Fare thee well, Renaissance Pleasure Faire of olde

07/03/2014

Fifteen years old, Andy Stasse was living in a Volkswagen van on Mount Tamalpais as he meandered through jobs—at a convalescent home, a garage, Herb and Joe’s in Fairfax—fabricating his age and work experience on applications. He drifted from place to place, inhabiting a water tower in the newly created national park for a summer, living in a communal house and camping in Samuel P. Taylor. He used to speed down the highways, evading cop cars late at night.

It wasn’t until he was offered a job at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire when he was 19 years old and eventually managed his own booth—at the farthest end, “The Last Chance Café”—selling hand-cranked ice cream and apples baked with cinnamon, nutmeg, honey and walnuts that he had enough money to start saving. He soon bought land from the Giacominis in Point Reyes Station, subdivided and built homes to sell. He now works as a contractor in Ojai and is married to a woman he met at the fair.

“It would be hard to underestimate the experience of being part of the Renaissance Faire back in those days. Music. Pageantry. Artistry. Theater. It was extremely organic in the sense that nothing like it had really been done before,” Mr. Stasse said. “There were a number of people that could not have established themselves at that time out in West Marin if they had not been working hard to create a foothold financially at the Renaissance Faire.”

The fair drew many from West Marin: craftsmen, performers, chefs and enthusiastic customers. And since land was cheap, with many storefronts vacant in Point Reyes Station, many more—like Mr. Stasse—came west.

“Lots of the folks who came to work for the fair ended in West Marin. Back then the word was you go out towards Olema and find a cheap place to rent… or even buy,” said Rich Pedemonte, who had returned from the Peace Corps to become a fair security guard and later a food vendor. He soon bought a house in Point Reyes Station and now manages events like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the Pacific Orchid Festival and the Fairfax Fest with his wife, Therese. “We were drawn to the Ren Faire because we were clear on two things: we wanted to work together and we wanted time for ourselves as we started thinking about family. Thus we eschewed our graduate degrees and joined the alternate reality of the Ren Faire.”

The “Ren Faire,” as adherents have nicknamed it, was originally a backyard summer class and later a fundraiser for a local radio station in Los Angeles. The festival moved to Marin County in 1967 after permits and fingerprinting curtailed its Ventura County location. (The Summer of Love in San Francisco was bolstered by vagabond “Rennies” that year who had lost money by not being able to sell their goods, Wade Holland, one of the fair’s original supporters in L.A. and now an Inverness resident, suggested.) After 1970 the fair outgrew China Camp and was held in a sheltered valley under wide oak trees at Blackpoint. It continued as a bohemian event known for historical immersion, high-quality handmade crafts and general debauchery before the land became a luxury golf course and real estate development in 1995. 

“It was just a lot of fun when you’re in your 20s to be able to go and wear funny costumes and hear interesting music, see jugglers in the streets.” Mr. Holland said. “And because of the fair, history changed. It’s the prototype for Woodstock, the Altamont Speedway, Monterey Pop. It all came out of Phyllis Patterson demonstrating you could put on these kinds of big events in a farmer’s field or rancher’s ranch.”

This spring, on May 18, Ms. Patterson, the fair’s whimsical founder, died in a

San Rafael hospital from complications of dementia. With a Harlequin’s mask at her feet, she was buried in a wicker casket decorated with a garland of redwood, bay, oak and roses. She was 82.

A draw for the mushrooming “hippie” movement, the fair became a symbol of irreverence and spontaneity, unconventional gender roles and uninhibited sexual relationships. The countercultural festival took attendants five centuries back to the Elizabethan era, complete with processions of the queen and fools, costumed lords and ladies, plays, jousting, swordfights, tankards of ale and straining corsets. “A Moste Delyghtefule Daye,” as the Coastal Post put it. Workers camped out in the fields after legendary parties. Pot and hash were as common as the pottery.

“As a kid, it was magical, filled with handmade treasures and long-hairy, young hippies,” said Sierra Salin, who lived in Lagunitas. “It was another time and another world, where kids could and did run free, and folks talked to strangers, as well as to strange people.”

In play-acting another time, the workers often pointed back to their own era of the Vietnam War, the civil rights and free speech movements with witty jokes. The fair’s newspaper headline satirically commented on banning crossbows as a thinly veiled reference to the anti-nukes movement. And at the first Northern California fair in 1968, a police helicopter flew overhead. “People started shouting out, ‘Dragon! It’s a dragon!’ and everyone ran for cover until had passed,” one bagpiper recounts in American Studies professor Rachel Lee Rubin’s “Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture.”

Performers like Dan Mankin, now the executive director of the Dance Palace, was part of a five-person act known as Captain Robby Fitzstewart and the Juggling Jews, tossing pins and knives into the air. Mr. Mankin said the hay bales audience members sat on forced them to be particularly careful when juggling flaming torches. When the crowds, sometimes as many as 20,000 each weekend, blocked their way to a show, they hoisted a crate over their heads and shouted, “Live rattlesnakes!” “That used to help part the crowd,” Mr. Mankin said. 

The fair also propelled a number of West Marin residents into lifelong careers. Michel Venghiattis, who now lives in Nicasio and always had the ambition to start a French food company, came from Connecticut after hearing of a friend who was making good money selling candles at the fair. Mr. Venghiattis planned to start a crepe booth, but it was already taken, so he made quiches—Lorraine, spinach, mushroom—in large pizza ovens. A bit of work constructing his booth also helped him when building his first home with his then-wife Suzanne Storch in Inverness Park.

“It was where I learned to be handy. It was true to the name ‘renaissance,’” he said. “That was the genius of the Pattersons. They created this environment that invited creativity and craftsmanship that lots and lots of people used as springboards to very successful careers in art or business or both.”

Musicians and instrument craftsmen like Joellen Lapidus and Robbie Long, who lived in the San Geronimo Valley, often played at the fair or sold dulcimers. Laura Rachel Allen played the fiddle while walking on a tightrope and later constructed dulcimers and zithers, including ones Joni Mitchell used. 

Herb Goldberg, a bushy-haired and whiskered chef who dressed as a nomadic Arab in a keffiyeh like Yasser Arafat to hawk falafels, and Al Ries, an Inverness resident who sold the fair’s signature massive turkey legs along with beef ribs and smoked chicken, invested their festival profits in the Marshall Tavern in 1976, and ran it as a hip music joint until it was boarded up 1982.

Mr. Stasse, the young dishwasher Mr. Goldberg hired, said to meet one permit requirement, he needed three sinks. He found one at the junkyard and only later realized it was a latrine.

“The curtain rises and you have to be prepared: not only ready to serve food but also to put on a show. It was as much about theater as it was about the food,” Mr. Stasse said. 

Timed with the harvest, the fair’s end in Northern California meant the end of summer, the first winds of November. “Vans, busses, pickups pulling trailers, station wagons, old converted hearses and limousines, cars with roof racks overloaded with suitcases held down with bungee cords—a veritable stream of itinerant Renaissance show people—fanned out in all directions,” Ray St. Louis writes in “Road Dog Diary,” a novel about three decades as a festival performer. “All headed for home, or for whatever substituted for home.”

Eventually, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire was overtaken by the very forces it aimed to sidestep: capitalism, plastic, sterile “family values,” the mundane. The fairs nationwide became an outdoor shopping mall with an admission price. “The history of economic progress consists of charging a fee for what once was free,” two economists wrote. 

But if Phyllis Patterson’s historical experiment proves one point, it is that no goodbye is final. The fair itself was a remembrance of things past and possibly improved. Epochs are never lost to revival; next year’s faire is never far away.

 

A memorial picnic for Phyllis Patterson will be held in the meadow of the College of Marin’s Indian Valley Campus in Novato on July 13 at 5:30 p.m. RSVP at www.eventbrite.com/e/celebrating-phyllis-a-gypsy-forest-sunset-picnic-ti....