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Phyllis Patterson, Chief InstigatorRon Patterson, 80
November 2, 1930 ~ January 15, 2011
Renaissance Pleasure Faire Founder,
Entertainment Pioneer

Ron Patterson, the entertainment pioneer who created the Renaissance Faire phenomenon and changed America's notion of environmental theater, died Saturday in Sausalito, California.

Patterson's free-spirited counter-culture "Renaissance Faires," the 1963 invention of Ron and his wife Phyllis, are now widely emulated in the U.S. and abroad and remain the standard against which many historical re-creation festivals are measured. He leaves behind two sons, two grandsons and several generations of "Faire Folk"—thousands of entertainers and craftspeople whose skills were honed and livelihoods enabled under the banner of various Patterson productions.

Those who worked with Ron were inspired by the high quality of his artistic vision, which guided the overall look of each Faire; delighted by his warm, fun-loving personality and ribald sense of humor; and astounded by the discipline, historical knowledge and high artistic standards that he brought to his work. Underneath his jolly public persona as Master of the Revels, "The man was a workhorse in tights," says early Faire performer Amie Hill. "He cajoled discipline out of various parades, merriment out of passing crowds, and humor out of impending chaos."

Born in Los Angeles' Studio City in 1930, Ron Patterson was the eldest of the three sons of Nora and Joe Patterson, a homemaker and 40-year buyer for Kimberley-Clark Products. Graduating from North Hollywood High School in 1949, Patterson matriculated at UCLA, where he majored in commercial art. In his UCLA years, Patterson developed his imaginative visioning and event production gifts by inventing, managing, and choreographing large-scale stadium "card stunts," in which hundreds, sometimes thousands of students held up placards that collectively spelled out UCLA cheers and slogans as giant mosaics—quite a feat in pre-computer days. He invented a circular wheel with colored cellophane, which, together with hundreds of flashlights, allowed the very first presentations of nighttime placard displays.

Commissioned in the Air Force following his 1954 UCLA graduation, Ron Patterson was assigned to Memphis Tennessee, where he ran on-base theater and entertainment and met his future wife, Phyllis. Together, the Pattersons returned to Los Angeles, where Ron began a career as a commercial artist and art director for Neil Advertising, a well-known Hollywood agency.

In off hours, Ron and Phyllis, a teacher with an M.A. in Theater Arts, devoted their time to local drama groups, and were particularly attracted to the improvisational possibilities of 16th-century Italian commedia del 'arte. In the early 1960s, they began using the backyard of their rustic Laurel Canyon home to teach improvisational theater, movement and art to neighborhood children. When the popular classes outgrew the backyard, they rented a North Hollywood summer camp and created the very first Renaissance Fair as a theatrical environment to surround the children's commedia del arte' performance (and as a fundraiser for Pacifica Radio). Over 3,000 people attended its one-weekend run.

Initially, the Pattersons viewed the "Renaissance Pleasure Faire," as they called it, as a one-off. By their third "one-shot" faire in 1965, however, they gave in to popular demand and made it an annual event, developing it into a full-scale recreation of English country fairs in the reign of Elizabeth I (1557-1603).

Capturing the excitement and creativity of the Elizabethan era, as well as the unconventional, pleasure-loving sensibility of the 1960s and 70s, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire caught on quickly. Free-spirited Southern Californians flocked to the Faire, eager to be part of a creative "happening" that combined intense personal participation with historical authenticity, a touch of otherworldliness, and just plain fun, in a beautiful natural setting. "The whole thing worked," Patterson believed, "partly because of our unique, pastoral environment, with dirt, rather than asphalt underfoot." Thousands of Elizabethan-costumed faire-goers immersed themselves in a heady 16th-century world of pageants, parades, royalty, food, games, crafts and jollity.

By the mid-1970s, the Pattersons had moved to San Francisco and were producing multiple historical-themed events: Northern- and Southern-California Renaissance Pleasure Faires, the "Great Dickens Christmas Fair," and a nautical-themed festival on San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier. They were also experimenting with innovative event concepts such as a three-day "Fantasma a la Fellini" New Year's party, and the "Pataphysical Circus."

To deepen the educational impact of the Faires, the Pattersons founded the Living History Centre in Northern Marin County, holding workshops to educate the public about the folkways, traditions, history and art of the Elizabethan and Victorian eras. By the late 1970s, the operation had grown exponentially into a Woodstock-scale concern, employing 3,000 "Faire Folk" and hosting more than 300,000 guests annually in Northern and Southern California.

The Renaissance Pleasure Faire also played a seminal role in mainstreaming the growing, but then relatively unknown, world of American handicrafts, which now flourishes at faires and festivals across the nation.

Ron and Phyllis Patterson's marriage ended in the '80s, and oldest son Kevin and his wife, Leslie, later stepped in as event producers. Younger son Brian, a talented puppeteer, continues his father's penchant for playful performance with the lively tradition of Punch & Judy puppet shows. The Patterson family continues to produce the ever-popular Dickens Christmas Fair, held each year at the San Francisco Cow Palace, as they look for a new home to re-create the original spirit of the Renaissance.

Ron Patterson's life outside the faire was also rich and varied. He had an unerring eye for the tastefully fabulous, designing his homes and interiors with the same flair that he brought to Faire design. He was a consultant to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and won several awards for design, including a California Heritage Council Award for authentic restoration and decoration of his "Log Lodge" near Lake Tahoe. An incessant traveler, he was a friend of figures as diverse as Jerry Brown and Ravi Shankar, and a frequent "item" in Herb Caen's legendary San Francisco Chronicle column. He even danced with Marilyn Monroe, and kissed Marlene Dietrich…twice.

In his retirement, Patterson played to the hilt his role of Faire patriarch and living legend to 40 years' worth of grateful Faire Folk. He entertained friends and admirers in his San Francisco Presidio Heights penthouse, and in his "Opium Den," a secret parlour tucked away behind a camouflaged door at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, where he would hold court for hours, freely pouring champagne.

Such was the love Patterson engendered that when a Facebook page was created for him in the last few days of his life, he acquired over a thousand Facebook friends in three days. This online outpouring attests to his impact on thousands of people of all ages—generations whose lives had been changed by him and his work. One of his Facebook friends wrote, "I find it hard to believe that you could for a moment grasp the enormous significance of what you have done for so many of us."

In the words of a longtime co-worker, "How can you forget someone who could be simultaneously shrewd, lewd, elegant, exuberant, funny, touching, mule-stubborn, refined, bawdy, wildly creative, exasperating, and lovable, all within the same damn minute?"

Patterson is survived by his sons, Kevin and Brian, daughter-in-law Leslie, grandsons Andrew and Michael, brothers Duane and Gary, and his huge, extended Faire family.

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