(Editor's note: The names of "rennies" have been changed to protect their jobs.)
Every spring, when the rolling hills of Larkspur blush bright green, they return. Gypsies and hippies, with long hair and beards, wearing scarves and skirts, well-worn jeans and T-shirts, bandanas and hand-crafted jewelry, their cars stuffed with their worldly belongings. They come from all parts of the country and congregate here, next to the medieval castle.
This is where the magic happens, and these are the people who bring it. It's been this way for 32 years.
The Colorado Renaissance Festival is one of many across the country that together have made possible a modern-day gypsy lifestyle. The workers travel the country, fair to fair, scraping out an often-meager living, staying in tents and forming close bonds with their fellow "rennies," who make up an extended family. They raise kids on the road. And, of course, day after day, they don costumes of the 16th century and get to work.
Some are actors. Others are craftsmen or animal trainers. Some just work in booths selling old-fashioned wares or cooking turkey legs.
But this year is different. Jim Paradise Sr., the Renaissance Festival owner, has already turned away two regular workers, citing their appearance. Paradise also has expressed interest in hiring fewer rennies.
"We would like to become more local," Jim Paradise Jr. (the owner's son) says, noting he wants the festival be cleaner, more "family-friendly" and, obviously, more profitable.
The rennies say they know what spurred their boss to action.
"He's trying to clean up his image, because it's been tarnished," says John.
John says in the past, some workers have shown up drunk. But those workers are long gone, he says, and the rennies were happy to see them go. Now, John says, the rennies are being unfairly judged as a group based on the actions of a few. They're terrified they'll lose the jobs they've come to depend on. And if this fair no longer wants them, what's stopping other fairs from kicking them out too, and ending the lifestyle they've carved out?
"This is my family; this is all I have," says one rennie, Blue.
The rennies say they face rejection because of their beards and hair, the way they smell, and dreadlocks, which some maintain due to Rastafarian religious beliefs. Losing a job can be hard for rennies who spend nearly all their money going to the next festival, expecting a paycheck soon. With no job, they may not be able to afford gas to leave town.
Jim Paradise Jr. says he has the right to operate his festival, which runs on weekends from June 14 to Aug. 3, however he sees fit. He gets plenty of applications from locals, and he thinks hiring them might help the business grow through word of mouth. He also thinks festival-goers would enjoy seeing more local musicians and entertainers with "ownership" in the event. He says he'll retain traveling artisans and those with unusual skills, like animal trainers.
Most rennies are not technically Paradise's employees. They work for booth owners who sign contracts to operate at the festival. But Paradise does exercise control over who can work in those booths. Festival rules address everything from pets to camping to what can be sold and what workers can wear. Paradise says he has to control employees' appearance to create an accurate portrayal of the medieval period.
"We are a 16th century event, so I can't have somebody standing there working wearing sunglasses and listening to an iPod," the younger Paradise says.
But workers counter that there's nothing out of the ordinary at least to the 16th century about their appearance. The No. 1 pirate in America has dreads, they point out. (Cave dwellers: That's Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean.) Besides, the rennies say people come to see them because of their eccentricities.
"People want to get a little taste of the gypsy magic to take home with them," Laurie says.
Something for everyone
Overall, rennies say they have a symbiotic relationship with the fair. Festival organizers get reliable, trained workers. Visitors get an experience. Rennies get to live a nomadic life with their families, a life for which many have left good blue and white collar jobs. And Larkspur, they say, gets a nice economic boost without any trouble.
"What do we require of this society?" David says, gesturing at the town around him. "A good road in and a good road out."
This, at least, appears to be true.
Douglas County Sheriff spokesman Chad Teller says he couldn't find any run-ins with festival workers in his records, and he characterized law enforcement's relationship with the rennies as "pretty good." Matt Krimmer, Larkspur's city clerk, said last year's festival brought in almost $300,000 in tax revenue and boosted local business profits by 20 to 30 percent. Sherilyn West, Larkspur's mayor, says the festival accounts for about 67 percent of the town's general operating income.
Dave and Pam Palm, owners of Larkspur Pizzaria and Caf, say the festival boosts sales every year, mostly due to the rennies coming in for a bite to eat. Susan Montgomery, owner of Spruce Mountain Liquor, echoes the claim.
The rennies are hoping the town's people, who appreciate their business, might stand up for them.
"We're the ones who support the community around here," Blue says. "We need to know that the community around here wants us here."
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