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Phyllis Patterson, Chief Instigator

New York Times obituary

Ron Patterson, Renaissance (Fair) Man, Dies at 80

By MARGALIT FOX, JAN. 30, 2011

Ron Patterson, who nearly half a century ago helped found the country’s first Renaissance fair, which inspired a thriving nationwide industry of jousters and jesters, hawking street vendors and brave men in doublets and tights, died on Jan. 15 in Sausalito, Calif. He was 80.

Mr. Patterson, who lived in San Francisco, Homewood and on a houseboat in Sausalito, had been in declining health for some time and died of natural causes, his son Kevin said.

Renaissance fairs date back to ... well, the Renaissance. But Mr. Patterson and his wife at the time, Phyllis, are widely credited with having created the first modern one, begun in Southern California in 1963. Known, in deference to ye olde spellynge conventions, as the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, it sprang from a children’s arts-education program they had established a few years earlier in their Los Angeles backyard.

Though no longer owned by the Patterson family, the fair remains an annual event, held each spring in Irwindale, Calif., outside Los Angeles. Since its inception, it has drawn more than five million visitors, according to Renaissance Entertainment Productions, the current owner.

It has also spawned hordes of imitators, some faithful to the Pattersons’ vision of authentic historical re-creation, others more dubious. Today, at least 200 medieval and Renaissance fairs are held throughout the country each year, including the Alabama Renaissance Faire, the Northwest Arkansas Fantasy Faire and the Sterling Renaissance Festival in upstate New York.

The Pattersons’ creation was modeled on a 16th-century English country fair. Visitors (many attired in period weeds like ruffs and jerkins and snoods) could hear madrigal singing and period instruments, gnaw bulbous roast turkey legs and buy all manner of handicrafts.

An art director by training, Mr. Patterson was responsible for the look of the fair. He also cheerfully served as Master of the Revels — equal parts lord mayor, court jester and benevolent tout — heralding attractions in impeccable Elizabethan English.

Ronald Jay Patterson was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 2, 1930. He earned a bachelor’s degree in commercial art from the University of California, Los Angeles; afterward, in the Air Force, he was put in charge of entertainment for the officers’ club on his base in Memphis. In his most spectacular coup, he arranged a visit from a young actress named Marilyn Monroe.

Ron Patterson
Ron Patterson, center, was a pioneer of the first Renaissance fair. Credit Raymond Van Tassel, via Red Barn Productions

“When she arrived, everybody in the room was too stunned to ask her to dance,” Kevin Patterson said by telephone. His father, he said, gamely obliged.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Patterson married Phyllis Ann Stimbert. The couple settled in Los Angeles, where he was an advertising agency art director and she a 10th-grade English and history teacher. In 1961, they began holding arts classes for neighborhood children in their backyard. Out of these grew the Piccolo Players, a young people’s commedia dell’arte troupe.

The troupe performed publicly in Los Angeles, and those performances were the seeds of the first Renaissance Pleasure Faire, held in May 1963 at a North Hollywood campground. Three thousand people attended.

With its pastoral setting, strolling players and bonhomie made bonnier by tankards of ale, the fair was an idea whose time had come. Amid the Vietnam War, inhabiting a lost era of courtly love and gentler combat had tremendous appeal, and the fair became a kind of early, wimpled Woodstock.

The Pattersons later established a similar fair in Northern California, and both fairs became known for historical fealty.

“All 2,500 of the fair participants, whether they were actors or whether they were turkey leg basters, had to go through workshops,” Kevin Patterson said. “There were over 30 classes in Elizabethan style and life and folklore, so you could really think like an Elizabethan instead of just playing one.”

Ron and Phyllis Patterson divorced in 1980; in 1994, the fairs were sold to Renaissance Entertainment, which owned other Renaissance fairs around the country and is today the largest producer of such fairs in the United States.

Besides his son Kevin, Mr. Patterson is survived by another son, Brian; two brothers, Duane and Gary; and two grandchildren.

The family continues to operate the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a Victorian-themed extravaganza founded by Ron and Phyllis Patterson in 1970, held each holiday season in San Francisco.

There, in a secret parlor on the fairgrounds known poetically as the Opium Den, Mr. Patterson held forth eruditely on divers and sundrie subjects as Champagne flowed, Master of the Revels to the last.

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