MAY/JUNE 2000

Back in the early 80's I'd briefly worked the Renaissance Faire out in its old location in the Agoura Hills. It was a lot of work, a lot of fun, and fraught with magic. I'd briefly plugged it in our May 1987 column, but now I wanted to return and to it justice.

I wanted to paint a picture, and give you some small idea of what it was like being there.

Oh - the little introduction, where off-season picnickers are confronted with possibly ghostly visions of Faires Past? That actually happened to some close friends of mine, long long ago . . .

 

New Memories of an Ancient Past

 

The hills were different then, back when this story takes place. Parched and dusty brown after a long summer in the hot California sun, the hills stretched off in all directions as far as the eye could see, barren mute witnesses to a not-so-distant past, standing like eternal sentinels guarding some ancient mystery.

There were less people back then, back when this story takes place. A lone highway wound its way through these hills, mostly used in those days to ferry people back and forth between the blistering San Fernando Valley and the white sands of Malibu Beach. Out in the hills, you could walk a mere five minutes in from the highway, and find yourself in a timeless place. You could look all around you and see not a single house, a single intimation that humans had ever passed this way. You could wander and wonder thus, imagining yourself back in the 1800's, when such parts of this region not used by ranchers were taken up as hideouts by smugglers and bandits, and indeed this area was used again and again in the filming of Westerns.

You wander, pass through a silent grove of trees, and stop. There before you stands what looks like the ruins of an ancient Elizabethan stage, some 4000 miles from home, standing alone in the middle of this empty Old West paradise.

And you wonder . . .

It is not so very long ago, really, back when this story takes place. It is actually a certain day in early autumn, back in the early 1980's, and a group of young friends have come to this region for the same reason we did ourselves - to wander, and to wonder. And to picnic.

As we back away for a longer shot of our friends eating, drinking and reminiscing as they sit among the hay bales and trees near this impossible English stage, we note that there are other structures, wooden things in seeming disrepair, some mere skeletons and others looking quite like ancient storefronts of some kind. All is still, save for the wind, the birds, and our friends having their picnic.

One of them suddenly jerks their head, startled. She has just seen something, or someone, moving. They all look to where she points. There is nothing.

A few minutes later, another exclaims that he has just seen a flash of brightly colored cloth pass through the trees. An almost eerie quiet has descended upon these youthful revelers.

The lunch finished in silence, they begin to look around. Naturally, there is nothing there. They return to their car, and naturally it stands by the side of the highway alone. No one has been there. Only them.

And yet, our friends know better. For this, as you may well have surmised, is no ordinary picnic spot, out in these eternal hills. We are at the Old Paramount Ranch in Agoura, for many years the home of the Renaissance Faire.

Now, as we watch our friends drive off, leaving the hills to their timeless desolation, I ask you to close your eyes, and travel six months through time with me.

Six months ahead or backward? You ask.

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter at all . . . Ready?

CRASH! and suddenly your ears are assaulted by the most maniacal menagerie of musical mayhem, a thousand voices laughing, joking, singing, bartering, a thousand scents, from exotic foods to incense to strong English ale, and you open your eyes to a most remarkable sight. From lone wooden skeletons have sprung hundreds of 16th Century English storefronts, commanded one and all by people who look as if they have been whisked directly from that distant era whole, the stage stands no longer empty but is now full of costumed actors, performing something vaguely Shakespearian to a large crowd that jostles for position on the haybales below. Musicians roam through the streets, ale stands pour strong beers into ancient pewter mugs, the occasional parrot or monkey may be seen, seeming perfectly natural in this almost Byzantine ballyhoo!

Welcome to the Renaissance Faire in its heyday. It is a weekend in May, 1983.

Ah, that group of peasants yonder - they look familiar, don't they? Yes, it's that same group from the picnic, now bedecked in Elizabethan peasant pomp as they frolic through the crowds. And look there, that odd looking fellow among them playing the mandolin: yes, that would be me. I wasn't kidding when I refered to them as "friends", you know!

Let's follow them for a bit.

We pass by stage after stage. As we pass one the most strangely beautiful tune you've never heard comes wafting down toward us. It seems hauntingly familiar, as if you'd heard this song before, many lives ago. In contrast, another stage is hosting the "Five Minute Hamlet", and you find yourself drawn to the nearest haybale, from which you promptly fall off as you collapse into uncontrollable fits of laughter.

As we move on we see to our left a darker, more tree laden area, where gypsy fortune tellers practise their ancient art, and as we come to a clearing we are confronted by none other than Queen Elizabeth and her Royal Court! It is an awe inspiring moment of sensory majesty, and for a moment we are truly there. The magic takes over, and we have indeed passed into late 16th Century England . . .

Yes, for almost all Faire visitors (and participants), a magic moment occurs at some point when everything falls exactly into place. It can be the most seemingly mundane sort of thing that sets it off, a certain smell at the right time, the glimpse of a solitary townsperson engulfed in their task without any apparent audience, perhaps the ale or mead must be allowed to work their own brand of magic, but at some point you will assuredly find that you had just forgotten, just for a moment, that you were still in the Modern World. For a brief moment this place and all its inhabitants will have become Real.

The premise is simple enough. It started some time in the sixties as a sort of "Living History" project, where a few people would dress in Elizabethan garb, try to remain "in character", and for a weekend create a closed environment that would allow people to feel for a brief moment what it would have been like to be somewhere in England in the days of Shakespeare. One such stint took place in UCLA in 1966 (I believe), and was attended by then-Byrd David Crosby, who was moved to write a song about it.

By the late seventies this little experiment had exploded, taken up permanent residence at the Old Paramount Ranch, and now went on for over a month, spanning the weekends from May Day to Memorial Day and spilling over into June. The Faire had grown to where it now incorporated a full fledged town, and the premise was now that the Queen, as she was quite often wont to do in real life, was to be passing through this town. As a result, we see an English town's lusty celebration of the coming of Spring collide happily with the glorious pageantry of a Royal Visit from Queen Elizabeth. And, naturally, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare will all be there.

The old Ranch was the perfect site, as well. Do you recall our visit, in the quiet autumn of the year, when all was still? Yes, once you are in the actual Faire site, you will hear no machinery coughing, no cars, nothing to rudely remind you of the Real World you have left behind. (It probably helped that back in the early '80's cell phones and pagers had not yet become the ubiquitous annoyances they are today.)

So how did I end up there, cavorting with a group of peasants and a mandolin?

Let's backtrack about twenty four hours, shall we?

That's better - oh, sorry, I should have warned you that we'd be flying down the 101 freeway! Yes, I'm afraid a bit of culture shock goes with the Living History territory.

We spy our exit, and notice that an alarmingly large assortment of campers, trucks, and cars of every description seem to be getting off at the same place we are. Small wonder - there are literally thousands of people, almost entirely unpaid volunteers, who arrive every year to put on this show, to make sure the Magic works.

We are now part of a caravan as we wind up into the hills along that formerly lonely highway, leaving the present day turmoil behind and heading into the country, and back in time.

Specifically, as we begin pulling into the parking area we feel as if we've landed in upstate New York in August of 1969! The plethora of strangely colored vehicles and people arriving in droves suggests nothing so much as the massive migration to the Woodstock Festival. Indeed, there is more than a passing connection between the two. You recall David Crosby's song? Well he wrote it (titled "Renaissance Faire", naturally), and it came out on the next Byrds album. The band sang that song during Crosby's last gig with them the following summer at the Monterey Pop Festival, and the song's opening line ("I think that maybe I'm dreaming") was subsequently borrowed by Eric Burdon for his ode to that fest, "Monterey", at the end of '67. As Monterey was in many ways the direct precursor to Woodstock, and as we look out at all the happily bearded and painted people who we'd thought had disappeared from the earth, we realize that the Renaissance Faire (and similar operations) has become a home for many who, having once escaped the corporate realities of the dominant culture, could not see themselves returning to that nightmare. A final bastion for the counter culture, a mod mecca, and so we see the direct lineage from early Ren Faire to Monterey to Woodstock and, finally back to the modern Renaissance Faire.

A fairly large hollow, adjacent to but not visible from the Faire Site Proper, is strewn with a multitude of tents, as this temporary army set to work digging in for the weekend. As the sun sets, one remembers how isolated one is, as we are plunged into Absolute Darkness. Then, like earth-bound stars, small lights begin to flicker on from various tents. This guitar I'm holding? Well, I'll be playing the other instrument quite enough this weekend. Tonight, it's time for a singalong!

Small groups gather at certain tents, some musicians hold court as the onlookers join in song, erasing any barrier between artist and audience. Other musicians travel from tent to tent, stopping in to play along with whatever song they find in progress. As one huddles around the music one notices that one song started with three singers and ended up with fifteen, the song after that came alive with a fiddler from out of the darkness, the next might lose the fiddle but gain a flute, and on and on into that good night.

But, with some reluctance, we put our instruments away at a fairly early hour. Tomorrow will start early, and will be exceptionally busy.

The cricket-torn silence of the night gives way all too early to the sound of a thousand people rising at dawn. One dresses as quickly as possible, and heads down into the town.

Ah, the town! How glorious it seems, how colorful, how full of promise. The day is just a-borning, but all of us are milling about, congregating among the already opened food stands which are thoughtfully offering eggs and bacon to famished actors - all this taking place hours before the Faire will be open for business. You glance at the nearly empty Main Stage, imagining what wonders will this day occur. You gaze about as musicians tune, cooks begin preparing the exotic dishes of the day, artisans of every kind prepare, prepare, and all enjoy the last blissful moments when it's just them, just the people who work the Faire, when they can relax for a final glorious moment before . . .

Hark! The trumpet's been blown! They're letting the paying customers in!

As one we who are not chained to shop or ale stand pour out into the streets, out toward the Main Gate, where we suddenly are simple peasants and artisans from centuries ago. We work, we play, we curse ourselves as we realize we are late for our first parade of the day, we scramble up a hill to join a circle of fellow peasants who watch raptly as the ancient slaying and rebirth of Jack O' the Green is acted out. It is a ritual still in use in Elizabethan times, but one which has its origins in the old days of the Druids. It is the symbolic enactment of Spring's triumph over Grim Winter.

It is always a crowd pleaser.

Now the mini-play is over, and all rise, and singing "Staines Morris" (" . . . then to the May Pole haste away - for 'tis now our Holiday . . .") we march along, stopping again and again to repeat the ritual for new revelers.

Ah, as we work the morning's first magic, we wonder, half-wistfully, what it would be like to be one of these paying revelers. To arrive by freeway, to park, gather one's things, and head up a path as if going to some ordinary park or function, and then . . .

And then to pass through the towering Main Gate, and into a different time and space. To be dazzled, if not confounded, by the most gloriously cacaphonic blend of sight, sound and scent, from armored knights at swordplay to ancient dunking machines, from lordly nobles in full regalia to strangely garbed peddlers and musicians, every imaginable thing for sale, an extraordinary collision of smells as the most wonderful exotic foods are prepared, parades and pageants on every side, and, naturally, music everywhere.

But I digress. If there's to be music everywhere I'd better get busy doing my share! The morning parade ends, and I now have a few minutes to - oh, but wait. Today is different. Today there is much work to be done - for tonight it is my guild, St. Helena's, that is to perform the "Ring Out".

Sorry, lost you for a second, didn't I?

Well, it's like this. There are several Guilds that make up the Faire, and serve the same function as the actual Guilds of the 1500's. One Guild would be comprised of musicians, perhaps, another of the nobles, etc. Your function at the Faire would move you naturally into the proper Guild.

And if you had yet to determine your true function, there was always St. Helena's. For St. Helena's was the peasant Guild, the place for those with nowhere else to go. Because of this, it was by far the largest Guild of all, including over 300 members as of May 1983.

And it was to St. Helena's I belonged, reasoning that the musicians' Guild had all the music it needed, whereas St. Helena's could use a little more. Besides, I felt quite at home with my fellow "peasants".

Now, I mentioned something about a "Ring Out". Well, shortly after permanent residence was taken up in Agoura, a little problem was noticed. It seemed that it was in fact far easier to get people into the Faire than to get them back out at closing time. People would have become so involved in the thing (and perhaps in their cups), that they simply would not want to leave. This presented a problem, since the idea of herding people out with night sticks or something seemed absolutely contrary to the spirit of the Faire.

So somebody came up with the idea of a "Ring Out". Each Guild would have their alloted evening, and on that evening they would assemble at one end of the Faire Site just before closing time, and begin singing. The song would be whatever they wanted, so long as it humorously (but pointedly) alerted the paying customers that the Faire was closing, and it was time to leave. Ideally, the singing would begin attracting a crowd, and after a bit the Guild would begin to parade across the Faire, picking up more and more followers, until at length both Guild and following customers found themselves outside the Main Gate. A brilliant idea, a way to gently get people to leave, while giving them a last bit of Renaissance ritual to leave with.

So, that's the "Ring Out", and tonight was St. Helena's turn. Oh dear. St. Helena's Guild, being so large, had always had a bit of a problem with previous Ring Outs. There were just too many people involved to ever consider doing anything even vaguely creative - what was needed was the most generic and simple tune possible. I believe it was the Guild's sheer size that would help get people to leave.

Well, it was our turn this very night. And we had nothing to sing. And with over 300 people involved, it was clearly too late to do anything about it. A complete impossibility.

Well, doing impossible things is always fun, so I mused with two friends (Deanne and Shawna) over the problem. Now, the night before we'd been listening to a grim old English song: "The Lover's Ghost". Its opening line (sung, naturally, by the ghost) was as haunting a thing as I've ever heard. It went: "I must be going, no longer staying . . . the burning Thames I have to cross . . ." (The "burning Thames" as in London's main river, was the traditional folkloric boundary between the dead and the living.)

Anyway, we mused on this merry morning, and one of us, I don't know who, began singing, just for a joke: "You must be going, no longer staying . . ."

We stopped, and stared at each other. Were we crazy? Could it work?

Well, we were, and it did. The song was finished in ten minutes, and we began to make the rounds, teaching it to everyone from our Guild we saw. Upon being taught, each one of them would in turn go around and find others, and repeat the process, so that by mid-day there were scores of people moving about the busy Faire, hunting down fellow Guild members and passing the song along. It was, in short, the Folk process, in miniature - if not also the way a modern computer virus spreads . . .

In any case, by closing time over 300 people who had been at disparate points throughout the Faire all day could now sing a song that had not existed until that very morning!

One Faire worker happened to be outside the Main Gate as our Ring Out began its final approach. He watched as, in twos and threes, the peasants began to emerge, singing a strange song he'd never heard at a Ring Out. These few voices grew as more and more and more peasants emerged, flowing out of the gate and assembling before it, and by the end all 300 of us were outside, singing that song as one, a thundrous roar of triumph as the sun began to set on that most extraordinary day.

It was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen.

So, that's my favorite moment of Magic. Not my magic, by any means. No, the magicians in this case were all the Guild members who learned the song, passed it around, and turned a near disaster into a most precious moment for all and sundry. A moment few there will forget.

That's about it. I never worked another full year of Faire, but learned in later years that our little song was still sung from time to time at Ring Outs, thus outlasting me. A happy thing to contemplate.

Sadly, the Faire eventually had to leave the Paramount Ranch. Long time readers of Book Again's printed newsletter may recall the first time I wrote about the Faire, urging one and all to check it out as "it is rumored they may be moving".

As I recall, that was indeed the Renaissance Faire's last year in those wonderful old hills.

Nowadays those wonderful hills are dotted with modern homes, as we in this sprawling city keep making more and more inroads into previously unbothered regions. I have not been back to the old Site, and I wonder if anything's left. Specifically, I wonder what would happen if I took a picnic lunch out there some September day. I wonder what I'd see . . .

On a happier note, the Faire did not disappear, but simply moved to the Glen Helen Park out near San Bernardino, where it continues to this day. As a matter of fact, it's going on right now! Yes, it's May, and the Faire should be continuing every weekend at least into mid-June. Of all the people I met there, back in '83, a few are sadly no longer with us, whereas a few others I've just seen within the week. As for the rest, they're mostly still there, a little older, perhaps, some with children of their own, perhaps, and still there - still making the jaunt to work a bit of Magic into this poor old world where such things are in such short supply. In short, I recommend going.

And speaking of going, I fear I have written as much as I ought, so I will take my leave. This column is now closed until next month, and so . . .

"You must be going, no longer staying
The Faire is closed - gone is the day
We have flocks to tend
And clothes to mend
The Faire is closed,
So be on your way!"

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