Leftists, weirdies, and the political roots of the Renaissance Faire

Photo via Flickr by:quinn.anya
Photo via Flickr by:quinn.anya

The “Renaissance Faire” as we know it began in 1963—in California. It couldn’t have come from anyplace else.

Contemporary Renaissance faires like The Original Renaissance Pleasure Faire, which begins in Irwindale this weekend, aim to portray aspects of 14th to 17th century Europe, and many visitors and workers have told me what they relish most about the experience is being taken out of the time and space they usually occupy—which they call their “mundane” life—into that special place called “faire.” But California made such experiences possible. In 1963, Southern California was both the home that people wanted to escape and the home of ”escape artists” plotting new possibilities

Renfaire enthusiasts are of all political stripes in the twenty-first century, but in 1963 they were decidedly of the left. Founders Phyllis and Ron Patterson got the idea for the first faire as new residents of Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood long known for its bohemian character. They and their neighbors shared an artistic vision, practical skills, politics, and perhaps most importantly, an unhappy relationship to the anti-communist blacklists of the Cold War era.

The Red Scare’s influence was both practical and political. For one, it made some of the faire’s key creators available to donate their creative energies, because their employment possibilities were constricted by the blacklist. It also created a politically repressive environment that many Californians sought to leave “outside the gates.” Robert Shields, who began his career at the Southern California Renaissance Faire and went on to become famous as half the mime duo Shields and Yarnell, compared his initial reaction to the faire by describing the world outside as being like the television show “Mad Men,” where conformity ruled and everything was “no.” By contrast, inside the faire gates, said Shields, “Everything was ‘yes!’”

Revelers at a 1970s Renaissance Faire
Revelers at a 1970s Renaissance Faire

Anti-communist sentiments had a lasting impact on the parodies and humor of the faire’s music and drama performances. The first few faires were benefits for the left-leaning Pacifica Radio, the nation’s first listener-sponsored station. In their live broadcast of the very first faire, a “Pacifica Crier” announces, “Puritan agitation broke out in Leeds today. Rev. William Penn, leader of the East Middlesex Christian Leadership Conference was arrested for leading a sit-in demonstration at Leeds Cathedral. Mastiffs were released against those holding signs saying ‘We shall not be removed,’ and ‘Ban the Longbow.’”

The Red Scare also established a vocabulary and practice for bashing the faire that remains in place today, and led, in the 1960s, to public hearings, media excoriations of the “leftists” and “weirdies” that supposedly populated it, and even, once, to the closing of the faire. Shock-jock ancestor Joe Pyne took to the radio-waves to warn about the “Reds wearing red tights.”

But despite its naysayers, the faire grew and thrived long after the Red Scare was over—and became a major engine for California’s early counterculture. It spawned a Byrds song (“Renaissance Faire”) celebrating its sense of wonder and possibility, of social and cultural alternatives, as well as the name of a “sunshine pop” act, The Pleasure Fair, which musician Robb Royer (who would later become famous in the musical act Bread) borrowed in the hopes that the moniker would automatically bestow the group with countercultural cachet. As the faire opened up in a second California location and then around the country, young people who were coming to be called “hippies” by a disdainful media began to follow its seasonal path to work, marrying the countercultural value of traveling light with the communal living and handicraft-based, alternative economy the faire offered. It was a haven for hitchhikers as well as for Vietnam veterans, who assured one another that they had found a safe place to heal the scars of war.

The early faire workers—who came to be known as “Rennies”—fanned out from Southern California to follow the seasonal circuit. Along the way, they formed new cultural movements, helping create an important early 1960s craft revival, for instance, and becoming central to a sea change in American music. Thanks to Southern California’s cultural wells—music programs in the state university system, beatnik coffeehouses, the entertainment industry, even sensory lessons learned from the Acid Tests—the faire helped a generation of Americans discover multiple musical forms, especially early music and “world” music.

The faire brought Renaissance instruments out of the narrow scope of the classroom, and acted as a kind of precursor to the experimentation with ethnic musical forms and instruments that would become a hallmark of popular music in the 1960s and 1970s. It contributed significantly to the popularity of Middle Eastern dance and music in the U.S., to an appreciation of music from the British Isles—even, surprisingly to me, to the rediscovery of klezmer music.

The faire not only gave musicians financial support but also encouraged, through its multiple stages, simultaneous performances, and communal lifestyle, the kind of mixing and hybridity of traditions that became characteristic of the music of the period.

For the coming seven weekends, a quarter of a million people will converge on Elizabethan England by way of 21st-century Irwindale, California. But they couldn’t have gotten there without the native California building blocks—Hollywood’s adroitness with fantasy, the country’s first public radio, West Coast communes and crash pads, and a history of bohemian, experimental culture—that came out of this part of America in the 1950s and ’60s. And without the faire California and the rest of America might not have experienced the artistic and performing renaissance that spread across the country and came to dominate the way what we now call “the Sixties” are remembered.

Rachel Rubin is the author of Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture and Professor of American Studies at UMass Boston. She has published and lectured widely on U.S. history and culture. This was written for Zócalo Public Square.