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Faire fight

They say they’re not competitive, but Renaissance event producers battle it out for patrons and vendors who attend their extravaganzas

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / September 27, 2009

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It’s always been a difficult task to rule a medieval kingdom.

Back then, it was starving peasants demanding bread; today, it’s 21st-century customers complaining about the prices and selection offered by royal food vendors. And there always seems to be a menacing rival kingdom to the south.

What does the founder of King Richard’s Faire, now in its 28th season in the woods of Carver, plan to do about it?

“Put on a great show and try as hard as we can to show people a good time and make them laugh,’’ said Bonnie Shapiro, who launched the faire with her late husband, Richard, and has led its growth into New England’s premier Renaissance festival.

This faire season, which started Sept. 5 and continues on weekends through Oct. 25, has been troubled by recession, rain, discontent among suburban vendors and performers, and the growing popularity of an upstart competitor in Connecticut.

Many members of the state’s small, tightknit “Rennie’’ community, like Littleton costumer Dina Flockhart of Cloak & Dagger Creations, say they find King Richard’s rules too restrictive - the faire requires its tenants and performers to sign an exclusive contract, blocking them from working at any other Renaissance-themed festivals in New England.

Flockhart said she refused to sign the contract because to make a living she needs the option of selling her wares - traditional wool cloaks, handmade medieval circlet headwear, cloak clasps, pirate shirts, and other custom clothes - at as many venues as possible, whether it’s the Connecticut Renaissance Festival, or the Winslowshire Renaissance Faire in Norton, or the Maine Renaissance Faire in Augusta.

“They want a vendor to be only available through them, and as a business owner, that is too limiting,’’ said Flockhart, who also crafts custom Star Trek and Star Wars costumes. She said she also prefers the alcohol-free atmosphere at other festivals, in contrast to the sometimes “rowdy’’ scene in Carver. “As a parent, it’s better, and it makes for more civil behavior,’’ she said.

Shapiro said she understands the objections, but keeps the restrictive policy so that “our visitors will experience unique talent when they come here.’’ She said she is on track to attract between 100,000 and 150,000 visitors during this edition of the 18-day festival. As in previous years, King Richard’s featured attractions include jousting, a popular team of bawdy “mud beggars,’’ all-day musical theater performances, aerial angels, the nationally known Tortuga Twins comedy threesome, a live animal act with a liger (a lion-tiger cross), a fire juggler, and a bagpipe-playing unicyclist.

Frank Dixson of Franklin has been performing for King Richard’s since 1993, most years in the role of Heyo, a court jester. Dressed in a colorful red and green jester’s suit, hat, and tights, Dixson helps oversee the daily human chess matches and wanders the sprawling village greeting and joking with customers while remaining in character.

“It’s a unique experience to do improv for eight hours a day, and as an actor it’s always a challenge,’’ he said. “Some people start giggling if you just walk up to them, other people need to warm up.’’

Being Heyo is an intense seasonal side job in addition to his full-time position as a buyer at Boston Medical Center, but Dixson said he loves the faire and its customers, who he said become “like family,’’ adding that the faire’s exclusivity contract does not bother him.

Last weekend, the skies were bright blue, the air crisp, and visitors - many in medieval garb - gnawed on giant turkey legs and King’s Roasted Nuts, washing down the faire food with coffye, honey mead, and ale. A visit to King Richard’s is not inexpensive. Most food and drink costs between $6 and $8, and many of the rides and games - such as knife throwing for adults and archery for children - cost another $2 to $3. And while the music is free, many of the wandering performers carry tip jars.

This is in addition to $26 for an adult ticket, and $15 for children ages 5 to 11. Patrons may not bring in their own food or drink, or leave the grounds and return later in the day.

One customer, Cambridge software engineer Jonathan Kamens, got into a well-publicized spat at the faire after he and his family were not allowed to bring in a homemade kosher lunch during a 2005 visit.

Kamens, who publishes a personal blog about customer service, said it was his first experience with a tourist attraction that failed to make an accommodation for observant Jews. His family had to eat their kosher food while sitting on the ground next to the entrance gate, he said.

“The thing that King Richard’s has was really big-name acts and prominent performers,’’ Kamens said in a recent telephone interview. “But I was disappointed with how we were treated, compared to the other institutions in this area. If they had treated my family nicely, we would have gone back year after year.’’

But Shapiro, who also is Jewish, said the policies are designed to be fair to all visitors, regardless of religious beliefs. King Richard’s is a theme park experience designed for total immersion, she said, and the price reflects the cost of employing professional performers, serving quality food, and maintaining a permanent 15th-century medieval village on the 80-acre wooded property.

The Shapiros, veteran musical theater performers and producers, helped establish Renaissance fairs in Chicago and Milwaukee in the 1970s, and decided to expand to the East Coast, choosing Carver in 1981.

Shapiro described how she hired a young, then-unknown comedian named Jim Belushi to be the costumed faire “king’’ in Chicago one year. But Belushi quit the job after a single weekend, saying the nonstop demands of working the crowd and staying in character were “too hard,’’ she recalled. And her daughter, Samantha Harris, worked at King Richard’s in her younger years before going on to a career in Hollywood, with her latest role as a cohost of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,’’ she said.

Yesterday marked the opening of the Connecticut Renaissance Faire, which hopes to attract 30,000 people to the Lions Fairgrounds in Hebron during its four-weekend season.

Its organizers have taken steps to avoid some of the criticism that has dogged King Richard’s Faire; ticket prices are lower - $16 for adults, $8 for children ages 5 to 11 - and while deep-fried Oreos and Scotch eggs are plentiful, outside food is allowed, and reentry is permitted with a hand stamp, said cofounder Brian Harvard.

The Hebron festival began as a one-day gathering that drew 1,000 Renaissance enthusiasts to a motel parking lot in 1999, and has been growing ever since. Harvard, 40, said he and coorganizer Eric Tetreault trace their love for Renaissance festivals back to their own teenage visits to King Richard’s.

“We always went to Carver, and we dressed up. We were always passionate about this world and we thought, ‘Let’s try to make our own community.’ We have a staff and volunteers who pour their heart and soul into it,’’ said Harvard, who also works full time as a pharmacy technician in Springfield, Mass.

Their vendors and performers can work for whomever else they please, he said, noting, “They’re trying to make a living and so are we.’’

Harvard is diplomatic about the defection of two of King Richard’s major comedy acts - the Singing Executioners, and the Pope and Cardinal, featuring North Shore brothers Paul and David Stickney - to his fair several years ago. Like King Richard’s, the Connecticut faire features jousting, puppetry, duels, wandering troubadours, and a cleavage contest involving women in low-cut bodices.

“I love the audience in Connecticut. I feel like we are in something up and coming,’’ said Paul Stickney, a Saugus resident who said he and his brother left King Richard’s in 2002, after a decade performing there, because they did not want to sign a two-year exclusive contract with Shapiro.

Harvard said he and his partners aren’t trying to sabotage the granddaddy of regional Renaissance festivals.

“We do the faire because we love it. We don’t do it to compete with King Richard’s or smack them in the face,’’ said Harvard.

Shapiro also maintains that the realm is big enough for two Renaissance shows.

“It’s always a compliment when someone copies you,’’ she said. “We’re the biggest show in the region, and we hope to stay that way because we offer shows and performances you can’t see anywhere else.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.