Every year, the roughly 200 Renaissance fairs and festivals held across the United States and abroad attract several million visitors. United by their raucous entertainment, elaborate costumes and setting in the distant past, these outdoor events boast a surprising backstory.
The country’s first Renaissance Pleasure Faire, staged in Los Angeles in May 1963, was inextricably linked to the Red Scare, a Cold War-era mass hysteria prompted by the specter of communism. It was the brainchild of Phyllis Patterson, a history, English, speech and drama teacher who’d balked at having to sign a political loyalty oath to work in California public schools. Though Phyllis later told the press she’d left teaching in 1960 to become a stay-at-home mom, her son Kevin Patterson says this was only “part of the story.” In truth, he adds, “she felt strongly about the harms and unconstitutionality of the HUAC”—the House Un-American Activities Committee—and McCarthyism overall, “and was therefore uncomfortable taking a loyalty oath.”
Many of the volunteers involved in the first fair were residents of Laurel Canyon, a haven for left-leaning creatives in the Hollywood hills. Some had been blacklisted or “graylisted” as communists, leaving them unable to find work in the film industry. The fair presented an opportunity for these individuals to use their skills and participate in a project that celebrated free thinking.
After leaving her teaching position, Phyllis started working at the Wonderland Youth Center in Laurel Canyon, where she ran a theater program for children. She held classes in her backyard, pursuing “a vision of how she could open youngsters’ eyes to their own dramatic and artistic potential by using the great themes of the past,” wrote Kevin in the foreword to a 2013 book about the fair.
Through her work at the youth center, Phyllis met actors Robert and Doris Karnes, who served on its Board of Directors. The couple had also suffered the consequences of Joseph McCarthy-era suspicion and repression. In 1959, HUAC called Doris to testify about “an alleged communist infiltration of the youth center,” writes historian Rachel Lee Rubin in Well Met: Renaissance Faires and the American Counterculture. Two years later, the committee issued a report identifying Doris and 19 others as communists or communist sympathizers. The accusations sparked debate among locals: Some wanted to pull their children from drama classes, while others rejected the blackballing and a proposed amendment barring suspected communists from the center.
“That whole [anti-communist hysteria] helped guide what I did next,” Phyllis later told Rubin. “What happened to their lives and mine intertwined.” According to Rubin, Phyllis was “emphatic in her conviction that the Renaissance fair was able to flourish thanks to the Hollywood blacklist, [which] had the effect of making gifted and skilled people … available to lend their talents.”
Phyllis’ theater curriculum included commedia dell’arte, a popular type of improvised comedy performed by traveling troupes in Italy between the 16th and 18th centuries. Inspired by illustrations in a children’s book of a medieval pageant wagon and players on a stage in a lively marketplace, Phyllis asked the father of two of her pupils to build what she called a “commedia wagon.” The kids loved it, and after they’d performed on it once, they clamored to use it again.
Encouraged by her students’ enthusiasm, Phyllis dreamed up a new setting for a repeat performance: a recreation of an Elizabethan country fair, where people would gather to celebrate the harvest or the coming of spring, buy and sell livestock and goods of all kinds, exchange news, eat and drink, dance and carouse, and delight in the performances of wandering players. She started enlisting volunteers to help bring this vision to life. Doris was among them, eventually serving as the fair’s designer of costumes, props and scenery.
Phyllis’ husband, Ron Patterson, managed public relations, graphic design and the business side of the event, all while maintaining his full-time job as an art director at an advertising agency. He also created the fair’s hand-lettered poster and other artwork, establishing the unique visual style that became an essential and much-copied component of the celebration.
To raise money for the fair, Phyllis suggested making it a fundraiser for KPFK, a listener-supported radio station owned by the Pacifica Foundation. At the time, “KPFK was [a] historic exception to one-dimensional programming,” wrote KPFK producer David Ossman in an unpublished memoir. “We had books, documentaries, drama, history, poetry, politics, all back-to-back with music programs spanning Bach cantatas, flamenco singers and Renaissance recorder music. KPFK was a station worth supporting in 1963 if you were a liberal-minded person with eclectic tastes.” That description aptly summarized the target audience for the fair; KPFK agreed to join the event and started publicizing it on the air.
Oliver Haskell, a social organizer who had been accused of membership in the Communist Party, offered to host the fair on his five-acre ranch in North Hollywood, where he ran an ideologically progressive day camp for children. Navy veteran Preston Hibbard, who’d most recently worked for aerospace manufacturer Rohr, building carnivals for its employees in San Diego, had just moved his family to Los Angeles. He’d sworn never to work for the military-industrial complex again, and he leaped at the chance to design and build the Pattersons’ vision.
“Phyllis went on the air,” says Preston’s son Redgy Hibbard in an interview, “and asked everybody to come out and help my dad and bring whatever [they] had. … The whole fair was built with scrap lumber and bent nails.”
One day, Preston took Redgy to a warehouse filled with desks and other equipment owned by the local public school system. By a stroke of good luck, the schools were replacing their curtains, so they gave all of the discarded crushed velvet fabric to the fair. There was “no burlap in the first fair at all,” Redgy recalls.
According to Ossman’s memoir, the fair’s stages and booths “were built out of scrap at a cost of about $150. The entire illusion, based as much as possible on the real thing, had gone up with a couple of weeks of volunteer labor.”
Besides the physical recreation of an Elizabethan setting, Kevin says, his parents wanted to emulate the social environment of a 16th-century fair. To do this, they recruited actors skilled at improvisational theater, including Rachel Rosenthal, a Laurel Canyon resident who was already on her way to becoming an internationally known performance artist. Phyllis then coached the performers in improvisation, English accents, Elizabethan vernacular and street cries.
Finding artisans and makers of traditional handcrafts proved to be more of a challenge. Phyllis discovered that her Hollywood-based shoe repairman made sandals, so she recruited him. She and Ron also visited Mountain Drive, a bohemian arts community in Santa Barbara, and talked some of its residents into joining the party.
The morning of Saturday, May 11, 1963—the first day of the fair—dawned sunny and clear. Michael Tigar, a recent college graduate and employee of Pacifica who would later make a name for himself in the field of criminal defense and social justice, charged down the street on horseback, formally opening the fair by crying, “Oyez, oyez, oyez! The fair’s begun, the glove is up!”
“The first fair,” Ossman recalled, “started in the same way it would flamboyantly develop in years to come: [with] a grand procession. There were dancers and donkey carts. … [The] commedia wagon (the inspiration for the whole thing, really) made its entrance.”
Amid the bright fabric booths and fluttering banners, actors improvised in the streets, bantering with patrons. Three stages offered such varied entertainment as Morris dancing, magic, miming, juggling, flame eating, Renaissance music, bawdy ballads, lute and recorder performances, and scenes from William Shakespeare’s plays.
Rosenthal presided over the makeshift court as England’s Elizabeth I. Her husband, King Moody, portrayed the queen’s favorite, Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. The couple’s dog, Sir Guy, rounded out the court.
“We had to improvise the costume, the props, the horses (hobby horses!),” Rosenthal later recalled, “and we had to ‘gallop’ in the mud. It wasn’t the easiest task!”
Though the Pattersons would later strive for historical authenticity at the fair, the standards for this first iteration were more relaxed. Kevin says his parents’ goal was to create “a giant participatory play and get the audience involved.” Performers, vendors and fairgoers alike dreamed up an array of inventive costumes, from outfits crafted “out of people’s bedspreads or curtains” to homemade tabards—loose-fitting sleeveless or short-sleeved coats—paired with tights and a hat with a feather in it.
At the Red Lion Inn, visitors could dine on “chickeyen, spyced meat, salades [and] sweetes.” The Boar’s Head Inn, meanwhile, featured “ice creames” and cider. Venetian bread, mead and pork pies were also on the menu.
Craft booths scattered around the fair sold handmade pottery, leather goods, jewelry, tapestries, woodcuts, etchings, prints, stained glass, wooden toys and love potions. Fairgoers could try their hand at games likes Hearts and Diamonds, Test of Strength, End the Crusades and darts. For younger guests, entertainment options ranged from Punch and Judy shows to donkey cart rides to children’s crafts.
Ossman broadcast live from the fairgrounds, interviewing participants, patrons and visiting celebrities. Actor Carl Reiner did “monk-on-the-street” interviews. In total, the event raised around $6,000 for KPFK.
In his memoir, Ossman noted that Ron’s poster featured the word “pleasure” in letters twice the size of “Renaissance.” He added, “In fact, all of us connected with the early events called them pleasure fairs, not Renaissance ones. The image of revelry could not be denied.”
The Pattersons hadn’t planned to reprise the event, but as fairgoers made their way home on Sunday, May 12, a commentator asked Phyllis what her plans were for next year. Without missing a beat, she replied that they were going to host two weekends.
And so they did.
Phyllis and Ron couldn’t have imagined that the fair would have such far-reaching effects. It nurtured the budding counterculture of the 1960s, paved the way for events like Burning Man and Coachella, kindled a resurgence of traditional handcraftsmanship, launched the careers of many famous performers, and permanently changed the cultural landscape of America in many other ways.
“The fair … was the first gathering of alternative types that I knew of in Los Angeles, and it had [an] intellectual focus on the history of an era of awakening from the Dark Ages in Europe (as we were awakening from the Dark Ages of McCarthyism),” says attendee Alicia Bay Laurel in Well Met.
The second fair took place at a larger site and earned twice as much as the first. At least one historical event of note took place: Journalist Art Kunkin distributed the very first issue of his underground newspaper, the Los Angeles Free Press, jokingly calling the sample publication the Faire Free Press.
“It was an oak-filled valley that looked like someplace many, many thousands of miles away from Los Angeles,” Kevin says, “but was close to a freeway and had 60 acres of parking. You had to walk across a creek to get to the fair site, so there was space for a psychological transition, a dreamlike experience. You went through a little vale and up a hill and over another hill, and then you saw the fair and woke up in Brigadoon.”
At Paramount Ranch, the fair’s sets became increasingly elaborate. Preston built a papier-mâché castle between two trees near the entrance. He put his son Redgy, still a child himself, in charge of a group building the children’s area, near the creek. From scrap wood, Redgy’s crew constructed a fortress enclosing two ships and a treehouse.
“1965 is a very important time in the evolution of fair,” says Kevin. “The third fair was probably ten times more marvelous and authentic than the first two. The fair was exploding, and I believe everyone involved felt it was special, that they were really onto something—that culturally, this was a ‘thing.’”
The third fair ran for three days over Memorial Day weekend and netted $25,000 for KPFK. In 1966, the event returned to Paramount Ranch for two weekends, earning $57,585 for the station.
The fifth fair took place in 1967, a year of seismic cultural upheaval. On January 14, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people attended the first Human Be-In, a counterculture gathering that launched San Francisco’s Summer of Love. A few months later, on Easter Sunday, Los Angeles hosted a similarly themed “love-in.” Many fair folk attended, and Preston provided the central prop, a 19-foot ankh. “It was a happy scene, decorated with flowers and, just like the fair, much more well-attended than expected,” Ossman recalled. Some participants donned costumes they’d previously worn to the fair.
For the 1967 fair, Ron and Phyllis found a larger site in Ventura County, a significantly less liberal-leaning area north of Los Angeles. “A group of conservatively oriented people … abhorred the idea of a Pleasure Faire and united to bar it from their vicinity,” wrote Paul V. Dallas, KPFK’s then-general manager, in a self-published 1967 account of his time at the radio station. “They conjured up visions of sin and debauchery and managed to convince the city’s planning commission that the dangers inherent in ‘pleasure’ demanded that the fair be banned.”
The Pattersons and KPFK rallied to save the fair, rejecting accusations that the event was a hotbed for drug use and lewd behavior. Phyllis successfully presented her case that the fair was educational.
“Her approach was very simple,” her son Kevin told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “She went into meetings dressed like a teacher, with her hair up and drop earrings, and she treated them like her students until they understood what she was teaching them. She just wore them down—and probably sent them home with a Shakespeare assignment.”
The local city council overruled the planning commission, allowing the fair to move forward. But just before opening weekend, the event’s opponents filed an appeal.
“There were daily headlines,” Ossman wrote, “in part because the conservatives were being led by the redoubtable” Ruth Brennan, wife of the Oscar-winning character actor Walter Brennan. According to Ossman, a local publication ran the headline “Sheriff Ready. Proponents of Free Love, Free Dope and Free Education Join Forces to Deceive the Unwary.”
The weekend before the fair was slated to open, a group of police officers showed up at the festival site in riot gear. Their leader started walking toward Preston, the only fair official present that day. Preston was dressed as Robin Hood, complete with tights, shoes with curled toes and a hat with a big feather.
“They get about ten feet from each other,” Redgy recalls, “and the chief of police looks at my father and says, ‘Preston? What are you doing here?’ And they ran across and wrapped each other in their arms. They were old war buddies. They knew each other and hadn’t seen each other in years. … The whole atmosphere just changed.”
KPFK’s attorney obtained an injunction ensuring the fair could open while the appeal was under discussion. The following week, however, the permit was suspended. Without the planned second weekend, organizers, vendors and KPFK incurred significant financial losses.
The fair had become “the biggest single ‘outside’ source of funds for KPFK,” wrote Dallas, and the cancellation brought the station’s already fractious relationship with Phyllis and Ron to a boiling point. KPFK claimed it owned the Pleasure Faire; the Pattersons disputed the claim. That summer, the two parted ways.
1967 also marked the first time the fair expanded outside of the Los Angeles area. In October, the Pattersons launched a second fair in Northern California. Despite the falling-out with KPFK, the event benefited the Pacifica Foundation’s Berkeley-based station, KPFA.
By early 1968, the fair was well established. An ever-growing number of publications and media outlets covered its unique offerings; in interviews, the Pattersons teased expansions farther afield, perhaps even to the East Coast.
That spring, the Southern California fair returned to Paramount Ranch, where it would remain until 1988. The opening day crowd included John Densmore and Robby Krieger of the rock band the Doors. A young aspiring actor named Harrison Ford accompanied the pair, honing his skills as a second cameraman working on a road tour film about the band. (Interestingly, Mark Hamill, Ford’s future Star Wars co-star, got his start at the fair, where he performed in six skits a day.)
Over the decades, a “who’s who” of Hollywood and rock music attended the fair. Members of the band the Byrds wrote a song titled “Renaissance Fair,” detailing the “cinnamon and spices,” “music everywhere” and “kaleidoscope of color” they’d experienced at the event. In 1970, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Nancy Sinatra informed TV host David Frost and his national audience that they’d just come from the fair, a “master plan for the alternate lifestyle.”
Both of the Pattersons’ 1968 fairs benefited their newly established Renaissance Centre, a cultural and educational foundation that aimed to establish a year-round home for “Renaissance festivals, crafts, theatre, musick and dance in a wooded, park-like setting in the Bay Area,” according to the event program. The planned facility would have included an Elizabethan University for graduate students, apprenticeship programs and a permanent fair site, but it never came to fruition, as locals concerned about noise and unwanted traffic raised objections to its construction.
An increased emphasis on authenticity accompanied the Renaissance Centre’s launch. The Pattersons introduced workshops for performers to give them an understanding of what life was like in 16th-century England, teaching them dances and songs, as well as how to speak like an Elizabethan and improvise in character.
“Everything is either authentic to the period or created from technology of the time,” Phyllis told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “We’re very careful to make sure that there is nothing that could not have been created with the tools and technology of the period.”
The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a golden age for the Pleasure Faire, with the Pattersons and their collaborators continually improving every aspect of the production, from design and construction to entertainment, costuming, crafts and food. Around this same time, other enterprising individuals started holding Renaissance fairs in different parts of the country, “some faithful to the Pattersons’ vision of authentic historical re-creation, others more dubious,” in the words of the New York Times.
George Coulam, a stained-glass vendor who had previously worked at the Pleasure Faire, established the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in 1971 and the Texas Renaissance Festival in 1974. Others set up the Maryland Renaissance Festival in 1976. Today, the U.S. is home to some 200 Renaissance fairs, with one “in nearly every state,” writes Rubin.
In 1976, the Pattersons renamed the Renaissance Centre the Living History Centre. This umbrella organization continued to produce the Northern and Southern California Pleasure Faires, as well as a new offering called the Great Dickens Christmas Fair.
Phyllis and Ron divorced in 1980. Their split inevitably affected the center and its operations. Phyllis started producing the fair on her own. As the activities of the Living History Centre expanded, costs went up, and the fair’s finances became precarious.
In 1994, Renaissance Entertainment Corporation acquired the California fairs, adding to its rapidly growing stable of such festivals. “For many participants,” writes Rubin, “these corporate purchases underlie a shift in the meaning of the fairs from experimental happening to commercial entertainment of precisely the sort to which the earliest fairs were intended as opposition.”
Ron died in 2011 and Phyllis in 2014. Over the decades, the community they created has endured and expanded. “Out of the horrors of McCarthyism,” says Kevin, “something beautiful and transformational was born—a hopeful reminder in trying times.” He continues the couple’s educational mission through the Living History Centre and the Dickens Fair.
Writing in 2007, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg perhaps summarized Renaissance festivals’ appeal best: “If theme parks, with their pasteboard main streets, reek of a bland, safe, homogenized, white-bread America, the Renaissance fair is at the other end of the social spectrum, a whiff of the occult, a flash of danger and a hint of the erotic. Here, they let you throw axes. Here are more beer and bosoms than you’ll find in all of Disney World.”