Renaissance festivals have never been for the cool crowd, but in a way that makes me appreciate them so much more. While the people who attend these wild events, full of lords and ladies and the occasional wizard, are there because they want to immerse themselves in the era, or dress up, or because all the musical acts include drinking copiously one of the primary themes, some authentic passion brings these people together in one of the coolest displays I’ve seen.
At the recent Age of Chivalry Renaissance Festival — now in its 25th year, 20 of them in Sunset Park — my Saturday morning began with me being absorbed in all the vendor stalls near the entrance, selling sage and oils, leather clothing, and gourmet licorice that ran two feet long, period-appropriate weapons. After that, I got to scan the sounds, the smells, and the people.
While most of us were dressed in regular attire — detailed costumes aren’t cheap; I saw people wearing a thousand dollars’ worth of leather — there was a nice percentage dressed in more immaculate period pieces. Everywhere you looked, you saw the high nobility, the dirty peasantry, the regular folks, the armor-clad warriors, the elaborate-cap-wearing pirates, the colorful and winged fairies, the battle-marked barbarians, the long-bearded wizards and dark-clothed assassins. And that’s just the attendees.
At these events, there are “guilds” of people who often attend multiple fairs per year and camp out onsite. I’ve been told that after hours is when the “real” fair begins by friends who have participated in these debauched camp-out events, but have yet to indulge myself. Though drinking is so heavily encouraged as part of the atmosphere that it would be easy to wake up on Monday forgetting you just had a whole weekend with friends. These guilds make up a great many of the participants dressed for the occasion, but not all.
Listening to local Celtic-themed band Killian’s Angels on one of the stages, and I quickly I learned that I do not have nearly enough live mandolin in my life. These whiskey-enthusiast women who begin and end their sets with a toast and a shout of “Sláinte” (“good health” in Gaelic, according to the band) have been regulars at this festival for more than 10 years.
Passing from vendor stall to vendor stall, the smell of incense filling my nose while hearing, “It’s drinking time, it’s drinking time, it’s drinking time for goodness’ sake,” courtesy of Gallows Humor on the Fiddler’s Green stage, really made me excited to just wander and digest. Literally. I managed to get a whole turkey leg on Sunday a little before closing.
While the food is delicious, or at least good enough that the main food area was the busiest spot in the festival come afternoon, it was a little jarring seeing booths selling turkey legs and shepherds pies sitting next to “deep-fried everything” booths. At least there’s an honest attempt to keep the theme. As a friend joked, you can find “ye olde carne asada fries” and no-MSG Thai food at any respectable Renaissance festival.
One performer I watched was Adam Reid, “The Bawdy Juggler.” And he relentlessly lives up to the title, and with his self-described “medium” juggling abilities captivates and disgusts the young and old. You will not be surprised to learn he quips about “playing with my balls.”
“The reason I’m not a juggler on the Strip or anything like that is because I don’t wear a sequin vest very well. And as you saw, I’m not a technical juggler. I’m not one of those ‘Vegas’ jugglers. I’m about a medium juggler,” Reid says. “My act is the comedy. The juggling is the vehicle.” And while he admits his act has made some hosts uncomfortable, he still draws an audience.
“There’s probably 20 people in that show, or more. Many more, probably, that watch my show every show,” the Temecula native says regarding the fans he’s amassed over his 20-plus years of participating in this particular festival. “I’m fond of saying that I have three generations of fans in Las Vegas.”
Whether for the costumes or the events or the atmosphere or the giant turkey legs, Renaissance festivals can offer a wonderful sidestep from the norms of daily life. They are wonderful for giving people an opportunity to simply exist in a different time for a brief weekend, to remind us all that things can be a little bit different in the right circumstances, and that it’s important to seize the opportunities to experience them.