Renaissance faire takes Champaign back to 1581

Timothy Toby attempts to slice a cabbage in half as it sits atop a volunteer´s head during a jousting and skill competition Sunday. Toby was part of the Illinois Renaissance Faire at the Champaign County Fairgrounds. Tim Eggerding

By Amber Greviskes

At first glance, the Illinois Renaissance Faire was nothing more than people in 1581 regalia. With a closer look though, and the fairy tale emerges.

The clash of metal from knights dressed in full armor, jousting for the affection of the Queen, rings through the fairgrounds. The Queen sits erect nearby in a heavy beaded gown, fanning herself. Her attendants surround her constantly, never letting her out of their sights. Pirates with five-o’clock shadows, eye patches and sly grins prowl the crowds searching for wenches. It is 1581.

The Illinois Renaissance Faire, in its second year of operation, is not unique. Festivals the same size – and many much larger – are common throughout the world. The largest, most realistic festivals are held in Europe, where the original castles help the actors enchant patrons, convincing them that they have entered another era.

The festivals are gaining popularity in the United States, said Beverly Leathers, who owns Flying Cloud Costume Rental and designs original apparel for men, women and children. The costumes range in price from $30 to $1,500.

Leathers, whose interest in theater propelled her love for the faires, began participating in faires full-time in 1976. Now she packs her brightly colored beaded dresses, popular feathered hats and multiple-piece peasant costumes into her truck or a trailer to drive to each fair. She racks up approximately 10,000 miles traveling per month.

“I like to get where we’re going, but traveling is hard,” she said.

Some participants in this year’s festival came from as far away as Canada for the two-day Illinois Renaissance Faire. Others, like Andrew Marshall, a recent Parkland College graduate, worked at the Illinois Renaissance Faire last year and returned, having never been to a festival outside of Champaign-Urbana.

When Ted King arrived from Miseck, Mich., he assumed he was done traveling until the end of the fair. He was wrong.

After the festival closed on Saturday, he realized that his company, His Majesty’s Fine Foods, had sold out of turkey legs. Instead of being elated because business was going well, he was distressed.

King drove 75 miles that night so patrons would be able to feast on turkey legs the next day, like the lords and ladies of the 1500s, said Ron Moyer, of Houston, Texas, one of King’s employees.

King’s dedication to Renaissance faires is not unusual, but the way he got involved is.

In 1979, King attended his first Renaissance faire because “some pretty girl kept insisting that I go.”

After one weekend at Scarborough Faire in Texas he was hooked.

“I found a different world of people – just incredibly intelligent, articulate, talented people – painters, sculptors, stain glass workers, glass blowers,” he said, his blue eyes dancing.

He called his boss.

“Mail my final paycheck in care of Scarborough Faire,” King said. “I’m never coming back.”

With those words, his life changed dramatically. He became committed to the festivals, enjoying the social environment and the company of other people who participated in the Renaissance faires.

When King was 39 and determined to remain single for the rest of his life, he met his wife, Laura. They met at a faire and were married shortly after – at a fair, on jousting horses. King’s two daughters, Kourtney, 12, and Kelsey, 13, have grown up with festivals too.

Many children grow up near festivals, if their parents are involved in them.

The Kings home-school their children. Leathers’ children “never went to day care – they went to festivals.”

Although Leathers’ children are grown and were not at the Illinois Renaissance Faire, other children were.

Tess, the Minstrel, a pixie-like child, sang for crowds.

Dan, the Wizard with horn-rimmed glasses, drew children to him for his magic shows.

Nicholas the storyteller, dressed in an emerald-green hooded cloak, spun yarns for those seated on the hay bales, serving as medieval bleachers.

The performers have formed their own community. A community where children grow up, young couples get married and parents raise families. Some stay their entire lives. Others stay as long as they can meet the demands of the road. Many grew up around festivals. Others found them. Most share a similar passion for their work. They share their stories openly.

“I love to see that look of wonder on someone’s face – whether they’re a little kid or an adult – when they see a festival for the first time,” King said. “They look like someone really did something to them.”