Feature: The best gift

36th annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair returns

by David Templeton and Trent Anderson

Inspired by the writings of one of the greatest storytellers of all time, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair has surpassed the prolific Charles Dickens himself, by giving birth to thousands and thousands of brand new stories told by hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve been touched, in one way or another, by the magic of the massive annual recreation of Victorian England. Everyone who’s ever attended the fair, or helped organize its monstrous infrastructure, or peddled their crafts in the streets from a cart or booth, or played one of the hundreds of costumed historical and Dickensian characters, has walked away with their own stories—and possibly stepped into someone else’s story without even knowing it.

The 36th annual Great Dickens Fair, which opens on November 21 at the Cow Palace in Daly City, is produced each year by Red Barn Productions, a descendent of the Living History Center, which famously produced the original Great Dickens Fair, along with two Renaissance Pleasure Faires—one in Novato, and one in Southern California. Founded by Ron and Phyllis Patterson, the Ren Faires were sold long ago to another company, which still runs them in Hollister and Irwindale. But the Dickens Fair is still a family operation, produced each year by the Patterson’s son Kevin and his wife Leslie. Red Barn Productions is named for the iconic red barn that once was a landmark for visitors arriving at the Ren Faire in Novato’s Black Point Forest.

Once again, this unique Bay Area institution, staffed largely by folks from Marin County and surrounding areas, will be delivering bite-sized Dickensian adventures, placing them right in the path of wide-eyed visitors. In the countless encounters served up by the cast of characters and craftspeople who join together every year, brand new stories are about to be born. To honor this tradition, we’ve asked five people to tell their own Dickens Fair stories. Here they are, wrapped in garlands and served with a hot spiked eggnog.

Jay Davis first attended the Dickens Fair in the late 1970s, but wouldn’t become a recognizable part of it until decades later, after a friend invited him to join the fair’s enormous cast of actors. It sounded appealing, but he knew that he would need to think up a character to play, and he didn’t want to be just another random Victorian. With his years of skill at fabricating machines and props, he thought long and hard to come up with something truly original. The character he devised has, over the last 11 years, become one of the Fair’s most recognizable and eccentric residents. He now “performs” with a cast of seven other “assistants,” and shows off many of his inventions at a Dickens Fair “environment” known as Flockmocker’s Workshop.

Jay Davis

“I asked myself, ‘What doesn’t the Dickens Fair have? Ah, I know! They don’t have a crackpot Victorian scientist!’”And thus my character, Professor Phineas J. Flockmocker III F.H.S.G. (Former High School Graduate) was born. He believes he’s a genius and is intellectually superior to everyone else. He uses ‘Flockmocker Science,’ an incompetent science that only he (partially) understands. But in reality, a genius he is not.

During the mid-19th century, there were many bad ideas concerning heavier than air flight. This is something that Flockmocker decided to conquer. So using scientifically unsound principles, the Steam Powered Flying Conveyance came into being and was a big hit at the fair. Appearing to be of cast iron and supposedly weighing in at only 250 pounds, it easily straps to my back. Of course, it would never get off the ground, but Flockmocker insists it will. He repeatedly tells visitors the tale that, on its very first attempt at flight, his former assistant attained the incredible altitude of 150 feet. In reality, that was because the device’s boiler exploded—but nevertheless … 150 feet, straight up!!! I like to tell people that I’m still searching for another assistant.

Once, while in character—wearing this same contraption—I encountered a NASA scientist. He couldn’t grasp the fantasy of the Dickens Fair, so he immediately pointed out a few of the many flaws in my invention. I responded, in character, by verbally grabbing him by both his collars and, shall we say, ‘taking him over the edge into the depths of absurdity.’ In the end he gave up, finally realizing that there was no getting through to Flockmocker.

As an inventor, my most impressive item to date is an 8-foot tall, mechanical automaton I call  ‘Steam Man.’ Every time I take him out, as he lumbers about the fair, people debate whether he is a real robot … or just a person inside. To prove he is a real mechanical man, I open a small door in his stomach area. This reveals various gears whirling around, proving he is supposedly mechanical. One time a small child stared up at the spinning mechanism, completely filled with amazed wonderment.

That memory will remain with that young man for the rest of his life.

Over the years, my team of assistants and I have presented Flockermocker’s time machine, we’ve described traveling to the moon, hunting for ghosts and even dabbled in dentistry. We have a motto now: ‘At Flockmocker’s Workshop—the pots are always cracked.’”

Among the many craftspeople who have sold their wares at the Dickens Fair—and the Renaissance Faires, too—few are as recognizable and depended upon as Rosie Echelmeier of San Anselmo. Twenty-five years ago, at the Dickens Faire, she created Rosie’s Posies, selling flowered garlands, head adornments, and small pin-on rosettes to visitors and Fair-workers, many of whom approach Echelmeier’s handiwork, less as crafty costume accessories, and more as beautiful pieces of wearable art.

Rosie Echelmeier

“Twenty-five years. Where do I start?

I was a teacher in San Francisco, with a fine arts background. In my spare time, when I had any, if I wasn’t painting, I was making something with my hands. When I decided to retire from teaching, I knew I wanted to devote my time to creating things, but also needed to keep making some money.

I attended a Renaissance Faire, I fell in love with seeing so many people making their living doing their art. I thought, ‘Look at these gorgeous people, and these gorgeous things they are making! Maybe I could do something like this.’ So I put in an application to be a craftsperson, thinking I might make garlands or crowns out of twigs from Golden Gate Park. I didn’t have any formal training, but I thought I could probably do it. The first show I did was the Dickens Fair.

The first time I sold a wreath at the Dickens Fair—a big beautiful wreath with red flowers—the person asked me how much I wanted for it, and I heard myself saying, “Forty-five dollars.” It was quite beautiful, but as soon as I said it, I thought, ‘Well, they’ll never pay that. You just wrecked the sale.” But they didn’t bat an eye. They gave me the money and walked away happy, and stood there, shocked. Part of me couldn’t believe that someone would pay that much for something I made. Another time, a woman picked up a really lovely crown I’d made out of twigs and flowers, and she said, with a look of surprise on her face, “Well, I don’t have one of these … yet,” and I just smiled and said, “I’m happy you finally found it.”

After that year, I just never stopped.

I became a full-time, professional Renaissance and Victorian craftswoman. Over the years, I’ve hired many, many women of different nationalities to help me make garlands and wreaths. I’ve hired women who really needed work. And it’s been a wonderful second career. I bought a home in Marin. I sent my son to Waldorf School. All from money I made working at the fairs.

It’s an amazing thing that Phyllis and Ron created. So many people have been able to make their living and express themselves as artists at the same time. I especially love the looks on the faces of children, when they come up to my booth and start looking at all of the things I have on display. It’s just magical, that look of wonder.

It’s happened many times that a parent buys their child something from the cart, some beautiful little rosette or something, and then they go away, but after a while I feel a little tap on my arm, and there’s the child, coming back to say thank you. But I just want to thank them. All of these people I meet, all of those smiles, it all adds up to a wonderful life. I’m so thankful for it, and I never forget the wonderful gift I found when I first became a part of the fair.”

Over the past 45 years, Trent Anderson has attended the Dickens Christmas Fair more times than he can count. Formerly the director of marketing and corporate sponsorship for the Living History Center—the nonprofit which for years operated the California Renaissance Pleasure Faire and the Great Dickens Christmas Fair—Anderson became the executive director of the Living History Centre in 1996, after the Renaissance Pleasure Faires (in Novato and in Southern California) were sold. Though no longer associated with the Fair in any way, he relishes returning every year to see old friends, and enjoy the kind of revelling and merry-making that only happens when hundreds of artists gather together to build a bit of Victorian London in San Francisco.

Those Victorians may have been tight-laced—but they knew how to party at Christmas time.

Trent Anderson

“I don’t actually remember my first Dickens Fair, but I know I was there—because I’ve seen the pictures.

That one was held in San Francisco in a building down near what is now Army Street, just off Highway 101 South. I think the next one was held at Fort Mason, then at Pier 45 on the Embarcadero, then at The Great American Music Hall on O’Farrell Street—and then, up at the Cal Expo Fairgrounds in Sacramento. Eventually, the Dickens Fair opened at the Cow Palace in Daly City, where it’s been for a number of years now.

During my years with the Living History Center, some amazing things happened. In 1990, on a business trip to London, I somehow connected with Jeanne-Marie Dickens, the president of the Charles Dickens Heritage Foundation, who is married to a descendent of Charles Dickens. On my next trip to England—with my wife and young son—the Dickens’ invited us up to their estate in North Yorkshire. While there, Jeanne-Marie Dickens informed me that she would be visiting the United States … and California … within a few months. When she did arrive, I was privileged to have lunch with her, where she was able to meet Phyllis Patterson, and her son Kevin Patterson.

That was Renaissance Faire time, so I was able to bring her out to the Faire in Los Angeles, where she met many of the participants and others—and created quite a stir. Later on, she also visited San Francisco, but unfortunately she was not able to stay long enough to attend the Dickens Fair that year.

She missed out. Had she stayed, she would have had loads of fun, would have witnessed a wonderful bunch of incredibly talented performers, and would have enjoyed some truly excellent food and drink.

I still go every year. The location may change from time to time, but one thing that never changes about the Dickens Faire is that it’s still one of the best ways in the Bay Area to celebrate the Christmas Holidays with style, fun and a dash of living history.

David Templeton has written about the arts in the Bay Area for almost 25 years, during which he’s attended the Dickens Fair as a volunteer game-booth worker, a costumed reveler (he was a Scottish explorer, complete with kilt and furry creature on his belt), a member of the reviewing press and last year, as a stalker. Here’s the story, with all of the juicy details.

David Templeton

Last year at the Dickens Fair, for one full day, I became a stalker. I don’t mean that metaphorically.

With my adventurous son Andy as my accomplice, I spent the better part of my trip to the Fair’s faux Victorian London following one of literature’s most notorious bad guys as he made his way around the fair, intimidating and harassing everyone in his path. Why did I do this, you may ask?

To learn a few tips from a master, that’s why.

Charles Dickens wrote his share of villains. The two-faced Uriah Heep and the monstrous Mr. Murdstone, from David Copperfield. Wackford Squeers, the evil headmaster from Nicholas Nickleby. Even the relatively likable Fagin, king of pickpocket boys, is, in the original book a pretty despicable guy.

But then there’s Bill Sikes.

Compared to him, all the others are amateurs.

I’d recently been cast as Bill in a production of the musical Oliver! I wasn’t originally planning on stalking the Fair’s own version of Sikes when I arrived with the rest of my family. Though I always enjoy observing the actors at work—particularly appreciating the true-life historical figures who gather, associate, lecture on 19th Century science and recite Victorian poetry inside the Adventurers Club—I assumed that my day would largely consist of watching the stage shows, perusing the craft booths and grazing the food and drink booths for roasted chestnuts, oysters and chips, gingerbread and a cup or two of Christmas ale.

But within the first 30 minutes of walking the festively adorned streets constructed inside the Cow Palace, Andy and I wandered right past an encounter between Fagin and Bill Sikes himself. The cool thing about the Fair’s way of presenting Dickens’ characters is the way we see them in the context of their novels. In the morning, we see them improvising their way through scenes from the first chapters of their books, and throughout the day, those stories continue, scene by scene, through to the climax of the story. Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, when encountered shortly after opening, can be seen bah-humbugging his way through the streets, and as the day unfolds, we see him walking with the various Ghosts of Christmas, finally retracing his steps as a newly redeemed believer in Christmas.

“Hey Dad,” suggested Andy, after Sikes strolled imposingly off into the crowd. “Let’s follow him!” So we did. It wasn’t easy. Played by the impressively tall Anders Scott Hudson, this Bill Sikes moves fast, and would frequently disappear from sight for long periods of time. When we would catch up, it was usually when he’d stop to bully another fair actor, or stop to engage another Oliver Twist character in conversation lifted, loosely, from the book.

By late afternoon, Bill started to recognize Andy and me, glaring at us harder and harder each time, until finally, he seemed to accept our constant, silently tagging along. At one point, shortly after we’d watched him make a plan, with Fagin, to track down and capture Oliver Twist, whom he’d just elaborately described as having been left in a ditch, Bill suddenly walked straight for us, stopping to glare one last time, looking us each in the eye before slowly smiling and nodding and tipping his hat.

“Gentlemen,” he snarled, and pushed between us, disappearing again into the crowd. We never saw him again, and though we hoped to catch up with him in time to watch the final fatal encounter between Sikes and his doomed accomplice Nancy (a scene that has become a bit of Fair legend for it’s stylishly played-out silhouetted violence, we were never able to cross his path for the rest of the day.

But for a while there, following in the frightening footsteps of one of literature’s greatest creations, Andy and I had the rare treat of experiencing the Fair in a whole new way. This year, we might even try it again, though perhaps we’ll pick a different character. This time, Ebenezer Scrooge might just end up being haunted—silently and respectfully, of course—by more than just ghosts.

Kevin Patterson, the producer of the Dickens Fair, recalls that the fair sprang from a Victorian-themed Christmas party his parents threw one year. It was so beautifully conceived, with detailed decorations and authentic costumes, that many of the guests said, “You have to do a Victorian Faire. Like the Renaissance Faires, only with Dickens characters!’ A year or two later, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair was born. After a hiatus in the ’90s—due largely to the Loma Prieta earthquake—Kevin and his wife Melanie resurrected the Dickens Fair in 2000, moving it to the Cow Palace, in Daly City, where it has grown into a true Northern California holiday institution.

Kevin Patterson

“I was 10 when the first Dickens Faire happened. That was in the old anchor works, which is no longer there. It’s now Levi Plaza in the Embarcadero. It was an old smelting factory, with a 50-foot-high ceiling, and there was a giant chimney off to one side, with a huge opening. And I remember that the chimney sweeps—who were, for a kid of 10, the perfect Dickens Fair characters—they would use that chimney as their ‘office.’ They’d sit in there and have their tea, and they would climb up this rope into the chimney, and then crawl across the roof and come down another rope somewhere else. That’s my first memory of the Dickens Fair, and it was absolutely magical!

The version of old Victorian England that my parents created always had that sense of magic to it, though they very much wanted it to feel real, too, especially at the beginning.

Another early memory of the Fair was being recruited to play one of Fagin’s pickpockets. I remember that every day, at one point, Fagin would stand up and deliver a morality speech to the people passing by, as all of the boys would scatter out and pretend to pick the crowd’s pockets. It was very, very cool. Over the next years, I became involved in the family business in various ways, working in the box office, running my own game booths, teaching proper English pub darts at my own ‘dart parlor.’ That dart booth is now being run by one of my sons.

Since bringing the Fair back 15 years ago, I can say that not a day of the fair goes by that I don’t find myself being surprised and delighted by something I could never have expected. It’s the magic of the holiday season. People’s hearts are just a little more open at this time of year, and when you put those people in an environment where they feel playful and safe, where there are funny and interesting and delightful characters around every corner, people do the most curious things. I am amazed and gratified every single day that I produce this show, and experience it as a person.

And I do. I make sure, whenever I’m walking through the Fair—even when I’m busy—to stop and look at what’s happening around me. It chokes me up, sometimes, it honestly does. To be part of something that has brought so much magic to the Bay Area for so many years.

It’s the best Christmas gift I could ever get.”

The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, November 21-December 20, Cow Palace Exhibition Halls, Daly City; dickensfair.com.

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