Photography by Greg Autry c 2013
Additional Photos may be seen at Greg Autry Art & Photo on Facebook
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair is a holiday tradition in Northern California, taking you back and putting you right in ole Victorian London. The first thing I noticed was the smell of candied Almonds and Roasting Chestnuts. You will find a bustling City, with street vendors, music halls, pubs, and lots and lots of shops to find your every Christmas wish.
The winding lanes are awash in colorful characters and shady ones as well. The Street Lamps twinkle in Golden Light, and the sounds of a City during Holiday are hard not become enthralled with.
Last year at the Northern California Renaissance Fair, I was talking with my friend Rebecca Love about Art and the myriad of Art Events everywhere. She mentioned The Great Christmas Dickens Fair and said it was her best event every year, in both Sales, and just overall fun. Rebecca told me it was very "Special".
As Christmas rolled around last year we went up North to see family over the Holidays. My wife Sandy asked me if I wanted to go to the Dickens Fair. I remembered Rebecca mentioning it and said sure lets go. Sandy told me it was like a Renaissance Fair, only it was as if you were in London for Christmas, during Charles Dickens' time. We went last year, and I was hooked.
So this year as Sandy and I planned our Thanksgiving weekend travels, first and foremost were our plans to go to the Dickens Fair. It is held at The Cow Palace, which is in Daly City, just South of San Francisco. Except for a few years, it's been held here since 1970.
Officially known as, The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, running this year from November 23rd through December 22nd. And Billed as the 35th Annual Victorian and Holiday Party. It is a party indeed. And I'm told by those in the know, that the last two weekends, the party aspect kicks into full gear. Ticket prices are about $ 30.00 for adults, and $ 12.00 for kids. There are of course various promotions and passes available, and Parking is ten bucks.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to Interview Kevin Patterson, the Executive Director of Red Barn Productions, who produces the Fair every year. I go to a lot of events and wanted to ask Kevin what made the Dickens Fair so special.
Kevin told me that it was his parents who started The Great Dickens Christmas Fair. Ron and Phyllis Patterson, started the Dickens Fair in 1970, after having started the Renaissance Faire's in Agoura California years earlier. His Dad Ron had been and Art Director, and his Mom Phyllis had been a History Teacher. They had started the "Renn Faires" as a part of a children's theatre group. When the group needed a larger space for their theatrical productions, they rented a Park in Agoura, had a local radio station help sponsor it, and thus was born what is now several worldwide Events, all loosely called "Renaissance Faires". The Patterson family also ran the Renaissance Pleasure Faire at Black Point in Marin County (California) for 25 years.
The Patterson's only run The Great Dickens Christmas Fair now.
THE GREAT DICKENS CHRISTMAS FAIR is simply mind boggling. It's a multitude of theater productions, concerts, food vendors, craftsman, singers, dancers, street performers. Kevin stressed what was important was the detail and the authenticity. We are in VICTORIAN ENGLAND he told me. Not Elizabethan, not Edwardian. The Victorian Era spans a period of about 60 years, and all the costumers, all the performers, must confirm to a rigid set of rules. As must the Vendors, who for the most part, must build their own booths each year.
Both Ron and Phyllis Patterson had a flair for the dramatic, for telling stories, and a need for authenticity. Kevin's Mom Phyllis always strived for detail and authenticity is all aspects of their productions. And I remember back in the 70's, how awesome and alive the Renn Faire in Agoura Hills was. Full of energy radiating out of everyone participating and visiting. I got that same good ole feeling at this year's Dickens Fair.
A little detail I noticed was that all the down-lights in the Cow Palace had been gelled to create the ambiance of the period. It did as you can see in my photos. Wow I thought. This is what it's all about. Getting away from the Commercially run big operations, and getting back to family run businesses, where the importance of heritage and being true to your roots is so important. It certainly shows in every aspect of this amazing event.
There is no way to possibly see everything in a day. Or two. But let me give you some of my favorites . When I go back and see new things, meet new people, and have new experiences, there will surely be new favorites.
There are over 700 performers on stages, roaming' the streets, and delightfully always in Character. And remember, almost all of our Christmas traditions here in the United States, were created in that Victorian Era, and immortalized by Charles Dickens himself. The Victorian Era is also known as the Era of Elegance (1837 - 1901)
In no particular order you'll find Entertainment and revelry at many an establishment, such as ; ` MAD SAL'S DOCKSIDE ALE HOUSE' (not a place for the Children I might add), THE DICKENS FAMILY PARLOUR where you can discuss things with the man himself, and the GRAND VICTORIA AND ALBERT BIJOU MUSIC HALL. My suggestion , get there early and go to the Telegraph Office immediately to get your tickets for one of the evenings (2) performance of the SAUCY FRENCH POSTCARD TABLEAUX REVIEW.
I particularly like the French Tableux Review, but was not allowed to photograph the French lovelies inside [for good reason]. Also known as the Naughty French Postcard Show , I do appreciate the female form [ and the naughty humor that went with it] . Once inside, the tics are free. Get there early.
I'd say there are well over a hundred boutiques, places to eat, entertainment venues, and places of merriment. Many people coming to the Fair come in Costume, year after year. Many in Northern California don't consider the holidays to have started, until they come to The Dickens Fair.
And if you don't have a costume, no worries, there be many a place for you to conjure up your new garb for the holidays. I'd suggest stopping by Overstreets for ladies wear of the day. Go by and say hello to Donna at Blythe Spirits if you are in need of some handmade soaps. These are fine soaps, not to be used on the like of street urchins.
If a new corset you require, San Francisco's finest Corsetry can be found right here, at the Dark Garden. As an added little treat at the Dark Garden, you can see what a myriad of the Corsets will look like when on. For the mannequins in the windows, are live models wearing the latest corsetry. Tell the Proprietress Autum Adamme, Greg Autry says hello.
And at Mrs. Piper's Photo Parlour you can get your picture taken in costume. If you don't have a costume, they'll even loan you the costumes, for the pictures. Mrs. Alwyn L'hoir is the Owner, and the Lady behind the Camera. I watched with great pleasure as she did a costume shoot with over 20 people and pulled it off flawlessly. She's a Pro.
Should you require your fiddle or violin repaired, go see Stephen Jones, this is his first year here at the Dickens Fair. For Books of a certain Vintage, see Gerald Webb at the Fitz-Gerald Manor Shop, who has been a vendor at the Dickens Fair for 35 years. For the fanciest hats you have ever dreamed of ladies, you must go see Antonella Catalano at Piuma Mia.
And if you are feeling artsy and creative you can have a ceramic artist sculpt you body, or do a casting of your face. Rebecca Love (yes, my friend since the days of our first Faires) is a `Ceramic Paintress'. For those who painted on Ceramic were know as "Paintresses" in the Victorian Era. I personally own three of Rebecca's pieces.
And should you require a little quenching of thirst you can't go wrong at Mad Sals. There is entertainment and yes, you will dodge a few working ladies and some street people. Should you require a "higher class" establishment, my favorite place to go is THE BOHEMIAN. Serving all types of drink, but especially known for its Absinthe . Ask for the luscious Rachel, she is the 'Professor of Alcohology'. And never mind that everyone around you looks very green. It's ok, you do too !
I would be remiss if I failed to warn you about wandering down alleys into London Docks. At the far end you'll find Fagin's Den, with a lowly bunch of characters. Careful you hold onto your change purse, as well as you dignity.
Two ladies of the night approached me near Fagin's Den, and were so wonderful in assisting me with all my "needs". `Bet' played by Francis Lopez , and `Nancy' played by Mary Ann Butler. They pointed out many a skull drudgery going on, and told me of all the naughtiest places I should not go to !
I want to thank Kevin Patterson, the Patterson family, and all those hundreds of people whom it takes to produce such a magnificent event. I'm a new fan and patron, and I'll definitely be back. Again and Again.