For years, I stayed away from the Renaissance Pleasure Faire as if it were the Black Plague itself. First, there was the name: As Andy Rooney would be the first to grouch, things with the words “Fun” or “Pleasure” in their title rarely offer anything of the sort. Then there were the people I knew growing up who participated. They looked forward to the yearly appearance of the Faires like pilgrims at Guadalupe, and turned their lives upside down to spend spring weekends, Trekkie-like, devoted to inhabiting a fantasy.
Then I had children.
Sure, I own that book, “365 Things To Do With Your Kids Around the House.” But by Sunday of a long Memorial Day weekend, making more cardboard handicrafts feels like stamping license plates. I just need to get free. The Renaissance Faire? Love to. San Bernardino? Sure, always wanted to go there.
It helps that my son, who is 5 years old, seems to know more about knights and pirates than your average Oxford historian. One day, when I struggled to come up with an example of a soft “g” sound for an alphabet lesson, he quickly chimed in, “Gibbet.” My 3-year-old daughter, for her part, is happy for any excuse to dress as a princess.
So off we went to the Faire. It’s an annual thing, held near the intersection of the 15 and 215 freeways, in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, about an hour from the Westside.
Nothing quite prepares you for the Faire. Granted, I have never been to a Trekkie convention, but I had been to my share of New York street fairs and Purim carnivals and amusement parks. But here, in a park-like setting, the Faire has recreated an entire English market village, circa 1500. The costumes, worn by vendors, some 1,200 performers, and many of the visitors, are so accurate they entrance. You walk among knights, long swords jangling against their armor. Pirates stand in line for the johns. Wenches beckon from re-created bawdy houses. Savages straight from “The Tempest” prance about. Full-fleshed, half-naked facsimiles of Xena the Warrior Princess and Hercules surrounded us. Life is beautiful.
The market streets are lined with shops that sell some honest-to-goodness fine craft work (forged knives, hand-rolled cigars) but also a lot of stuff that might have been carried at Ye Olde Pier One. There’s lots of places to buy food, and open-air taverns where maidens serve you freshly pulled Guinness. (If you’re looking for something with a kosher hecsher, you’ll end up having to walk all the way to Las Vegas. Better to bring a sandwich.)
For the kids, there’s games of skill, including archery, pseudo-crossbow shooting and ratline-climbing, an expansive kiddie area with arts and crafts, a petting zoo, an elephant to ride, a pirate boat, and old-fashioned rides complete with giant swings and over-sized maypoles. All the attractions add up fast. Aside from the $17 admission fee, it’s easy to bleed dollars, and it helps not a bit that the attractive workers call them pence.
But the best stuff is free. There’s an open-air Globe Theatre, where my son and I laughed at a comic rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Forget Gwyneth — I will forever be grateful to the RenFair folks for making that twisted tragedy my son’s first exposure to the Bard. Jugglers were bawdy enough for the parents and slapstick enough for the kids. There’s much live period music, several other staged shows, falconry exhibitions, and a full royal parade that features a Queen Bess who may have given acting lessons to Judi Dench.
Jews missed out on the real English Renaissance — they were exiled from England in 1260 and not allowed to return until 1656. For centuries, the closest an Englishman got to a Jew was Barrabas in “The Jew of Malta” or Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.” So now we could see what all the fuss was about.
If it was anything like this — walking down colorful streets, a pint of Guinness in hand, bumping into polite wenches, watching your kids have the time of their lives — we missed out on a lot.
The Renaissance Pleasure Faire in San Bernardino runs every weekend until June 20, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 1 (800) 52-FAIRE for tickets and information.