The hills were different
then, back when this story takes place. Parched and dusty
brown after a long summer in the hot California sun, the hills
stretched off in all directions as far as the eye could see,
barren mute witnesses to a not-so-distant past, standing like
eternal sentinels guarding some ancient mystery.
There were less people back
then, back when this story takes place. A lone highway wound
its way through these hills, mostly used in those days to ferry
people back and forth between the blistering San Fernando Valley
and the white sands of Malibu Beach. Out in the hills, you could
walk a mere five minutes in from the highway, and find yourself
in a timeless place. You could look all around you and see not
a single house, a single intimation that humans had ever passed
this way. You could wander and wonder thus, imagining yourself
back in the 1800's, when such parts of this region not used by
ranchers were taken up as hideouts by smugglers and bandits,
and indeed this area was used again and again in the filming
You wander, pass through a
silent grove of trees, and stop. There before you stands what
looks like the ruins of an ancient Elizabethan stage, some 4000
miles from home, standing alone in the middle of this empty Old
And you wonder . . .
It is not so very long ago,
really, back when this story takes place. It is actually a certain
day in early autumn, back in the early 1980's, and a group of
young friends have come to this region for the same reason we
did ourselves - to wander, and to wonder. And to picnic.
As we back away for a longer
shot of our friends eating, drinking and reminiscing as they
sit among the hay bales and trees near this impossible English
stage, we note that there are other structures, wooden things
in seeming disrepair, some mere skeletons and others looking
quite like ancient storefronts of some kind. All is still, save
for the wind, the birds, and our friends having their picnic.
One of them suddenly jerks
their head, startled. She has just seen something, or someone,
moving. They all look to where she points. There is nothing.
A few minutes later, another
exclaims that he has just seen a flash of brightly colored cloth
pass through the trees. An almost eerie quiet has descended
upon these youthful revelers.
The lunch finished in silence,
they begin to look around. Naturally, there is nothing there.
They return to their car, and naturally it stands by the side
of the highway alone. No one has been there. Only them.
And yet, our friends know better.
For this, as you may well have surmised, is no ordinary picnic
spot, out in these eternal hills. We are at the Old Paramount
Ranch in Agoura, for many years the home of the Renaissance Faire.
Now, as we watch our friends
drive off, leaving the hills to their timeless desolation, I
ask you to close your eyes, and travel six months through time
Six months ahead or backward?
It doesn't matter. It doesn't
matter at all . . . Ready?
CRASH! and suddenly your ears are assaulted
by the most maniacal menagerie of musical mayhem, a thousand
voices laughing, joking, singing, bartering, a thousand scents,
from exotic foods to incense to strong English ale, and you open
your eyes to a most remarkable sight. From lone wooden skeletons
have sprung hundreds of 16th Century English storefronts, commanded
one and all by people who look as if they have been whisked directly
from that distant era whole, the stage stands no longer empty
but is now full of costumed actors, performing something vaguely
Shakespearian to a large crowd that jostles for position on the
haybales below. Musicians roam through the streets, ale stands
pour strong beers into ancient pewter mugs, the occasional parrot
or monkey may be seen, seeming perfectly natural in this almost
Welcome to the Renaissance
Faire in its heyday. It is a weekend in May, 1983.
Ah, that group of peasants
yonder - they look familiar, don't they? Yes, it's that same
group from the picnic, now bedecked in Elizabethan peasant pomp
as they frolic through the crowds. And look there, that odd
looking fellow among them playing the mandolin: yes, that would
be me. I wasn't kidding when I refered to them as "friends",
Let's follow them for a bit.
We pass by stage after stage.
As we pass one the most strangely beautiful tune you've never
heard comes wafting down toward us. It seems hauntingly familiar,
as if you'd heard this song before, many lives ago. In contrast,
another stage is hosting the "Five Minute Hamlet",
and you find yourself drawn to the nearest haybale, from which
you promptly fall off as you collapse into uncontrollable fits
As we move on we see to our
left a darker, more tree laden area, where gypsy fortune tellers
practise their ancient art, and as we come to a clearing we are
confronted by none other than Queen Elizabeth and her Royal Court!
It is an awe inspiring moment of sensory majesty, and for a
moment we are truly there. The magic takes over, and we have
indeed passed into late 16th Century England . . .
Yes, for almost all Faire visitors
(and participants), a magic moment occurs at some point when
everything falls exactly into place. It can be the most seemingly
mundane sort of thing that sets it off, a certain smell at the
right time, the glimpse of a solitary townsperson engulfed in
their task without any apparent audience, perhaps the ale or
mead must be allowed to work their own brand of magic,
but at some point you will assuredly find that you had just forgotten,
just for a moment, that you were still in the Modern World.
For a brief moment this place and all its inhabitants will have
The premise is simple enough.
It started some time in the sixties as a sort of "Living
History" project, where a few people would dress in Elizabethan
garb, try to remain "in character", and for a weekend
create a closed environment that would allow people to feel for
a brief moment what it would have been like to be somewhere in
England in the days of Shakespeare. One such stint took place
in UCLA in 1966 (I believe), and was attended by then-Byrd David
Crosby, who was moved to write a song about it.
By the late seventies this
little experiment had exploded, taken up permanent residence
at the Old Paramount Ranch, and now went on for over a month,
spanning the weekends from May Day to Memorial Day and spilling
over into June. The Faire had grown to where it now incorporated
a full fledged town, and the premise was now that the Queen,
as she was quite often wont to do in real life, was to be passing
through this town. As a result, we see an English town's lusty
celebration of the coming of Spring collide happily with the
glorious pageantry of a Royal Visit from Queen Elizabeth. And,
naturally, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh and William
Shakespeare will all be there.
The old Ranch was the perfect
site, as well. Do you recall our visit, in the quiet autumn
of the year, when all was still? Yes, once you are in the actual
Faire site, you will hear no machinery coughing, no cars, nothing
to rudely remind you of the Real World you have left behind.
(It probably helped that back in the early '80's cell phones
and pagers had not yet become the ubiquitous annoyances they
So how did I end up there,
cavorting with a group of peasants and a mandolin?
Let's backtrack about twenty
four hours, shall we?
That's better - oh, sorry,
I should have warned you that we'd be flying down the 101 freeway!
Yes, I'm afraid a bit of culture shock goes with the Living
We spy our exit, and notice
that an alarmingly large assortment of campers, trucks, and cars
of every description seem to be getting off at the same place
we are. Small wonder - there are literally thousands of people,
almost entirely unpaid volunteers, who arrive every year to put
on this show, to make sure the Magic works.
We are now part of a caravan
as we wind up into the hills along that formerly lonely highway,
leaving the present day turmoil behind and heading into the country,
and back in time.
Specifically, as we begin pulling
into the parking area we feel as if we've landed in upstate New
York in August of 1969! The plethora of strangely colored vehicles
and people arriving in droves suggests nothing so much as the
massive migration to the Woodstock Festival. Indeed, there is
more than a passing connection between the two. You recall David
Crosby's song? Well he wrote it (titled "Renaissance Faire",
naturally), and it came out on the next Byrds album. The band
sang that song during Crosby's last gig with them the following
summer at the Monterey Pop Festival, and the song's opening line
("I think that maybe I'm dreaming") was subsequently
borrowed by Eric Burdon for his ode to that fest, "Monterey",
at the end of '67. As Monterey was in many ways the direct precursor
to Woodstock, and as we look out at all the happily bearded and
painted people who we'd thought had disappeared from the earth,
we realize that the Renaissance Faire (and similar operations)
has become a home for many who, having once escaped the corporate
realities of the dominant culture, could not see themselves returning
to that nightmare. A final bastion for the counter culture,
a mod mecca, and so we see the direct lineage from early Ren
Faire to Monterey to Woodstock and, finally back to the modern
A fairly large hollow, adjacent
to but not visible from the Faire Site Proper, is strewn with
a multitude of tents, as this temporary army set to work digging
in for the weekend. As the sun sets, one remembers how isolated
one is, as we are plunged into Absolute Darkness. Then, like
earth-bound stars, small lights begin to flicker on from various
tents. This guitar I'm holding? Well, I'll be playing the other
instrument quite enough this weekend. Tonight, it's time
for a singalong!
Small groups gather at certain
tents, some musicians hold court as the onlookers join in song,
erasing any barrier between artist and audience. Other musicians
travel from tent to tent, stopping in to play along with whatever
song they find in progress. As one huddles around the music
one notices that one song started with three singers and ended
up with fifteen, the song after that came alive with a fiddler
from out of the darkness, the next might lose the fiddle but
gain a flute, and on and on into that good night.
But, with some reluctance,
we put our instruments away at a fairly early hour. Tomorrow
will start early, and will be exceptionally busy.
The cricket-torn silence of
the night gives way all too early to the sound of a thousand
people rising at dawn. One dresses as quickly as possible, and
heads down into the town.
Ah, the town! How glorious
it seems, how colorful, how full of promise. The day is just
a-borning, but all of us are milling about, congregating among
the already opened food stands which are thoughtfully offering
eggs and bacon to famished actors - all this taking place hours
before the Faire will be open for business. You glance at the
nearly empty Main Stage, imagining what wonders will this day
occur. You gaze about as musicians tune, cooks begin preparing
the exotic dishes of the day, artisans of every kind prepare,
prepare, and all enjoy the last blissful moments when it's just
them, just the people who work the Faire, when they can
relax for a final glorious moment before . . .
Hark! The trumpet's been blown!
They're letting the paying customers in!
As one we who are not chained
to shop or ale stand pour out into the streets, out toward the
Main Gate, where we suddenly are simple peasants and artisans
from centuries ago. We work, we play, we curse ourselves as
we realize we are late for our first parade of the day, we scramble
up a hill to join a circle of fellow peasants who watch raptly
as the ancient slaying and rebirth of Jack O' the Green is acted
out. It is a ritual still in use in Elizabethan times, but one
which has its origins in the old days of the Druids. It is the
symbolic enactment of Spring's triumph over Grim Winter.
It is always a crowd pleaser.
Now the mini-play is over,
and all rise, and singing "Staines Morris" ("
. . . then to the May Pole haste away - for 'tis now our Holiday
. . .") we march along, stopping again and again to
repeat the ritual for new revelers.
Ah, as we work the morning's
first magic, we wonder, half-wistfully, what it would be like
to be one of these paying revelers. To arrive by freeway, to
park, gather one's things, and head up a path as if going to
some ordinary park or function, and then . . .
And then to pass through the
towering Main Gate, and into a different time and space. To
be dazzled, if not confounded, by the most gloriously cacaphonic
blend of sight, sound and scent, from armored knights at swordplay
to ancient dunking machines, from lordly nobles in full regalia
to strangely garbed peddlers and musicians, every imaginable
thing for sale, an extraordinary collision of smells as the most
wonderful exotic foods are prepared, parades and pageants on
every side, and, naturally, music everywhere.
But I digress. If there's
to be music everywhere I'd better get busy doing my share! The
morning parade ends, and I now have a few minutes to - oh, but
wait. Today is different. Today there is much work to be done
- for tonight it is my guild, St. Helena's, that is to perform
the "Ring Out".
Sorry, lost you for a second,
Well, it's like this. There
are several Guilds that make up the Faire, and serve the same
function as the actual Guilds of the 1500's. One Guild would
be comprised of musicians, perhaps, another of the nobles, etc.
Your function at the Faire would move you naturally into the
And if you had yet to determine
your true function, there was always St. Helena's. For St. Helena's
was the peasant Guild, the place for those with nowhere else
to go. Because of this, it was by far the largest Guild of all,
including over 300 members as of May 1983.
And it was to St. Helena's
I belonged, reasoning that the musicians' Guild had all the music
it needed, whereas St. Helena's could use a little more. Besides,
I felt quite at home with my fellow "peasants".
Now, I mentioned something
about a "Ring Out". Well, shortly after permanent
residence was taken up in Agoura, a little problem was noticed.
It seemed that it was in fact far easier to get people into
the Faire than to get them back out at closing time.
People would have become so involved in the thing (and perhaps
in their cups), that they simply would not want to leave. This
presented a problem, since the idea of herding people out with
night sticks or something seemed absolutely contrary to the spirit
of the Faire.
So somebody came up with the
idea of a "Ring Out". Each Guild would have their
alloted evening, and on that evening they would assemble at one
end of the Faire Site just before closing time, and begin singing.
The song would be whatever they wanted, so long as it humorously
(but pointedly) alerted the paying customers that the Faire was
closing, and it was time to leave. Ideally, the singing would
begin attracting a crowd, and after a bit the Guild would begin
to parade across the Faire, picking up more and more followers,
until at length both Guild and following customers found themselves
outside the Main Gate. A brilliant idea, a way to gently
get people to leave, while giving them a last bit of Renaissance
ritual to leave with.
So, that's the "Ring Out",
and tonight was St. Helena's turn. Oh dear. St. Helena's Guild,
being so large, had always had a bit of a problem with previous
Ring Outs. There were just too many people involved to ever
consider doing anything even vaguely creative - what was needed
was the most generic and simple tune possible. I believe it
was the Guild's sheer size that would help get people to leave.
Well, it was our turn this
very night. And we had nothing to sing. And with over 300 people
involved, it was clearly too late to do anything about it. A
Well, doing impossible things
is always fun, so I mused with two friends (Deanne and Shawna)
over the problem. Now, the night before we'd been listening
to a grim old English song: "The Lover's Ghost". Its
opening line (sung, naturally, by the ghost) was as haunting
a thing as I've ever heard. It went: "I must be going,
no longer staying . . . the burning Thames I have to cross .
. ." (The "burning Thames" as in London's
main river, was the traditional folkloric boundary between the
dead and the living.)
Anyway, we mused on this merry
morning, and one of us, I don't know who, began singing, just
for a joke: "You must be going, no longer staying
. . ."
We stopped, and stared at each
other. Were we crazy? Could it work?
Well, we were, and it did.
The song was finished in ten minutes, and we began to make the
rounds, teaching it to everyone from our Guild we saw. Upon
being taught, each one of them would in turn go around and find
others, and repeat the process, so that by mid-day there
were scores of people moving about the busy Faire, hunting down
fellow Guild members and passing the song along. It was, in
short, the Folk process, in miniature - if not also the way a
modern computer virus spreads . . .
In any case, by closing time
over 300 people who had been at disparate points throughout the
Faire all day could now sing a song that had not existed until
that very morning!
One Faire worker happened to
be outside the Main Gate as our Ring Out began its final approach.
He watched as, in twos and threes, the peasants began to emerge,
singing a strange song he'd never heard at a Ring Out. These
few voices grew as more and more and more peasants emerged,
flowing out of the gate and assembling before it, and by the
end all 300 of us were outside, singing that song as one, a thundrous
roar of triumph as the sun began to set on that most extraordinary
It was the most amazing thing
he'd ever seen.
So, that's my favorite moment
of Magic. Not my magic, by any means. No, the magicians
in this case were all the Guild members who learned the song,
passed it around, and turned a near disaster into a most precious
moment for all and sundry. A moment few there will forget.
That's about it. I never worked
another full year of Faire, but learned in later years that our
little song was still sung from time to time at Ring Outs, thus
outlasting me. A happy thing to contemplate.
Sadly, the Faire eventually
had to leave the Paramount Ranch. Long time readers of Book
Again's printed newsletter may recall the first time I wrote
about the Faire, urging one and all to check it out as "it
is rumored they may be moving".
As I recall, that was indeed
the Renaissance Faire's last year in those wonderful old hills.
Nowadays those wonderful hills
are dotted with modern homes, as we in this sprawling city keep
making more and more inroads into previously unbothered regions.
I have not been back to the old Site, and I wonder if anything's
left. Specifically, I wonder what would happen if I took a picnic
lunch out there some September day. I wonder what I'd see .
On a happier note, the Faire
did not disappear, but simply moved to the Glen Helen Park out
near San Bernardino, where it continues to this day. As a matter
of fact, it's going on right now! Yes, it's May, and the Faire
should be continuing every weekend at least into mid-June. Of
all the people I met there, back in '83, a few are sadly no longer
with us, whereas a few others I've just seen within the week.
As for the rest, they're mostly still there, a little older,
perhaps, some with children of their own, perhaps, and still
there - still making the jaunt to work a bit of Magic into this
poor old world where such things are in such short supply. In
short, I recommend going.
And speaking of going,
I fear I have written as much as I ought, so I will take my leave.
This column is now closed until next month, and so . . .
"You must be going,
no longer staying
The Faire is closed - gone is the day
We have flocks to tend
And clothes to mend
The Faire is closed,
So be on your way!"