
One particular segment, focusing on Italian comedies of the Middle Ages, struck a chord with people, and by the following year the segment had been expanded and shows were staged out of an Italian-style “Comedia Cart” built by one of the parents.
Over the next year, the cart and its Renaissance-flavored shows became increasingly popular and in May, 1963, the first full-scale fair was staged at Haskell’s Ranch for Girls and Boys in Los Angeles. It drew 6,000 people.
“We had no money. It was all done with donated materials and time (by) 500 volunteers,” Patterson recalled.
The next year, the fair was expanded to three days and moved to a ranch north of Newhall, but the site proved to be too small and in May of 1965 it moved to Paramount Ranch in Ventura County’s Agoura Hills.
The fair made its home at Paramount for the next 22 years until area development proposals forced its relocation to Glen Helen Regional park in 1988. This year’s Renaissance Faire had a budget of $8 million and is expected to attract more than 250,000 people, according to Patterson.
Since 1976 the fair has operated under the auspices of the Living History Centre, a Marin County organization created by Patterson that is dedicated to historical research and the development of hands-on history programs.
Each year the fair also includes Workshops in the Woods, a program in which youngsters in grades three through 12 can participate in full-day, hands-on workshops on the arts and history of the Renaissance. The workshops take place at the fair site three days a week.
What: The Living History Centre’s Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
When: Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through June 21.
Where: Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino County.
Whereabouts: Take the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway north to Interstate 15. Go north to Highway 215 in Devore and follow the signs to the fair.
Wherewithal: $7.50 to $16.50.
Where to call: (800) 523-2473.