The Complete History of Renn Fayre Part II: 1978-1990

Renn Fayre is big. Despite the fact that it’s a celebration of our pointy-headed intellectualism and our deviant lifestyles, it’s undeniably big and extravagant, and — dare I say it? — even quintessentially American in its celebration of excess. That bigness dates back to the ’80s, of course, when everything was big and America was booming. In the second decade of Renn Fayre’s existence it expanded in scope, scale and debauchery, attracting new degrees of local notoriety, to the point where RF1990 as captured on film is very recognizable today. It was the ’70s that gave us Renn Fayre, but it was the Eighties that got us to where we are now.

Toys may not seem essential to the everyday traveler, but believe me, to the Ren Fayre Explorer, they are mother’s milk. I always carry a bright pink pig myself but any number of other options are also available...
— "Pigbitch S. Thompson", The Ren-Fayre Quest and Herald of Christ's Kingdom (1982)
There will be a skydive in the afternoon. No one has come to see me about this. Last year the students provided there [sic] own security for this event. They may call you to help if they have any problems with anyone.
— Bill Curtin, Community Safety Director, April 1989
...which is kind of strange, because while it tries to be so unique, it also tries to be a tradition for Reed College — one of the few things that [keeps Reed] in touch with something that’s been going on for a long time, although Renn Fayre hasn’t really been going on that long...”
— "Give Up Steam", filmed during Renn Fayre 1990

Although the mythology in your Student Body Handbook will tell you the festival was canceled for a few years in the early ’80s and only returned after a mishap involving Reed Arts Week, a tasteless circus troupe, and a very irate little trustee, that doesn’t actually appear to be true. Our annual catharsis persisted and grew every year. As it became institutionalized, its student organizers took steps to ensure everyone’s safety; it was no longer an old-timey crafts market and things needed to be done differently. (It’s symbolically significant that by 1990, nobody called it the Renaissance Fayre anymore.) Karma Patrol was founded in the ’80s, as was a Beer Security team, entrusted with keeping the Cleveland High School kids away from the kegs. The administration, far smaller in those days, mostly confined itself to preventing property damage, trusting students to look after each other.

Other new traditions introduced during the ’80s include the golf ball drop, the Glow Opera, and the formal foundation of the Meatsmoke Crew. The end of the decade saw the first appearance of the megalithic art projects that now transform campus every year.

An Autonomous Party: Karma and Explosions

In the Renn Fayre documents box in Reed’s archive, there are two folders, one simply marked “RF” and one marked “More Sensitive — 1968–1990.” The latter contains mostly liquor licenses and fireworks permits, yet interspersed between these forgotten forms are internal administrative memoranda that provide perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the differences between Olde and Nü Reed one can find. Student Services and Community Safety both took an extremely hands-off role during the preparation for Renn Fayre, trusting students, by and large, to look after themselves.

With a few exceptions, Reed students rose to that challenge.

During the ’80s the party was planned, as it is now, by a group of student volunteers (not yet referred to as czars). Yet it appears as though there was no “Renn Fayre Committee” or institutional forum for the Renn Fayre Board to check in with members of the administration. Meetings between the Board and the small Student Services office did happen, mostly to plan things such as the fireworks, which needed legally binding signatures, but the specifics of the rest of the weekend were left up to the students. Just about the only thing that Director of Community Safety Bill Curtin (1987–91) ordered his officers to prevent was people climbing on the roof of Eliot Hall — apparently an illicit Thesis Parade tradition for several years. Memoranda from Curtin and from Dean of Student Services Regina Mooney are full of hints that they had not been in the loop on fairly large elements of the party (“We have no permit and as far as I know there is no wood for a bonfire. . .”) and laid-back suggestions that someone amble over there when the event was scheduled to happen to make sure nobody was bleeding.

That blasé attitude prevails in all the administrative documents save the ones that concern property damage and theft. The physical plant of the college took a heavy beating over the course of the Huge Party back in the day, and administrators prioritized that accordingly. RF1984, for example, cost maintenance $8,100 in today’s dollars, and so instead of any safety concerns, Mooney’s first memo to the next year’s Renn Fayre Board emphasized ensuring that such a “senseless waste of money by a few inconsiderate people” would not happen again. (Of course, it did.)

Yet before you condemn the administration of years past as a bunch of heartless materialists: all aftermath reports do seem to indicate that Reedies are really good at looking after each other’s health and safety when given autonomy. (It’s almost as though we’re a bunch of adults!) Things went “without incident” on the safety front most years — just like they did last year at RF2K15, when we had no hospitalizations. Increasing administrative involvement in Renn Fayre has not necessarily made anyone safer. It must be said, though, that it probably has helped cut down on the property damage. (See next issue for more on that.)

The low rates of injury, overdose, etc. are likely owed in part to the development of Karma Patrol over the course of the decade. It’s unclear exactly how the group originated; Karma has not kept any internal records. Last year’s Karma Guru Mo Hicks ’16 points out “lowkey one of the biggest Renn Fayre problems [...] no one writes things down, or if they do get written down, Christ knows where we stick it.” What seems to have happened, however, is that Karma evolved out of, or in tandem with, Toy Patrol at some point in the early ’80s. Toy Patrol was a group of volunteers who wandered the Fayre distributing fun gadgets to people in altered states and ensuring that nobody was having a breakdown or a bad trip. While a nice addition to the party, that model was definitely not enough. Karma was explicitly more focused on resolving bad situations. According to the 1988 post-Fayre Karma report by leader Littlejohn Keogh ’90, there were around twenty-five volunteers, each equipped with “vitamin ‘come-me-down’ packages, a ‘ying-yang’ badge, and the burden of too much responsibility.” There were no bagels or water yet, and procedure when a first aid situation arose was just to call 911, but the creation of Karma was a huge improvement and just by being alert its members managed to defuse many a danger.

The autonomy of Renn Fayre was such an established fact that during the only really serious emergency I came across in the archives, students were more furious at the administration’s overreaction than at the stupid behavior that created the problem in the first place.

During RF1984, at the midnight social in the old Commons — a rough equivalent to the Midnight Surprise today — a group of chemistry majors were entertaining the crowd with some pyrotechnics. Jim Quinn ’83 recalls that they were cutting out long lines of a powdered chemical called acetone peroxide, “very easy to make and very volatile,” and tossing matches at them to create miniature explosions. The display was cut short by rumors that the Fire Marshal, who had been patrolling campus, was coming to put a stop to it. Those responsible quickly began scraping all the acetone peroxide into a glass jar to put it away, but the contents of the jar were ignited by the friction and the whole thing blew up. Six people wound up in the hospital with glass shrapnel injuries.

After the casualties had been evacuated, according to William Abernathy ’88, “they started the music back up, and nice and slow got people back into a good mood. Then Paula Rooney showed up.” The dean informed everyone that the rest of Renn Fayre was canceled. The reaction was a near riot — Quinn recalls cries that “The people who were injured wouldn’t want the party to stop!” Rooney eventually stood down, but the incident permanently soured relations between her and the student body and eventually she was essentially run out of town by a sustained campaign of slanderous rumors and bitter Quest editorials. (Students joked, for instance, that the chip on her front tooth had come from the kickback of a rifle at Kent State.)

The whole situation remains a bit of an embarrassment — a blot on several decades’ worth of self-sufficient partying. Yes, the students redeemed themselves by solving their own emergency, getting everyone to the hospital safely and restoring order. But the vitriol against Rooney for her well-intentioned attempt to take control of a crisis became truly jejune and cruel. In her notes for the next year’s Renn Fayre, Rooney noted that it would be a good idea to “institutionalize memory of the explosion,” and she’s certainly correct. Yet, we should remember it not so much as a warning not to play around with acetone peroxide, but more as a warning that even apparent foes of student autonomy are still members of the community and are usually doing what they think is right. The Honor Principle applies to our interactions with administrators, too, and one can oppose the rachet without stooping to personal attacks.


Traditions, New and Old

One of the interviewees in Daniel Levin’s documentary film covering RF1990, Give Up Steam, sums up perfectly the process by which Reed’s short institutional memory rapidly births traditions. “Students will start grasping onto something that happens at Renn Fayre, just some goofy event […] This Glow Opera. It’s a year old, already it’s become a distinctive tradition that’s essential for the Renn Fayre.” New traditions appear every year here at Reed, and the years of Renn Fayre’s second decade were no exception. The Glow Opera, founded in 1989, became one of the decade’s most enduring traditions, but it was not alone.

As discussed in the Quest two weeks ago, the Meatsmoke Crew dates its official founding to 1982. The student-alumni organization then held its “primeval feasts” of smoked beast near the old swimming pool in the Canyon, meaning hungry feastgoers had to descend through the forest to “Camp Bloodye Speare by the Babbling Brooke” for meat, merriment and fire — doubtless more atmospheric than crossing the east parking lot. It took Reed another fifteen years or so to realize that the canyon was a prospective salmon hatchery and that having a swimming pool and lots of foot traffic down there wasn’t a good idea. Meatsmoke has, however, retained the pirate iconography in their new spot.

As today, there were bands performing around campus all day from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening, and each night there was a “social” dance party in the SU or the old Commons building. The human chess game, a relic of the first Renaissance Faire, was played every year like other Faire games like “Clench a Wench, French a Mensch.” Even as the festival drifted farther away from its roots, jousting and sword fights on the lawn returned. By the ’90s, however, they had been left in the dust and the jousting was replaced by the tall-bike jousting we know today.

Big adventure activities such as hot air balloon rides and skydiving onto the Front Lawn were regular features of ’80s Renn Fayres. Passengers for either were decided by lottery, a bit like Gray Fund trips. These have largely dropped off the agenda since, in favor of student-run activities that are open to everybody at once. If anyone wants to get them back again, they ought to be prepared for a slog — they required a lot of legal paperwork for the Renn Fayre Board and the administration. Students would also occasionally rent a Ferris wheel, which sounds like a lot more fun for a lot more people.

The Wild Turkey Softball Tournament continued, and was renamed the William T. Lankford Memorial Softball Tournament after Lankford, a beloved English and Humanities professor and a Renn Fayre softball star, died in 1983. The prize remained a bottle of Wild Turkey, which was apparently Reedies’ favorite liquor back in the day. It also played a starring role in the annual Renn Fayre treasure hunt. The exact rules changed from year to year, but generally the Renn Fayre Quest would include an elaborate series of interdisciplinary questions, each of which could be answered with a number (these ranged from the number of pilgrims in Chaucer to molecular weights to “the number of e’s on a new Camel Filters pack”). Those numbers were added and subtracted to each other to arrive at a mailstop number, and contestants then had to track down the owner of the mailstop during the chaos of Renn Fayre to find out the locations of the prizes — which always included Wild Turkey and occasionally included other goodies such as concert tickets or LSD. This ultimate final exam richly deserves a resuscitation this year!

RF1990 and Renn Fayre Art

In 1990, Van Havig ’92, now the proprietor of Gigantic Brewing, and Ru Russell ’96 decided to decorate the then-new library entrance for Thesis Parade. The idea was so obvious but so brilliant that it’s stuck for every Renn Fayre since.

So have the interactive art projects — which are now such a part of Renn Fayre that one of our czars this year is the dedicated Project Manager (you’re doing great, Arlo!). What constitutes a Renn Fayre project is kind of hard to define, but you know one when you see one, and the Guerrilla Theater of the Absurd’s “Sculpture of Canine Edible Art” for RF1990 definitely was one. “We felt that dogs have been left out of Renn Fayre for a long time,” Guerrilla Theater founder Igor Vamos ’90, then at the start of his prank career, explains in Give Up Steam as the camera pans over a huge sculpture of dangling ribs. “We felt they deserved another chance this year.” It took a few minutes for the dogs to start appreciating their art, but pretty soon they were chewing away on their own piece of Renn Fayre.

Find the rest of the story in the next edition of The Grail, where we will tackle the end of free beer, birth of the lodges and the yearly themes, and the infamous Renn Fayre 2000.