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Springtime Brings Faire Days

Ye ol' Renaissance festivals, popular in the area this time of year, combine history lessons and escapist entertainment.

April 08, 2002|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"You put on this shirt and you feel like such a man," says Curt Rowley, showing off a rather blousy garment that matches his equally blousy cotton knickers. Rowley's ensemble also includes a feathered cap, leather boots laced to the knees and a handmade leather sheath hanging off his hip. Manly? Yes, in a Robin Hood-meets-"Braveheart" sort of way.

It's a look that's endemic on the Renaissance festival circuit, which runs February through November across the country and is most prevalent in Southern California in the spring.

For some, including Rowley, the appeal of the dozens of Renaissance fairs that have sprung up across the country over the past 10 to 15 years is in the role playing. For others, it's the artistry of making period crafts and clothing or in learning about the Renaissance period, encompassing the 14th to the 16th centuries.

The success of the fairs is due, in part, to the escapism they provide and because they are interactive, says Tom Wilson of Crossroads Productions, promoter of festivals in Corona, Palm Springs and Lake Havasu.

"Movies are great but you just look at a screen. This way you can actually be a part of it."

And for some, it's a way to find an interest for the whole family. "I took my son to a Renaissance fair kicking and screaming about four years ago," says Boo Price of Palm Desert, who was an exhibitor at the recent Palm Springs Renaissance Festival. "We closed the fair, and he wanted to come back in costume and perform," she says.

The next year, Chance Price did just that. He honed his juggling skills and now, at 16, he is half of the juggler-magician act "Chance and Jasper," with 19-year-old David "Jasper" Nelson.

"Some other kids might do football, Chance does juggling at Renaissance festivals," Boo Price explains. She tags along to chaperon, from Palm Springs to Corona to Las Vegas, dressed in Renaissance-era dresses she makes herself.

Hooking up with the Renaissance fair crowd might sound a lot like running away to join the circus, except that most participants have homes and day jobs. Some sell jewelry, armor or pottery for a living, but most are bankers, engineers and teachers, many with wee ones in tow.

Rowley of Orange is a district manager for a linen company. His wife, Karen, is a teacher, and both are members of the Archers of Ravenwood, along with their children, Bryan, 19, and Kirstin, 10. Putting on a costume gives Rowley license to shed his usual shyness.

"I would never otherwise say the things I say here," Rowley confesses.

His rude and sometimes crude comments are meant to harass, entertain and draw in visitors to the archers' encampment. It's out of character for him--and that's what makes it fun.

"Ah, these are obviously people of great wealth and no ability, I mean nobility," he shouts from his tower above the target range.

Just two weeks before this Saturday's opening of the European Renaissance Festival in Corona (running weekends through May 27), jewelers, jesters, vendors and assorted villagers were busy constructing booths and encampments beneath the oaks in rustic Riverview Park, overlooking the Santa Ana River.

About noon, everyone dropped the tools and picked up armor, drums and steel-pointed weapons to take part in a battle reenactment dress rehearsal.

Men, women and children marched to the permanent arena, constructed of "Renaissance-era telephone poles," one warrior joked. While authenticity in the eight-acre Renaissance village is desired, for practical reasons, it's not always required.

While spectators pay to eat, drink and join the merriment, festival participants are sometimes their own best customers.

When they're not manning a booth, they're bartering with other vendors or watching a stage show, or their kids are playing on the oversized swing and the giant wooden horse.

The oldest Renaissance festival in the country is the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Devore, open May 4 through June 16. Phyllis Patterson, a teacher, started the fair 40 years ago in North Hollywood as a teaching tool, says Bud Coffey, general manager of the Pleasure Faire.

It eventually moved to Agoura and then to its current location at Glen Helen Regional Park in Devore. It's now operated by Renaissance Entertainment Corp.

For many, harking back to the days of yore is a hobby or labor of love, and not intended as a way to make money. It's not unheard of for vendors/warriors to spend $800 to create the period clothing they wear.

In the Ravenwood camp, one of the largest at the Corona fair, visitors can shoot bows and arrows at the targets (six arrows for $2), or just visit the encampment and watch the residents of Ravenwood cook over an open fire, make arrows by hand or construct chain mail (a chain vest that warriors wear to deflect arrows or blades).

The Archers of Ravenwood set up camp at half a dozen fairs a year, representing Scottish, Irish or Turkish folk, depending on the event.

In Corona, the mix throughout the village will include German, French and Celtic nations.

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