What to Do at the Irwindale Renaissance FaireMay 7th, 2012 by Peter Kimmich
People are often led to believe Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, but that is not quite true. There is a happier place. It has giant turkey drumsticks and mead. This wonderland we’re talking about is, of course, the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire.
Besides swashbuckling, looking 17th-century sharp and saying “Arr,” there are a lot of things to do should you make the wise decision to go to the Renaissance Faire, held at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale. Located about 40 minutes from Hollywood, the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area is by no means a lush, natural gully (those of us who saw the old bay area Renaissance Faire location in Novato are somewhat spoiled). But it does the job of lending greenery, tree trunks and shade to complete the old-world Elizabethan atmosphere created by the traveling RenFaire troupe.
A simple stroll through the rustic, booth-lined boulevard they construct is like being in a movie or television show – usually somewhere between The Tudors and Army of Darkness. The costumed revelers are a big part of it, even the deranged highschoolers who show up in their duct-taped cardboard boffer wardrobes or naughty leather bedroom gear. But the real appeal is bigger than costumes and cockney dialects – just strolling under the shade, catching the wisps of centuries-old music as it floats through the air and overhearing snippets of ludicrous rhetoric from passing jesters, scholars, drunkards, philosophers, warriors, artisans and pirates can make someone completely forget about 21st century cars, bills, rent, alarm clocks, fast food, TV and jobs. This, we imagine, is the whole point.
When you go there – and you definitely should if you haven’t – here are some things not to pass up:
Sword fighting. These days a 14-year-old can go online and figure out how to destroy an army of computer-generated cyborg mutant alien soldiers armed with machine guns in about four hours. It is much harder to figure out how to defeat a lanky, bookish guy named Dale while armed only with a foam-covered stick. But it is fun to find out what your mettle is really like when you can actually get hit. And no, losing doesn’t hurt, unless you count your pride. The theatre-trained fighters in the sword-fighting pit will welcome you into their midst with a smile, then send you onto your keester with an even bigger smile. Get up, you lout!
Huge food. Europeans tend to think of America as the country with the oversized portions. Maybe they should look back to their past, where two-pint tankers of beer, foot-long turkey legs, monstrous racks of dripping pork ribs, and butter-smeared ears of grilled corn are on the menu every single day. Or at least they are in the American rendition. Anyway, carnival food of this sort beats seven-dollar hot dogs and dried-out hamburgers in nearly everyone’s book, and it is accessible in an endless stream more or less all day long. Did we mention huge tankers of beer? And let’s not forget the appearance of mead, the preferred alcoholic beverage of antiquity that does not usually find its way onto modern menus. In this jolly place, a bar is available every 17 steps or so.
Knife / axe / dart / arrow / spear hurling. While traditional games of skill seem slightly rigged and pay off only in goldfish and stuffed gorillas, it is much more satisfying to practice the skill of lobbing deadly objects into perfectly still targets, with no trace of sabotage. Yes, that is a real axe in your hand, and when you throw it, its steel blade will make a nice “thunk” as it chops its way into the surface of the painted wooden target. The reward is the adrenaline that floods through your veins, rush a of primal triumph, and for a moment one can understand the caveman-like satisfaction of destroying inanimate objects with hard, sharp metal weapons. Who knew those crazy teenagers down the street were on to something?
Big swings. All hyperbole aside, there are gigantic, tall swings at the Renaissance Faire that can hold you and all of your friends at once. They are pushed by cavalier knaves in 1600s garb who crack jokes, try to steal your shoes, and drag you into their ridiculous banter as they swing you back and forth, high over the heads of passersby. As the blue sky fills your view, and you can see the tents, wooden structures and walking paths of the faire almost from one end to the other. It is a relatively small pleasure in the grand scheme of life, but that is why it’s called a pleasure faire.
Unusual stage shows. If you believe there aren’t enough sea shanties, drinking songs or dirty jokes left in the world, you will want to bring a notebook to keep track of everything you are about to learn by sitting through one of the many stage shows that line the faire’s main thoroughfare. The vast, worldly variety of music, dance, comedy, theatre, magic, hijinks and general prank-pulling is surprising for a troupe that only sets up shop for a couple of month out of the year. Somehow, watching a stage show led only by the humans on stage unaided by microphones, HD digital backdrops or pre-recorded soundtracks reminds one of how purely witty a natural performer can be. It’s sort of like watching a 1960s talk show host working the crowd, but with bloomers and striped tights. Huzzah.
Sweet trinkets. Leather, wood, metal and stone make up 90% of the goods for sale at the Renaissance Faire, but that composition perfectly conveys the old-world, Wiccan mystique of 1600s England. Patrons stroll amid a huge array of booths peddling jewelry, leather goods, costumes, incense, glassware, painted pieces, decorative gems, metal novelties, and even swords, daggers and muskets. Prices are within the typical carnival range without being overly exorbitant, but the hand-crafted, organic craftsmanship makes each unique piece priceless in its own way. Whether it’s a leather flask to hold your barley wine or a two-handed sword to frighten your neighbors, the faire satisfies and fascinates the novelty shopper in almost anyone.
The joust. The faire’s main attraction, and one of the most realistic battle reenactments one can watch in the 21st century, the Renaissance Faire joust is a must-see for newbies and a favorite for everyone else. The shattering of real lances on real shields, the clatter of swords, and the cheering of an excited crowd let you know within the first 10 minutes that you are at the center of everything the Renaissance Faire has to offer. All of the showmanship that infuses the faire’s stage shows, staff and atmosphere comes to an apex as the announcer flies into the arena atop a white horse, the four knights circle the arena, and the members of the crowd get behind their champion. Part gentlemanly sporting event and part violent medieval ritual, the aura of the joust is different from that of a boxing match, not quite that of a rodeo, and far from that of a ball game. It is an old aura one should experience firsthand, as there is nothing similar — and the watered-down, safer version displayed at Medieval Times doesn’t really count. These knights get knocked off of their horses, know how to swing a sword, and know how to put on a show. Sometimes the queen is there to watch, and sometimes somebody dies. (Not really.) Sometimes a lucky lady in the front row takes home a knight’s banner. Everyone takes home a fun memory.
The Southern California Renaissance Faire is held annually at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale, CA. More information about the faire, including discount coupons, can be found at www.renfair.com/socal.