A faire to remember
The Valhalla Renaissance Festival is popular with “Ren folk” and regular folk
Brad Daeda has always been fascinated with the Renaissance, a time in European history marked by social and political change, global exploration and the rediscovery of the arts and sciences.
This interest led him to start attending Renaissance faires—first as a spectator, then as a participant. The 31-year-old electrical engineer is now the guild master of the St. Maximilian Landsknecht Re-enactment Guild, which he co-founded in 1998.
A guild is a historical re-enactment group that focuses on a certain aspect of Renaissance life, and whose members typically adopt a persona or character and act in the manner of a person who lived during that era. His group represents the Landsknechte, a military force originally created to support the Holy Roman Empire. These German soldiers eventually became mercenaries who offered their services to the highest bidder. They were identified by their gaudy “puff and slash” clothing, some of which was stolen off the bodies of the soldiers they fought in battle. Ill-fitting clothes were slashed to make them fit the wearer’s body, which created a sort of colorful, mismatched look.
The St. Maximilian Landsknecht Re-enactment Guild (named after the martyred, third-century Christian bishop, St. Maximilian) is one of 25 guilds expected to attend the ninth annual Valhalla Renaissance Festival in South Lake Tahoe, which begins next weekend. Steve Bailey, producer and co-founder of the Valhalla Renaissance Festival, says it’s South Lake Tahoe’s largest event. Since it began in 1992, the event has increased from one weekend to two weekends.
“We had about 25,000 people last year in the four days [the faire was open],” Bailey says. “The first year, I think, we had about 1,500 attendants. It’s just mushroomed ever since. It’s about doubled [in attendance] every year.”
The Valhalla Renaissance Festival is a fund-raiser for the Tahoe Tallac Association, a non-profit arts organization that sponsors the Valhalla Arts and Music Festival, which runs from June through Labor Day and helps raise funds for the restoration of the Tallac Historic Site. Last year’s Renaissance festival raised about $25,000, according to Carol Spain, executive director of the Valhalla Arts and Music Festival.
The Valhalla Renaissance Festival’s theme every year is that of a country faire set in Yorkshire, England, in 1580. There are people representing English country folk, but there are also Scottish tradesmen, Danish nobles, German mercenary soldiers (the Landsknechte), gypsies and other groups from that period in time that stroll around the faire. Bailey says more than 100 vendors will be on site selling jewelry, crafts, clothing and some weaponry, like daggers, as well as food typical of that time, like turkey legs and meat pies. Musicians, jugglers and street performers, as well as jousting tournaments and demonstrations of fencing and archery, are also part of the entertainment.
Daeda said his guild sets up an encampment during the Renaissance festival. Each member has his or her own persona—Daeda’s is Tristan, a Landsknecht lieutenant—and will answer questions from the public regarding their weapons, their clothes, their lifestyles and other topics related to the Landsknechte. The group will occasionally march around the festival site.
“We create a military presence,” Daeda says. “We try to make it awe-inspiring and bigger than life.”
Daeda explains that the purpose of his guild—which comprises local chapters in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento and Reno—is to educate the public about the lives of Landsknecht soldiers and their place in history.
“We try to stay very historically accurate,” he says. “We don’t want to teach people the wrong information.”
Spain says that although the Valhalla Renaissance Festival can’t compete in size with events such as the Renaissance Pleasure Faire—produced by the Renaissance Entertainment Corporation and held both in northern and southern California—it is considered a favorite event among “Ren folk,” most of them from California and veterans of the Ren faire circuit. She says a lot of the guilds come back because they like the comfortable surroundings and the beauty of Lake Tahoe. She adds that a lot of the participants spend their vacation at Camp Richardson Resort, where the event is held, staying the week in between the festival weekends.
“For Ren people, it’s a real prized event to come to,” she explains. “In terms of an event for the public, it’s marvelous because it’s high in the mountains, it’s cool [and] it’s not as huge or crowded or commercial as your big faires in California.”
Daeda, who first attended the Valhalla Renaissance Festival five years ago, says he likes smaller faires because it allows for more creative freedom and more chances to interact with customers. He adds that the woodland setting of the Valhalla festival makes its Renaissance atmosphere appear more realistic.
“I like its location; it’s secluded enough that you don’t see the outside world … it allows the transportation to the Renaissance world to be more successful,” he says.
Bailey and Daeda both credit Phyllis Patterson, a Southern California schoolteacher, with starting the first true Renaissance fair in the 1960s. The event became the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, attracting thousands of people from around the state. Soon, these festivals began popping up around California and the rest of the nation.
Daeda says that California is unique because there’s such a large population of people who are willing to perform for free, unlike in other states, where festival organizers may have to pay professional actors. Many of these Ren folk travel several hours to a festival site, spend their money to participate and stay for the length of the festival, he says.
“It’s the sheer love of it that drives them. It’s quite unique,” he says.
He says that he finds that most faires in California try to stress authenticity in their productions rather than fantasy, although there are fantasy faires for those who are more interested in fairies, trolls and other mystical beings.
Bailey agrees that most Ren faires strive for an authentic flavor.
“For the most part, they’re very much the same in trying to maintain historic accuracy,” he says. “They do portray slightly different periods. Some Renaissance faires are set earlier in history when Henry VIII [was] king. Other are set later, with Elizabeth as queen … But they all remain pretty much the same idea, portraying Elizabethan or Tudor life as accurately as they can.”
Bailey says he thinks Renaissance faires retain their popularity because people, at least those with European heritage, want to get back to their roots. He also thinks that people are attracted to the era’s more carefree feel.
“The Renaissance was seen as a much freer, sort of ‘devil may care’ period in history, where people kind of let their hair down and enjoyed life,” he says. “Historically speaking, it was, because the Renaissance came after 500 years of dark ages, when things were pretty miserable in Europe. … It really was the first period in history, in Europe anyway …when people started having enough food to eat and there was a resurgence in art and music, and life started [being] worth living again.”
Although guilds do a lot of the historical re-enactments at festivals, Bailey says the public is welcome to dress up in period clothing and are encouraged to interact with performers at the Valhalla Renaissance Festival. Most of all, he says, visitors should have a good time.
“The faire is just a fun, family environment that people seem to enjoy themselves," he says. "It’s just a feel-good experience."