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Photo by Natasha Ball

Magazine | Okiecentric

All’s Faire in Love, Junk, and War Games

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Posted 09.10.11

In 1973, author and two-time Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne published How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. When he was 32, Jeff Hiller read the entire book, to the last lines: “They’re your dreams; it’s your life. No one else is going to make things right for you. Only your actions can provide the kind of life you want. Your time has finally come. Make the most of it.”

Hiller closed the back cover and converted an old school bus with a king-sized bed, a fireplace, and hammocks for his five children. He was in the driver’s seat when he saw a roadside sign for a Renaissance Pleasure Faire in northern California. Normally he’d take his family hiking or scuba diving, but the faire offered kids’ tickets, so he figured the worst that could happen is that they’d return to the bus disappointed, the kids with plastic swords peace-tied with rope around their waists.

The Hillers spent most of the day at the festival, slack-jawed. They ate turkey legs, rode rides and gawked at women in tall, cone-shaped hats and heavy brocade gowns. Hiller said it was one of the best days of their lives. And then, for a while, he forgot all about it.

A university professor by training, Hiller’s father had landed a gig as a higher-up with the Veterans Association in New York City. After Jeff was born, he asked to be transferred to the first hospital in a city with a population under 50,000. He landed in the city in northeast Oklahoma called Muskogee, named for the Creeks that relocated there after Indian Removal. He didn’t stay with the VA for long, opening instead a side-by-side convenience and liquor store operation near the railroad tracks north of town. One summer, he got the idea to set up a card table and use it as a place to sell fireworks.

Jeff trained to be a high school teacher, but eventually shunned the public school system to start a Montessori school he named Children’s House. His father’s fireworks business had caught on and was outgrowing the store, so Jeff opened a showroom across the street, using the proceeds as a fundraiser for the school.

“He had five school-age kids then, including me,” said Matt Hiller, Jeff’s son. “He decided it’d be easier to teach them at home, but home schooling wasn’t cool back then. So, he just made a school. It wasn’t long until there was a waiting list to get in.”

Soon even the new space began to strangle the growth of the fireworks business. Hiller made an offer on the Muskogee Elks Lodge, which hit the market downtrodden and empty after chain pubs gained the right to serve alcohol by the drink. Jeff and his children, each of them with a hand in the family business, warehoused the fireworks in the metal building that stood behind the lodge. After vandals sliced through it with shears, Jeff decided he’d let them try their luck on a false facade of concrete blocks.

They grouted and leveled for weeks. When the dust settled, Matt remembers talking to his dad: “Wow. That looks kind of like a castle.”

“And what else could you do with a building that looks like a castle?” he asked me. “You start a Renaissance Faire.”

He’s telling me this from a vinyl-covered metal chair inside the Black Boare Pub, a dark bar in the Castle Keep, the nerve center of the 16-year-old Oklahoma Renaissance Festival. We had entered through a long, dark hallway, The Castle office tucked behind a wooden door at the end. It was open just a crack, and phones rang and a copy machine whirred inside.

Jeff Hiller balked. A dead ringer for a bearded Donald Sutherland, he lounged in his chair, one long leg resting on the knee of the other. He wore a hat that was more Indiana Jones than King Henry VIII, with a braided nylon cord under his chin. He smoothed his eyebrows and grinned. “You’re not supposed to tell her the whole story, Matt. It’s supposed to be magical.”

The sky above the road on Highway 69 into Muskogee is full of billboards pitching antique malls, casinos, hotels with continental breakfasts, the local Applebee’s. On the left are welding supply shops, an RV park; on the right, a joint called The Peach Barn & Orchard, where they sell quilts, fried pies and Amish cheese. The one pitching The Castle precedes them all, suggesting a right at the Muskogee exit from the easement next to a field of cattle.

The second stoplight on the way toward the city limits is at the junction of Fern Mountain Road. On the first Saturday in May, I was there with my foot on the brake, hoping the light wouldn’t turn green before I could double-check my directions. I was in town to catch the first day of the Renaissance Festival, and I was late for the opening ceremony. A woman—the one who answers the phone with, “Good morning, you’ve reached The Castle”—told me there would be singing and the firing of a real-life cannon before they opened the front gates.

I turned right, driving past an unfenced cemetery where the headstones looked like smoothed stray teeth. The street was lined with rundown prairie houses and chain-link fences choked with honeysuckle. I coasted to the back of a line of cars with their right blinkers on, and I eased forward as a man wearing an orange vest and a tricorn hat waved me into a gravel parking lot with a handheld traffic cone. I passed through an iron gate made out of what looked like the spears of knights.

I pulled into a space in front of a white Cavalier with a Jesus vanity plate on its front bumper. A shield-shaped sign at the end of the row said this was the William Rufus section of the parking lot, named for the King of England crowned in 1087. It’s practically the first row in a lot that can hold up to 25,000 cars, from the Normandy and the Plantagenet houses to the fraught dynasties of Lancaster, York, and Tudor, ending with King Henry VIII, where stakes steady newly planted trees and the arterial through the lot curves past the physical plant.

Henry was the star of this show, the world behind a winding wall of cement blocks painted to look like the limestone masonry of a medieval castle. Sprawling through the oak woods beyond was the made-up village of Castleton, in the north riding of Yorkshire. The year was 1539, and today Henry would be making a pit stop here on his way to his palace in London.

A couple stood at the tailgate of the truck I followed in, just a few spaces down from a sign written in that font I’d seen on bottles of Old English furniture polish: Hybrids & Electric Vehicles Plug In Free! He adjusted his kilt and matching stole while she jerked and tugged at her bodice until the laces aligned with her spine; she had him help her straighten a set of three faux fox tails she wore on a leather strap around her hips. He put his hand on the mug that dangled at his waist, checking to make sure it hadn’t fallen to the floorboard or rolled under the truck. The bright red feathers she wore in her black Cavalier hat floated on the only breeze we’d see all day.

She tucked her keys into a pocket hidden in the folds of her overdress, and they headed for the front gate.

In April, a film festival based out of Muskogee’s historic Roxy Theater named Jeff Hiller the winner of its annual visionary award, saying that if he wasn’t a visionary, he was at least extremely visual.

“That meant a lot to me,” Hiller said. “For a long time, Muskogee really didn’t recognize us. I talked to other tourist attractions in the area, to see if we work together, and nothing. It was like beating my head up against a wall.”

Even in the latest print collateral from the Muskogee Chamber, the Oklahoma Renaissance Festival is second banana to some 30,000 azalea plants at Honor Heights Park and a tourism campaign built around Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee. It isn’t listed until No. 11 on the 20 Things To Do While You’re Here list, shuffled in behind grabbing a dog at a place called Chet’s Hot Dog and self-guided scavenger hunts for the 30 hand-painted, eight-foot guitars scattered throughout the city, the pamphlet says, like jewels.

In July, the turkey legs and mugs of ale give way to morning glory sparklers and $300 mega-packs of fireworks as the Castle Keep morphs into the largest retail fireworks operation in Oklahoma. In October is the annual Halloween Festival, a bundle of 10 attractions that offer both carefree and blood-curdling seasonal thrills, directed by Castle volunteers caked in stage makeup and press-on silicon skin lacerations. After Thanksgiving, Castleton lights up with 2,000 displays of lights, 8-foot blow-up Christmas trees, and towering inflatable snow globes. The renfaire alone draws as many as 90,000 through Muskogee each May, more than two times its population. It’s about two-thirds what the azaleas can draw to Honor Heights Park the entire month of April, about a quarter of the crowd that finds its way to Mayfest every year.

Hiller is a believer in history. All Castleton subjects wear hats because, Hiller said, King Henry would have been trying to bolster England’s emerging wool industry in about 1539, with a royal decree that commanded woolen headwear. He doesn’t allow actors in body glitter and strap-on tulle fairy wings outside of the Enchanted Boardwalk area of the festival grounds, and the 130 vendors at the Oklahoma Renaissance Festival are prohibited from using plastic bins and cell phones. At the same time, Hiller says, who knows—maybe there were belly dancers in the gypsy camps along the Thames, a Jewish community in Tudor England that sold falafel from roadside stands, and New World explorers who not only survived an expedition to Australia, but also managed to bring back a didgeridoo.

“We don’t get too tied up with the history if it gets in the way of having a good time,” Hiller said.

He travels four months out of the year, meandering through renfaires in the U.S. and around the world. Like a magpie, he brings back pieces of buildings and costumes and performances he finds abroad, crazy-quilting them together to create a place where it feels strange to wear blue jeans and rude not to bow when an actor dressed as a noble saunters past.

After 16 years, Hiller still doesn’t know what it costs to run the festival. After touring the country and living for years off of a backyard garden and turkeys and chickens he raised himself, building a castle and hiring hundreds of people to sing and dance and dress up like pirates, ghosts of 16th-century harems, and members of the British court didn’t seem like a risk.

“We just want to make sure to meet our bills,” Hiller said. “We don’t do this for the money.”

Tens of thousands of sheets of paper were stacked on the table behind us. Matt and I had stood over them before his dad had returned from lunch, every piece sorted into a pile, perfectly straight. A cheap ballpoint rested on top of the tallest stack.

“Those are the surveys we ask our patrons to fill out before they leave the festival,” he said. He offered me half of the leftover pasta his daughter had sent with him to work that day before he popped it into the microwave tucked behind the bar. “I think there are about 20,000 of them there. My dad reads every one of them.”

From a wooden picnic table at the Crowne Inn, I saw my couple from the parking lot, their clothes now damp from a spring rain that fell just after the ticket takers opened the teal doors on their stable-like booth. They walked past on Kings Highway as I ate lunch next to a group of thirty-somethings complaining in fake British accents about how they itched under their bodices. On my other side was an older couple in matching Wranglers, the man’s studded with a satellite dish belt buckle. Between bites of pork tenderloin sandwiches on white sesame seed buns, they bickered about which vendor made the best funnel cake.

At noon the Royal Parade ambled toward the Inn, just like it does at that time every day of the Oklahoma Renaissance Festival. A pair of jousters acted as the grand marshals of the parade, leading actors and merchants through the scalloped tracks of their steeds as they broke rank to ruffle the children that lined the road. Vendors hoisted felt banners in purple, red and gold, advertising linen shirts and leather mugs.

Over the course of the past hour, I’d listened as a blacksmith told me about how he found the plans for his 16th-century keep on the Internet, watched a woman with turquoise ribbons braided through her hair glide her chubby fingers over the keys of a cell phone, studied a weekend wench as she hand-tooled a rose into a gleaming strip of leather. I threw away what was left of my bratwurst and sauerkraut and crossed the street to make the next jousting tournament at the outdoor arena, just north of the Castle Keep.

I crossed my arms on the fence between the players and the crowd of spectators, next to a group of teens heckling the tournament announcer. One of them had the beginnings of a mohawk, dyed blue-green on the tips.

Sir Richard, Earl of Staton, was a character who acted as the referee of the joust. The dark knight, Sir Thomas, Baron of Somerset, a full-time professional jouster whose driver’s license would show the name Paul Hoerner, played even dirtier than the crowd had predicted. He attacked his opponent between matches, drawing spouts of Kayro syrup and red dye No. 5 from his torso. Sir Richard intervened. The crowd roared, and someone behind me shouted, “Huzzah!”

“It was this nansypansy sort of joust with rules,” Sir Thomas said. “I prefer an open field where all weapons are fair game, and we fight to first blood. But they want us to compete by chivalry and honor and blah, blah blah, blah blah.”

In school, Hoerner was bored by history. To him it was just a bunch of numbers and dates and names, ripped from context. He knew there were great stories waiting to be told, and he figured that if he put on a metal helmet and wielded a really big stick from the back of a horse that he’d get people’s attention.

The U.S. renfaire as it exists in more than 220 cities and towns across the country emerged in the mid-sixties on the west coast, where several cropped up in the San Francisco area within just a few years. The major festivals—Sterling and Rochester on the east coast, L.A. on the west and Texas in the south—hire Broadway stock to provide drama and entertainment. Most of the players in the Renaissance Festival in Muskogee have never earned a theatre degree—they spent their afternoons in junior high on Atari tournaments instead of voice lessons. After a month-long training session and research paper assignments on everything from fashion to British dialect, they’re the ones who survive to throw swords in the Human Chess Game at the Oklahoma festival, to head up the Scottish belly dance contest, to roam the streets of the village, heckling and pestering patrons. There are about 600 of them each year.

King Henry VIII, a man known more for his thirst for separating church from state and women from their heads than for his humanist education and gifts for music and writing, reigns at the Renaissance Festival in Muskogee. There he’s between brides, having lost Queen Jane after the birth of Prince Edward and not yet bound by negotiations with the Lutherans in Germany to marry Anne of Cleves. He sits at the head of the table at the King’s Feaste, a lunch at The Castle studded with the stars of mid-16th century London, where diners drink from cups that look like golden goblets encrusted with jewels. He sits in a throne when he knights children in the castle ballroom, a darkened space squeezed between wood tile flooring, spray insulation and rows of metal chairs upholstered in wine-colored vinyl.

The king travels the dusty streets of Castleton under guard, protected by a pair of men in black carrying spears rather than microphones in their sleeves. When he speaks, it’s from the bottom of his belly, and his salt-and-pepper beard, trimmed closely to his round face, frames a broad, cupid-lipped smile. The King is played by John Auld, a man who sells motors when he’s not donning royal raiment embroidered with faux pearls and rubies.

“Coca Cola? That must be some type of ale. And french fries?” His face turned grave as he pretended to misunderstand what I meant when I asked about the food I’d eaten for lunch that day at the festival. “Young woman,” he said, “due to the most recent diplomatic treaties, we don’t fry the French anymore.”

In the middle of a glossy program for sale at the front gate is a schedule of events that fill the stages, streets, and dining halls from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day during the festival. It looks sort of like a treasure map, and it’s crammed. The entertainment available is nothing revolutionary: just about every Renaissance festival has a falconry demonstration, a troupe of laundry lasses, and torture chamber tours. Hiller’s touch is in the details: How kids have to earn credits by signing a promise of good behavior in order to play the games in the Children’s Forest, or when an actor ditches the stage to tap you on the shoulder, saying that your child would fetch an excellent price in the pirate powder monkey trade. Someone from Braxton, England, attended the festival that opening weekend, reporting on his survey that it was all quite authentic, except that there were no meat pies.

A booming voice from the speakers set on either side of the arena trumpeter announced that a re-match between Sir Thomas and Sir Richard would take place that afternoon, when the two competitors would joust to the death. Presiding would be King Henry VIII himself, who’d pass on the Bedlam Bards Pub Sing and  performances by Lord Mayor’s Company and Bob the Juggler to watch the fight.

Sir Thomas seemed pleased. He shouted at the crowd, grinning: “I will bleed Sir Richard dry, cut off his head and drink his blood from his hollowed skull.”

A little girl on the wooden bleachers nearby seemed oblivious, busy with her cinnamon-roasted almonds and a drink in a small, waxed cup.

Rick Staton and his wife, Stacey, leave their 50-acre ranch and coffee and chocolate bar in historic downtown Guthrie for weeks on end to perform at Renaissance festivals, sometimes as many as 10 in a year. Rick, a retired motorcycle cop, joined the Southlake, Texas-based jousting company Noble Cause Productions 15 years ago. The group was voted the best jousting company in the country in the most recent Renaissance Festival Awards, a contest hosted by the industry publication Renaissance Magazine.

Staton hauls his own joust horse and, with one foot on a bench just outside the jousting arena, he lets it slip that he makes his own costumes. “I can sew,” he said. He winked at a mother and her daughter sitting behind us. “Don’t tell anybody else. It’s a big secret.”

Staton has performed in the Muskogee festival for nearly as long as he’s been jousting, partly because it’s close to home, he said, but mostly because it’s one of the top two Renaissance festivals in the country, and half as young. There’s nothing to be seen at the festival that wasn’t planned or premeditated, from the entertainment, to the walking maze that changes each year, to the thatch-roof huts where kids can buy potions in tiny glass bottles that smell like patchouli, or hand-drawn portraits stuck somewhere between Japanese anime and Prince Charming. Spending time with his fellow actors and the vendors and management feels like home, Staton said, like family.

“I like the time period—the horses, the costuming, the pageantry of it all,” Staton said. He had taken me to the stables where the joust horses were cooling down. Sir Thomas was walking his horse, a buckskin whose coat was damp and darkened with sweat where her saddle and costume had covered her skin. “There were no guns, no gun powder. The longest thing you had was a bow. You had someone who was your foe, you had to see them to fight them.”

Hiller goes to sit in the gray on the festival grounds before sunrise every morning, on the wooden planks of the Enchanted Boardwalk, while the birds start to sing. He’s surrounded by trees there. He plants at least 100 on the festival grounds and in the parking lot each year.

“I try to see, where could this metamorph? Where could it go next?” Hiller said. “For no other reason than that it’s fun to do. I just like to do it.”

Hiller wears a full costume at the festival, topped with a royal blue crushed velvet beret. He doesn’t attempt a British accent—“It’s terrible, I’m horrible at it,” he said—and he doesn’t carry a radio like the rest of management. A medallion that he pins to his chest says Jeff Hiller, Castle Steward, and he’s known more readily by that title amongst his actors and staff than by his own name.

“Matt has mostly taken over the running of this thing,” Hiller said. “It’s great for me, because this is just too good a show to miss.” I found a bench on my way back to the front gate where I could stop and tap the dust out of my shoes. I watched as a man in suede lace-up boots joined with a belly dancer whose wrist was dripping with fake silver coins, a man wearing a point-and-shoot camera around his neck, boys in blue jeans and t-shirts and girls in homemade princess dresses perform a Maypole dance.

I played along as a woman playing Lady Grace Parker, lady in attendance to Anne of Cleves, quizzed me about my camera and showed me her rings, eight of them in all. A man dressed as a pauper bounded over and gossiped with us, joking that there were rumors about how Lady Grace had earned her baubles.

“You know what’s special about this place? It’s like the Land of the Lost Toys,” he said. “These people may not belong anywhere else, but they belong here just fine.”

A man who looked like he’d just stepped off the set of Braveheart explained how to weave between in front of or behind the next person to braid their ribbons, attached to the top of the pole on one end and clutched in their hands on the other. Musicians hiding from the sun played bagpipes from under the shade of the treeline, notes from a faraway place and time playing against a backdrop of glowing green forest, semi-trucks on the Muskogee Turnpike humming beyond.