The Complete History of Renn Fayre Part IV: 2000-2008

“Renn Fayre should be the festival of Dionysus, not a real-life reenactment of The Bacchae.”

The Quest, December 5, 2000

“Everybody understood immediately that, oh shit, this is in danger of not continuing unless we get our act together. With that knowledge, people started acting accordingly.

— Gordon Feighner ’02, Renn Fayre Czar in 2001

We ended our last chapter on a cliffhanger: just as the modern accoutrements of Renn Fayre were beginning to appear, just after the festival had cleared its quarter-century mark, it was thrown into jeopardy by a bunch of dumb vandalism. Of course, you know what happened. Renn Fayre survived. It was saved through both an official community renovation process and a renewed sense of responsibility among all the Fayre’s attendees. Ultimately, the damage report from RF2K1 consisted only of $250 in lawn damage and one person hospitalized for appendicitis.

The only sour note was when the seniors who turned in their theses were issued paddle-balls instead of laurels. The registrar’s office had been giving out “gag gifts” for years, but the laurels they had awarded in 2000 had truly meant something, as furious graduates soon made clear. It’s been the golden crowns ever since.

Renn Fayre Resuscitation

The $15,517.77 damage bill was published in the Quest at the start of the 2000–2001 school year. The itemized list included thousands of dollars each of graffiti removal and glass replacement, a urinal partition torn from a wall, vandalism of a Phys Plant truck and of the beer distributors’ van, and stolen electrical equipment. There were a few token attempts at justification: an editorial the next week attempted to explain away almost all of the Renn Fayre damages and every single cost, implying that it was all circumstantial, a regular weekend’s worth of mess. According to maintenance themselves, that was completely bogus. “It used to take us four hours to clean up,” Gloria Torbeck, Reed’s maintenance supervisor at the time, informed the student body. “Now it takes two days of overtime. The staff doesn’t even have time to clean the bathrooms.”

By and large, however, everyone knew that the situation was serious. It became even more so in December, when the Board of Trustees ordered then-President Steven Koblik to “pursue compliance with the law as it pertains to the issues surrounding Renn Fayre and report back to the board in February 2001.” The author of the article noted that this had been the first time that the board had asked anything of Koblik. In his message to the students, Koblik brought up the “liability” word and made note of a six million dollar settlement resulting from a fraternity death at MIT. Yet he also promised student involvement in the “Renn Fayre Renovation” project and said “we don’t want the board to assume control.”

The Renn Fayre Renovation Committee convened that fall. Consisting of the czars of Renn Fayres 2000 and 2001, as well as representatives of the community safety, facilities, and conference and events planning, the main goal of the committee was to ensure the Fayre would “work better, be safer, and be a community asset rather than a liability.” Institutionalized in later years as the Renn Fayre Committee, the renovation process ended the total student control over the party that had existed in the past. Its reforms did, however, help stop the exorbitant damages—together with the communal realization that rampant destruction would endanger Renn Fayre’s future. “We by no means take all the credit,” czar Gordon Feighner ’02 says, emphasizing that the reason RF2K has never been repeated is mostly due to simple mindfulness.

Contrary to popular belief, wristbands and Border Patrol were not created in reaction to the disaster: there had been some kind of pass (first buttons, then wristbands) since the 1980s and the Patrol had been founded in the late ’90s. Yet these had been mostly a formality, and Clevies, Clarkies, and other outsiders of all stripes strolled around with abandon during Renn Fayre. Serious problems were infrequent, but could be truly nasty: Chiara Thayer  recalls that during the late ’90s, a Reed student taking a psychedelic stroll in the canyon late on Saturday night was accosted and tied up by strangers, and left there until the morning. This mostly came to an end after Renovation, when it was rumored that party crashers had been responsible for the worst of the carnage. Enforcement was taken much more seriously, and in 2001 and 2002, student volunteers checked wristbands at the entrance to every space and event, including the lodges and SU.

Increased alumni involvement may have helped keep damages down as well. Ironically, one of the administration’s first responses in the aftermath of RF2K had been to blame the alumni — Regina Mooney, dean of student services, falsely accused the Meatsmoke Crew of fueling the carnage by giving drugs to students and attempted to expel the group from campus permanently. Her efforts failed, Meatsmoke survived, and 2001 saw instead a new swell of alumni volunteering for Karma Patrol. Johanna Colgrove ’92 and several other alumni and staff members organized a Sub-Free Coffeehouse in which people could decompress, a predecessor to today’s Blue Lodge.

One of the biggest changes to come out of the process was the creation of the Klean Up Krew. There had been on-and-off efforts to organize Sunday cleaning parties for years, but it is obvious from the resigned tone of the recruitment notices that they never really cut the mustard. Phys Plant had been unfairly taking on most of the burden themselves. In 2001, however, John Saller ’03 came to the czars and volunteered to put people on duty—an example of the communal taking of responsibility which was more significant than official Renovation.

The National Junta Triumphs

Renovation, however, did not solve the political struggle over the beer supply. The administration had been mistrustful of student-run beer gardens since the beginning. They had only been saved in the ’90s by a sustained letter-writing campaign that solicited signatures from students, alumni, and every CSO on the force to argue that it was safer for everyone to drink in one location, monitored by people they knew and trusted. The case was helped by the fact that Chiara Thayer, a former student and Lutz bartender, agreed to assume all legal liability as an independent contractor for each garden. After she ended her stint as Beer Czar in 1997, the administration pounced and took over.

Thayer handed the beer reins over to the “ministers,” Chris Flink ’02, Paul Manson ’01, Steve Seal ’01 and Jim Soto ’01. They had a few things going for them in their effort to reclaim the gardens for the student body. First, by their own admission, they “had a lot of trucks and were the biggest, loudest, dumbest students on campus.” In addition, Soto, an autodidact nontrad student, was older than most Reedies and had the necessary maturity: “Not to cast any asparagus, but 21-year-olds are children, and children fuck things up.”

Nevertheless, throughout their tenure as signators, they repeatedly clashed with an administration reluctant to let them take responsibility for events, and for a few years the gardens flip-flopped between student- and caterer-run. Outside contractors ran the Renn Fayre beer garden in 1999 and 2001, Nation ran it in 2000 and 2002. There were very few catering companies, however, willing to put their liquor licenses on the line for the infamous Renn Fayre, and those that were willing were both expensive and unpleasantly un-Reedie. As a Quest column put it, “when you start bitchin’ about your thesis to some steroid-head who’s on a power trip ’cause he’s wearing an EVENTS t-shirt, don’t be surprised when he says, ‘Thesis? Yeah, I had a thesis once but then I took some antibiotics and it’s all better now.’”

It took years of persuasion, but Regina Mooney and the rest of the administration eventually acknowledged that the Ministers’ promises to be tough and legally compliant were sincere, and that Nation’s permanent tavern license would make them liable, rather than the school. From 2002 onwards, the beer has been back in students’ hands, the liability on the signators’ heads, and the all-volunteer gardens saving us our student body funds. The only issue left: is there anyone at Nü Reed ready to break Jim Soto’s record of closing the Lutz 63 nights in a row?

Start Making Sense

One of the biggest surprises in our research has been how recent many of our most cherished Renn Fayre traditions are. It’s a cliché joke at this point to use “same as it ever was” as shorthand for nothing ever changing here at Reed — but did you know that the 5 a.m. Stop Making Sense, the emotional high point of the year, that moment of exhaustion and love and tears of happiness, is less than ten years old?

Reedies’ love for Talking Heads has lasted since the group was still topping the charts. While they never played Reed, they did play Portland during the ’80s, and after the show the Quest ambushed David Byrne in his hotel lobby for a guerrilla interview. Yet despite the decades of fandom on campus, no one threw a Talking Heads dance party until after the new millennium.

The first Stop Making Sense was in 2002, 19 years after the film’s release. The brainchild of Ashley Bowen ’05 and Harold Gabel ’03, the screening took place during Reading Week and was a huge success. It was repeated every year afterwards, before or after Renn Fayre, as a separate tradition entirely without a fixed schedule. It wasn’t until 2007 that anyone had the idea to run it again during the big weekend, but a few years later it was an indelible tradition.

Green Lodge didn’t appear until 2008. The White and Black Lodges had, of course, been named after their counterparts on Twin Peaks, but in the 2000s the show wasn’t quite as well-known at Reed as it is now in the era of streaming video, and “lodge” was just taken to be an odd bit of RF vocabulary. The founders of Green Lodge, a group of student DJs who played sets in the quad every 40s Night, decided to create a place that would fit their interests: “playing obnoxiously aggro dance music and smoking a lot of weed.” The first year featured dancehall, jungle and dubstep sets, live hip-hop, live greenery and bongs built into flowerpots. For several years the lodge was “an integral part of the dubstep scene on the West Coast.” Tastes have changed somewhat these days, but the idea behind the lodge remains.

Drop Dead

As new traditions grew, old ones began to wither. One casualty of the 2000s was the Woodstock Ball Drop. Jim Quinn ’83 has penned a short history of the event on his “Renn Fayre Visions” website, and in his account it began in the summer of 1981 when he and a friend bounced a few golf balls purloined from the Eastmoreland Golf Course down the steep Woodstock hill: “They didn't quite roll; the pitch was sufficient so that they bouncey-bounced all the way down. Most satisfying. We looked at each other, and right there and then a new Renn Fayre event was born.” All year, they collected balls at the fringes of the golf course, and late on Saturday night of Renn Fayre they dumped them at the top of the hill to cheering crowds.

Since it involved property theft and pissed off the neighbors, the Ball Drop rapidly became an annual game of cat and mouse with the police, which probably accounts for some of its longevity. One year, the cops were tipped off when they caught some students red-handed picking up balls at the driving range, and were able to intercept the crowd of Reedies after only one box had been poured out. Nobody was arrested, but after that, the organizers “thought about all the hassles inherent in the golf ball underworld” and switched to superballs instead—which had the added benefit of not being heavy enough to ding anyone’s car.

The ball drop ended with a whimper in the mid-2000s when, after several years of the cops actually intervening and being “harassed” by students, it was moved for RF2K5 to Botsford Drive. With a shorter, gentler slope and no frisson of danger, the Botsford drop was far less exciting, and the ball drop never returned—to Renn Fayre, at least. Those pesky alumni haven’t forgotten their tradition, and some of the original culprits reunited for a ball drop during the Centennial Reunions in 2011.

The series will conclude in two weeks. Spoiler alert: Renn Fayre survives once more. You’ll write the last chapter yourself.