Photo via Flickr by:quinn.anya

Photo via Flickr by:quinn.anya

The “Renaissance Faire” as we know it began in 1963—in California. It couldn’t have come from anyplace else.

Contemporary Renaissance faires like The Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which begins in Irwindale this weekend, aim to portray aspects of 14th to 17th century Europe, and many visitors and workers have told me what they relish most about the experience is being taken out of the time and space they usually occupy—which they call their “mundane” life—into that special place called “faire.” But California made such experiences possible. In 1963, Southern California was both the home that people wanted to escape and the home of ”escape artists” plotting new possibilities

Renfaire enthusiasts are of all political stripes in the twenty-first century, but in 1963 they were decidedly of the left. Founders Phyllis and Ron Patterson got the idea for the first faire as new residents of Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood long known for its bohemian character. They and their neighbors shared an artistic vision, practical skills, politics, and perhaps most importantly, an unhappy relationship to the anti-communist blacklists of the Cold War era.

The Red Scare’s influence was both practical and political. For one, it made some of the faire’s key creators available to donate their creative energies, because their employment possibilities were constricted by the blacklist. It also created a politically repressive environment that many Californians sought to leave “outside the gates.” Robert Shields, who began his career at the Southern California Renaissance Faire and went on to become famous as half the mime duo Shields and Yarnell, compared his initial reaction to the faire by describing the world outside as being like the television show “Mad Men,” where conformity ruled and everything was “no.” By contrast, inside the faire gates, said Shields, “Everything was ‘yes!’”

Revelers at a 1970s Renaissance Faire

Revelers at a 1970s Renaissance Faire

Anti-communist sentiments had a lasting impact on the parodies and humor of the faire’s music and drama performances. The first few faires were benefits for the left-leaning Pacifica Radio, the nation’s first listener-sponsored station. In their live broadcast of the very first faire, a “Pacifica Crier” announces, “Puritan agitation broke out in Leeds today. Rev. William Penn, leader of the East Middlesex Christian Leadership Conference was arrested for leading a sit-in demonstration at Leeds Cathedral. Mastiffs were released against those holding signs saying ‘We shall not be removed,’ and ‘Ban the Longbow.’”

The Red Scare also established a vocabulary and practice for bashing the faire that remains in place today, and led, in the 1960s, to public hearings, media excoriations of the “leftists” and “weirdies” that supposedly populated it, and even, once, to the closing of the faire. Shock-jock ancestor Joe Pyne took to the radio-waves to warn about the “Reds wearing red tights.”

But despite its naysayers, the faire grew and thrived long after the Red Scare was over—and became a major engine for California’s early counterculture. It spawned a Byrds song (“Renaissance Faire”) celebrating its sense of wonder and possibility, of social and cultural alternatives, as well as the name of a “sunshine pop” act, The Pleasure Fair, which musician Robb Royer (who would later become famous in the musical act Bread) borrowed in the hopes that the moniker would automatically bestow the group with countercultural cachet. As the faire opened up in a second California location and then around the country, young people who were coming to be called “hippies” by a disdainful media began to follow its seasonal path to work, marrying the countercultural value of traveling light with the communal living and handicraft-based, alternative economy the faire offered. It was a haven for hitchhikers as well as for Vietnam veterans, who assured one another that they had found a safe place to heal the scars of war.

The early faire workers—who came to be known as “Rennies”—fanned out from Southern California to follow the seasonal circuit. Along the way, they formed new cultural movements, helping create an important early 1960s craft revival, for instance, and becoming central to a sea change in American music. Thanks to Southern California’s cultural wells—music programs in the state university system, beatnik coffeehouses, the entertainment industry, even sensory lessons learned from the Acid Tests—the faire helped a generation of Americans discover multiple musical forms, especially early music and “world” music.

The faire brought Renaissance instruments out of the narrow scope of the classroom, and acted as a kind of precursor to the experimentation with ethnic musical forms and instruments that would become a hallmark of popular music in the 1960s and 1970s. It contributed significantly to the popularity of Middle Eastern dance and music in the U.S., to an appreciation of music from the British Isles—even, surprisingly to me, to the rediscovery of klezmer music.

The faire not only gave musicians financial support but also encouraged, through its multiple stages, simultaneous performances, and communal lifestyle, the kind of mixing and hybridity of traditions that became characteristic of the music of the period.

For the coming seven weekends, a quarter of a million people will converge on Elizabethan England by way of 21st-century Irwindale, California. But they couldn’t have gotten there without the native California building blocks—Hollywood’s adroitness with fantasy, the country’s first public radio, West Coast communes and crash pads, and a history of bohemian, experimental culture—that came out of this part of America in the 1950s and ’60s. And without the faire California and the rest of America might not have experienced the artistic and performing renaissance that spread across the country and came to dominate the way what we now call “the Sixties” are remembered.

Rachel Rubin is the author of Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture and Professor of American Studies at UMass Boston. She has published and lectured widely on U.S. history and culture. This was written for Zócalo Public Square.

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  • James Kelly

    Pretty accurate. I was one of those hippies (and still am). The Faire has changed (haven't we all?) and is now a different creature, but it's still possible to find (and to create) magic there. Attempt a costume and you'll be more comfortable.

    The "Old Faire" still exists – sort of – in the Casa Faire held near Gilroy in the fall. It was jettisoned by the owners of the above event (as they abandoned all the props and broke their contract) and the pieces were picked up by the merchants who now own the Faire. Visit a lovely wooded faire site and be transported.

    I have been part of the Faire for 45 years but never in all that time have I called myself a "Rennie" – I think that's a term for folks in "circuit" faires rather than the California original.


    • Kat Peters

      Rennie's were the circuit travelers. I was one 20 years ago. It likely never applied to the CA faires which were more strict in garb and dialect than the other shows.

  • Ron Sullivan

    As one who was transported, literally, into 19th Century San Francisco at the very first Dickens Christmas Fair (and Pickwick Comic Annual),which was held at the Ice house in the historic Wharfside District below Telegraph Hill in SF, in 1970. That event changed my life, and I have been a Fair(e)-person ever since! In the ensuing 43 years, I have been a participant at both Black Point and Agoura Renaissance Faires (and the Dickens Fair at Christmastime) many times since then, up to and including the Northern California Renaissance Faire, held at Casa de Fruta on CA 156, near Pacheco Pass each fall. As James says, above, I never called myself a "Rennie" so, on that point, the article is "off", but is, otherwise, a pretty accurate call.

  • BigWhiteDog

    Yeah, whomever told you the "Rennie" thing was blowing smoke up your skirt. As a long time crew member I can tell you we never called anybody that.

  • Sa Winfield

    Came to the faire at age 12, met all of my romantic partners there, married a couple of them, still married to one now. Not sure if it was "life changing" life molding for sure.
    I am finding the documentations, (This book, the Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire giant coffee table book, and the film, Faire, an American Renaissance) to be woefully under researched,. Haven't read this one yet, but I can already tell it isn't going to tell the whole story. Under researched maybe because they didn't include me ;-). I was there, I did popular things, had a booth that was basically ripped off, and built at other faires, Was on stage in very popular shows, etc.
    Judging by the use of the term, "Rennie", I can tell you that no one I know has ever called themselves one, or called anyone else one. I never even used the term Renn Faire, if you did, you didn't work there.
    I will be curious to read this book though, just to see what else they got wrong.

  • Porcupine

    This article makes it sound like every renaissance festival is part of the original California faire. They're not. They may have copied the idea, back in the day, but they aren't sprung from the same owners. Probably a lot of the craftspeople traveled from CA to other faires as they sprung up around the country.
    I only worked the renfaire circuit (and that's what those of us who work the circuit do call it) for about 8 years, in the 1990's, and by then the people who work the circuit did, and still do refer to themselves as 'rennies'. I know plenty of locals who worked many of the shows I've worked at, and it's true that they don't call themselves rennies, so it's understandable that people who work the CA faire exclusively wouldn't know about 'rennies'.
    Each renaissance festival has a VERY different feel, and it's all due to who owns the faire, and the mixture of local workers, rennies and patrons.

  • Uncle Possum

    I've been working the circuit, mostly east of the MIssissippi , for 17 years, and always heard the workers called "rennies" and the event called renfaire for short. I learned the second year that, other than the fact that there are about a dozen large shows and possibly 200 small shows, the only generalizations you can make are that every faire is similar, every faire is different. And, that nearly everyone feels the only "true" faire is their home faire.

  • Seamus

    As a relative newcomer to Renfest – Minnesota 1987 – my impression was that circuit performers and artists were Rennies and locals were Festies. Other Fests sometimes refer to the patrons that come in costume as Festies – we called them Playtrons. But hey, I only have about 25 years in performing at a couple Festivals and visiting a few others, mostly in the Midwest.. YMMV.

  • GirlBarrie

    As someone who was raised at Faire, it is lovely to see the academic connections made between the place that I have called "Home" all of my life and the impact that it has made upon the popular culture of our day. Anyone who has participated in Faire from its inception could have told you that from first hand knowledge!! And a Big, "Hello" to your first 4 commenters – whom I consider Family!!! :-)
    Now can we discuss how we can keep the Arts alive in a society that has forgotten its importance???

  • Sara

    The Northern California Renaissance Faire at Casa De Fruita in Hollister that James Kelly mentioned is especially important to this article because the first photo is taken there. That's the Newcastle English Country Dancers.

  • Sean Folsom

    I went to my first Renaissance Faire at the old Paramount Ranch / Agoura site, in April 1977. I was a substitute Musician for the Irish Dancers, because the regular Musicians couldn't make the 1st weekend.
    I didn't like the Inflatable Snobby Actors, who seemed to take exception to everything, but I was told that I would like the Northern Faire at Novato (N. of San Francisco). Now this was true. I met a fantastic line-up of Musicians et al, and it was the 1st time I saw Arrigo D'Albert play the Vielle a Roue (Hurdy Gurdy) Tim Rued play the Swedish Nykelharpa (Key Fiddle), hear the Troika Balaleikas, Bob Thomas, the Artist & Piper, Drummer Ron Wilson who wrote the Surf Hit "Wipe-Out" etc. After Hours, these remarkable people would play on into the Night and the Parties were always delightful. The Modern Fairs just pull out the DJ machine and pump out the Balderdash that's called Music, but has no real MELODY. I do miss the Magic of those Days in the 1970s, despite the Heat & the Dust and 6 stage shows a day !!!

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  • Jim Letchworth

    I am enjoying your book. I applaud your approach spelled out in the subtitle: & the American Counterculture. I especially applaud your consistency sticking with that theme. It is what makes the book. Everyone has a Renaissance Faire story or three, but they cannot all be retold, so there will be no perfect book. Yes, I did the California Faires and Dickens for years from late 60's to early 90's. I met my wife there, too 35 years ago. Thanks for the research on Bob Thomas, Doris Karnes & Whizzen's. Good stuff. Jim Actor/Maskmaker/Fool