The Complete History of Renn Fayre Part III: 1990-2000s

One of our concerns is that by heeding Reed’s concerns of protecting itself from liability, we may be in fact endangering the safety of its students.
— Vanessa Cameron ‘97, Torri Eubanks ‘97, Julie Graves ’99 and Zoe Tsavdarides ’12 on behalf of Renn Fayre and Beer Nation, in a letter to Student Services, March 12, 1997
Our magical weekend of joyous mayhem and drug-induced glory is only the beginning. The forces of Good and Evil are upon us […] There is only one answer. SUPERHEROES.
— Mistress of Costumery, The Quest, April 4, 2000

The Fayre came under fire in its third decade. During the 1990s, Policy and Liability first came to Reed in a big way, mostly due to increased federal scrutiny. The administration of George Bush Sr. took a deep, intrusive interest in what was going on at universities across the nation. Bush’s “drug czar,” William Bennett, publicly referred to Reed’s Student Body Handbook as an example of the “decadence and decay of American colleges.” Like all schools receiving federal funding, Reed had to pass a Drug and Alcohol Policy for the first time, and over the course of the 90s the administration even took occasional steps to enforce it.

Yet the Reed community, as always, rose to the occasion. We kept on keeping on, inventing bigger and better additions to the eternal Fayre.

The biggest danger yet reared its head in 2000. What is often referred to (incorrectly but accurately) as the “Apocalypse” of RF2K left behind unprecedented property damage, and there were rumblings of an end to the festivities. At the dawn of the new millennium, the future looked grim.


Fayre, Walk With Me

Our pop culture obsessions come and go at this school — is vaporwave “over” already? Yet even a quarter-century after it aired, Reedies still love Twin Peaks, and the names of the show’s spirit planes have attached themselves permanently to the spirit planes to which we ascend every year.

The first Black Lodge, set up in Winch for RF1994 by Jemiah Jefferson ‘94 and Celeste Ramsay ‘94, featured the familiar black lights, lasers and fog. Yet it wasn’t quite the rave pit that today’s Black Lodge has become. Indeed, it was a bit more like the White Lodge in function. Black Lodge was, then, a place to lie and relax with fluorescent finger paint and glowing Play-Doh. Indeed, a “place of great goodness” where “sounds of innocence and joy filled the air.”

Jefferson and Ramsay’s Black Lodge was a reworking of a project that had existed since 1992 called the Sunny Delight room. Sunny Delight was a similar concept, featuring “black light, light ropes, vibro-tronic oscillations, video displays, quadrophonic color sound” and so on. The name Black Lodge, however, gave it that perfect otherworldly edge. Sure, Sunny Delight means acid, but it also means a prosaic bottle of budget orange juice. An extradimensional labyrinth is a far better mental image to work with. Reedies have gone beyond the curtain at Glastonbury Grove every year since.


Cumulative Capers

The Bug Eating Contest was founded in the mid-90s by Alexa Green ’96 and Rose Revolo Campbell ’96. Originally entitled “Eat Bugs for Money,” the event started off as a reverse auction: people would bid down to see who would eat bugs for as cheaply as possible. “And little did we know how little, little money people would eat large amounts of bugs for,” Campbell recalls, noting that their idea took off immediately and that bugs have been a staple of the Reed diet ever since — although the reverse auction aspect disappeared immediately. There was, Jeffrey “Moose” Price ’03 recalls, a bit of a snafu one year when the organizers ordered poisonous centipedes and forgot which end was poisonous, but by and large, eating bugs is probably one of the healthier things you can do during the Fayre.

As well as Black Lodge, 1994 marked the birth of picting. It was started by Lynn Rosskamp ’94, who was completely surprised by The Grail’s investigation when she found out that it was still happening.

Other popular 90s traditions, not all of which have survived consistently, include an Iliad Toss and the classic 40-oz. Dash. The 1999 Renn Fayre Quest contains an entire schedule of such Olympic events, ranging from Capture the Flag to shopping cart chariot races to an “Oatmeal Eating and Sculpture Contest.”


The Last Beer Parade

As mentioned in the last article, beer for the masses has been part of Renn Fayre since the beginning. In the ’80s, it typically manifested itself in the form of the beer truck: imagine an enormous refrigerated trailer with taps sticking out of the side. It was brought onto campus in the midst of a cheering parade and a motorcycle escort each year and parked by Commons, where anyone, of any age, could wander up and fill up the receptacle of their choice. The only rule: no containers a gallon or larger.

Yet the suds reserved for reveling Reedies began attracting local high schoolers too. Enter Beer Security. The purpose of Beer Security was not to run a garden in compliance with the law; it was purely to stop non-Reedies from coming to campus to drink. Unlike today’s Beer Nation volunteers, Beer Security was paid, and for considerably less work. Volunteers earned $2.25 an hour (about $5 in today’s money) to simply sit by the truck and ensure that everyone filling up had a Renn Fayre Button.

An unfortunate sequence of events put an end to the free-flowing beer in the early ’90s and necessitated the legally compliant gardens we have today. In April 1986, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) received an anonymous tip-off that Renn Fayre featured beer for minors. “Attention: Enforcement Division. OLCC Field Agents are cordially invited to attend an ‘all-campus party’ sponsored by Reed College [. . .] Formal attire optional,” the letter sneers. According to former Beer Czar Bill Ecker ’89, it was the beginning of the end.

By 1990, Reed had come under enough scrutiny that a team of administrators and students had to meet with the OLCC. They were informed that beer paid for and distributed through Student Body funds counted as a “sale of alcohol,” even if it was being poured for free, and that what was going on was thus illegal. From RF1990 on, we had gated gardens. When the truck drove onto campus for the very last time before the restrictions came into effect, all the taps were flowing and crowds filled up as it rolled.


Liability, Liability, Liability

In the years 1989-1991, Policy came to campus in a big way, prompted by a raft of conservative federal legislation such as the Drug-Free Workplace Act. The first Drug and Alcohol Policy, the first Smoking Policy, and a new Community Constitution all established rules and guidelines in what had previously been the realms of honor discussions and case-by-case negotiation. It was a tense moment, but the new policies initially had no effect on Renn Fayre apart from the fenced beer gardens. Bear Wilner-Nugent ’95, who ran the Fayre in 1993, claims that “there was no infrastructure set up to monitor student activities” and that the still-tiny Student Services did not interfere with his work.

That began to change later in the decade. The activities of CHVNK 666 drew particular ire, even from the faculty, who generally stay out of Renn Fayre happenings except for the beer and the softball. The bike club’s dramatic performance at RF1998, featuring “a mock battle between volcano-dwelling Neanderthal mutants and chopper-riding, high-flying defenders of Science, Learning, and Gender Equality,” resulted in several fireworks injuries and a great deal of high blood pressure in Eliot Hall.

The beer gardens, though now legally compliant, were a further bone of contention. Skeptical administrators did not trust students and alumni to run the gardens safely, and thus thought something would go wrong and they would be held liable. Instead, Dean Jim Tederman embarked upon a crusade to have the gardens catered. Despite students pointing out that a less convivial and more official catered bar would prompt more drinking elsewhere in unmonitored, unsafe environments, the administration won. The 1999 garden was run by (expensive) contractors, and Tederman confidently proclaimed that there would “never be another student run beer garden.”


Stuporheroes: The Y2K Problem

For about the first fifteen years of its existence, the Renn Fayre theme was “Renaissance Faire.” Once that dissipated, there was no framing device for the festivities apart from the sudden year-end recollection that hey — we’re done, and we love each other. It took until 2000 for someone to resurrect the idea of a party aesthetic that tied everything together. That theme was not, as you may have heard, “The Apocalypse.” The theme was “Superheroes.” As far as we can tell, it began simply as one Renn Fayre project among others: a “Mistress of Costumery” wanted to clothe the masses so that everyone could let their “true powers shine through in a fantasmigorical display of shiny spandex and fluttering capes.” It was a success and ended up defining the party – and the photo evidence shows that every year since, everyone’s clothes and everyone’s projects have been more and more on theme.

Unfortunately, the superheroes were met by their share of supervillains. It’s unclear exactly why, but once the dust cleared on Sunday, campus had been torn up to a degree surpassing all previous Renn Fayres. Over $2000 worth of broken windows, graffiti on every building, roof tiles and gutters torn off all around the SU and GCC, a urinal ripped out of the wall. The total bill came to $15,517.77. And that, some trustees and administrators began to suggest, was that. The Reed community was going to have to do some hard thinking if they wanted to keep Renn Fayre going.

But there was a light of hope in the dark of Y2K: a sign that if there was a future, it was bright. That year, someone had the idea to give each graduating senior a set of golden laurels.


Stay tuned for next issue: Renn Fayre gets Renovated, the beer battle continues, and we begin to Stop Making Sense.