The Renaissance Pleasure Faire
Bad Jokes and Good Shows

by Bobbie Giarratana
photos by Susie Poulelis

At 32 years old, I find it hard to believe that I've lived my entire life in the Bay Area and have never, before this year, attended a Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Fighting accusations that I live in a cave and no longer attend social events, this year I resolved to drop in with my partner-in-crime, Photographer Extraordinaire, Susie Poulelis.
The recent history of the San Francisco Bay Area's Renaissance Pleasure Faire has been marked by instability and doubts about it's future. For years it was comfortably at home in Novato, but the development of valuable Marin County land sent the organizers packing and in search of a new location. A temporary solution was found in Vacaville at the historic Nut Tree, but plans have been activated for developing a glamorous shopping center along the highway and, again, the faire is forced to find new digs. This year was the last at the Nut Tree. It is presumed a new home will be found before next year.
Any change in venue from Vacaville will be an improvement, as this highway town appears to be close to nowhere, and it's hot as Hades in September. Driving from Berkeley we experienced mile after mile of farmland and tractor rentals, but as we approached our destination we had the vague and pleasant memory of being 18 years old again, on our way to a Grateful Dead show. We whizzed past lumbering VW buses plastered with goddess-loving bumper stickers, mandolins packed in the back and fancy passengers cramped inside; we knew we were close.
 
The Renaissance Faire is a shopper's dream. At the gates I warned myself to guard my pocketbook, as the retail possibilities would be endless. The first stop on the inside: ale. You can't attend a festival without a beer in your paw and I kindly thank the festival organizer who came up with the thoughtful idea of periodic Ye Olde ATM stations since I was stripped of cash after the first lusty barmaid charmed me out of a fairly decent wad of dough. I came to learn that tips are the way things work at the faire; workers and performers rely on the audience digging deep in their pockets to show their appreciation.
Before I begin with the dance let me describe the food… The food vendors hawked a variety of modern concoctions with wacky old-time titles, but mostly it was top o' the line faire fare, not your average polish sausage with relish. Among other things, the fairgoer could choose from fruit salad, corncobs, bread pudding, Ye Olde Nut Tree Potato Salad, and my favorite: TURKEY LEGS. I've never held an entire turkey leg; the opportunity is rare, even at Thanksgiving. Turkey legs are surprisingly long and actually very heavy. Fresh off the barbeque they are hot, even at the bone. This was by far the most popular faire food item; most people cradling a turkey leg seemed to get a special caveman-type thrill out of gnawing on a Flintstones-sized bird leg held in their bare hands.
  And then there were the frozen chocolate-covered bananas… As I understand it, frozen chocolate covered bananas reached the height of renaissance popularity following the year 1589 when Queen Elizabeth I scandalized the court asking Sir Walter Raleigh, "Is that a chocolate-covered banana in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" Shortly thereafter these frozen-treats-on-a-stick would be sold at all the major public floggings and to this day remain popular at Pleasure Faires. I noticed several men hungrily sucking on these tasty treats while watching the belly dancers.
…Which leads, at last, to the dancing. In a word, it was fantastic. Period. I could end the article here, but I'm not above gushing praise when it's due, so read on. Our local favorites danced to live music: John Compton's group, Hahbi'Ru, and Jamila Salimpour's Bal Anat each performed twice a day on separate stages conveniently timed so the audience could catch all the shows. Both of these troupes are a pleasure to watch; they are athletic, well rehearsed and professional, taking real pleasure in the dance and in entertaining the audience with skill and humor.
 
 

Habi' Ru interacts easily with the audience and works in comedy through wacky facial expressions and outright mugging for the cameras. With Bal Anat, Suhaila and her daughter hammed it up for the audience with a rubber snake while the tip dancers weaved their way through the crowd with baskets. This tip tactic charmed us all.

 

click here to see more of Bal Anat

With each troupe's performance we saw dancers hauling out the usual props; veil, sword, snake, cane, zils, tray-on-head, etc. These are tried-and-true accessories any belly dancer has access to, but these individuals all had personality and a special flair that kept the audience interested and entertained. These were not dull, chorus-line troupe productions! I am always amazed that large groups of usually unpaid dancers can find the motivation to be so well organized and dedicated to delivering a tight show. At the risk of sounding sentimental, I'm touched that performers will go to such lengths to share their love of dance with the general public.
 
Another group of entertainers stationed near the Turkish coffee stand were also a joy to watch as we took a break from the heat of the mainstream faire track. Their tent was settled in a corner under the shade of a pleasant grove of trees. Weary passersby could stop and take refuge from the dusty bustle of the crowd by sitting on a bale of hay and sipping a strong demi- tasse. We relaxed and listened to the mellow eight-member band which accompanied several fine dancers.
 
This was a well-spent faire afternoon. Overall, my experience was hot, exhausting, and fun. The participants (audience included) were top-rate performers who in off-hours may go home to their dull 21st Century day jobs, but at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire they lived the part. Knowing that next year's location will be new, the event should bring exciting changes and surprises for the returning fans. Anyone who hasn't experienced this Faire shouldn't miss the next one.
 

 
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