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San Francisco Victorians 

At the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, 'tis always the season for historical fidelity

Wednesday, Dec 27 2000
As a band of 15 leather-clad bikers roars into the Cow Palace parking lot, a pale young man in a dark velvet tail coat and starched collar gingerly steps up to the entrance of the monolithic cement bunker. Immediately, he is swallowed by a torrent of motorcycle riders -- large men with garrulous laughs and big black boots and ruddy-faced women in tight T-shirts and tighter black Levi's. The bikers slap each other on the back and pull out wallets anchored by thick chains attached to their belt loops. The young man, a 23-year-old theater student named John Moynihan, gives the security guard a bewildered, beseeching glance.

"You must be looking for the Christmas Fair," offers a kindly Cow Palace employee, pulling the young man from the line. "This, here, is the Harley-Davidson swap meet. Go back the way you came and down the hill." Moynihan smiles gratefully and darts away from the crowd just as a middle-aged woman with bleached-blond hair and a large eagle pendant around her neck shouts, "Have a good Christmas, kid!"

Down the hill, Moynihan finds visible comfort in the sight of an elegantly dressed couple -- she in an ankle-length red velvet gown and fingerless black gloves and he wearing a soft gray felt top hat with corresponding long coat and cane -- winding their way through a line of waiting automobiles to the entrance of the 22nd annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair. Inside the sprawling lower building, which appears dwarfed next to the Cow Palace's main hall, Moynihan and the couple are guided into a small, bustling town -- complete with street names, public squares, and no less than 50 ornate buildings -- that has been erected to serve as a Victorian community for four weekends.

Off the main concourse, scenes from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol are being performed in the center of Fezziwig's Dance Hall. The smell of sawdust, covering the cement floors, mingles with that of pine from huge garlands strung across the rafters. Ladies and gents dressed in the height of fashion from the 1800s circulate among matchbox girls and threadbare street urchins, as bartenders from the Pickiwick Club ply eggnog, hot toddies, and ale to passers-by. While a few people dressed inappropriately in modern-day clothes wander through the sizable crowd, they do little to dilute the atmosphere. The attention to detail is meticulous. The books being sold in a delightful corner shop with a steepled rooftop, by Arkadyan Victorian Books & Prints, are penned by period authors -- Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, William M. Thackeray, and Mark Twain. The articles of clothing proffered by Dark Garden, Madame Louise's Fashion Accessories, Greentree Weaving, and Miss Darla's Dolls Gone Wrong are Victorian in mien: corsets, gloves, bonnets, hand-woven shawls and capes, undergarments, top hats, and canes. Even the food is in keeping with Victorian London: bangers, hot chestnuts, fish and chips, cucumber tea sandwiches, roast beef, and scones.

Down Bell Ringer's Row, "the deserving poor" beg for alms and offer Christmas music on tenpenny whistle and concertina, while teenagers learn fencing at the Corinthian Rose Sporting Club, just near the village Christmas tree on Tinsley Green. At the Griffin and Thistle Social Club, "members" sit at lace-covered tables under paintings in gilt frames while across the way, at the Green Man Inn, commoners are regaled with the emerging theories of Charles Darwin between classical insinuations of Felix Mendelssohn played on the piano.

The Dickens Fair was created in 1970 by Ron and Phyllis Patterson, a Hollywood art director and a drama/English teacher who had also begun what was to evolve into the nationally renowned Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Wanting a wintertime outlet for the vast array of talent -- actors, historical re-creationists, carpenters, seamstresses, and teachers -- amassed by the Renaissance Faire, the Pattersons chose Victorian England, an equally rich historical period that was witness to the first typewriter, the first Christmas card, the first toy rubber balloon, and the first Tannenbaum (a Christmas tree brought to Queen Victoria from Germany by her husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha).

In those early days of the Dickens Fair, held in the old San Francisco Anchor Works, "chimney sweeps" would climb out onto the four-story rooftop of the warehouse and lower themselves through hatches in the roof singing Christmas carols, while the Pattersons' son Kevin, then 10 years old, would work the crowd as a pickpocket, taking the pilfered wallets to the stage where they were returned to their owners after some ridicule.

As workshops and rehearsals were held year round in preparation for the fairs, Kevin Patterson essentially grew up in the mock villages and communities built by his parents, coming to regard the history buffs and thespians as his extended family, and, eventually, meeting his future wife at a horse tourney thrown by his folks. When his parents retired, it was only natural that Kevin and Leslie Patterson take over the family business, and carry on the scrupulous tradition.

From inside the Cat and Bull Gaming Parlor, Kevin and Leslie Patterson look out over Nickleby Road, where a row has erupted between a tousled strumpet and her brutish panderer.

"The entire event is stage managed," says Kevin Patterson with pride. "There are over 400 performers and 200 vendors here. The vendors have to provide quality wares in keeping with the era. Their employees have to attend workshops beforehand and wear period attire. Everyone must speak in cockney or highbrow English accents. Some of the groups have been with us for years and still hold rehearsals all year."

Such as Mad Sal, the publican of Mad Sal's Dockside Alehouse, a character who has been with the fair for nearly two decades. For most of the year, Mad Sal is East Bay educational administrator Robin Drisckill, but here she runs the lewdest saloon in town. The entertainments offered on her stage are worth the entire price of admission to the fair: the bawdy Ladies of the Oratorical and Recreational Society; the scandalous, authentic sing-alongs taught during the Cheapside Music Hall Christmas Extravaganza; the leggy Can-Can Bijou; and the coarse shanties of Paddy West's "Songs of the Seven Seas," among others.

"This is history brought to life," says Kevin Patterson. "It's a really large, wonderful, talented family that makes this town real."

On Mincing Lane, the village undertaker, Mr. Soursberry, accosts pedestrians, taking their measurements for coffins. He carries the custom "calling cards" prepared for all citizens at the local printers. At the Adventurer's Club on Grenadier's Gate, generals, freshly returned from the "great mutiny" in India, discuss world affairs, pacing the room amid ocean charts, globes, ceremonial swords, and stuffed animal heads. At Miss Twinkleton's School for Proper Learning and Deportment, I find John Moynihan taking instruction "peculiar to young ladies." I watch folks send messages to their lovers across town at the Central London Telegraph Company, and witness morris, or bell, dancing at Jingles Gate.

Finding a vacant chair at the Pennygaff Stage, where a Punch and Judy Show is under way, I collapse.

"It's difficult to stuff a lifetime of Victorian living into one afternoon, isn't it?" comments a young lady cooling herself with an elegant fan from the Orient.

I couldn't agree more.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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