The Iowa Renaissance Faire2/3/2021
It might be a little out of season to be thinking about summer festivals, but a reader reached out to me with a topic that I have been curious about for several years. The Iowa Renaissance Faire has yet to physically lure me in, but I have a handful of friends who have devoted much of their lives to this whole thing. In fact, I even have friends who travel year-round to participate in other renaissance fairs around the country. It’s probably no different than folks who travel the world to participate in golf, surfing (remember the movie “The Endless Summer”?), or the one I just had the misfortune to indulge in… bowling.
Gregory Schmidt dropped me a line a week or so ago about the history of the original Iowa Renaissance Faire. We rapped on the phone for about an hour in regards to both the original Iowa Renaissance Faire in Des Moines and some of the early days of Des Moines’ art and
Schmidt, of Clear Lake, attended the Minnesota Renaissance Faire in 1990 and thought, “I have to do this in Iowa before someone else does.” He was already involved in the theatre world where he ran the Clear Lake Summer Theatre and brought in Hollywood actors for roles along with local talent from Des Moines as well as the Guthrie Theatre. This was happening from 1985 through 1987. He also received a grant to attempt to revitalize the opera house circuit in Iowa. From those experiences, Schmidt decided to start the Iowa Renaissance Faire before someone beat him to it. He formed a company called Festivals International.
“The first Iowa Renaissance Faire took place at the North Iowa Fairgrounds in Mason City. We knew the manager, and we got free rent. No insurance was needed, and we got a grant from the Hanson Foundation (from Forest City). We did two weekends in September and
October of 1992, and it caught on. Lots of people came up from Des Moines. We met our first performers there including one group, the Orcs & Trolls, who are still performing today,” says Schmidt.
Because of the success at the North Iowa Fairgrounds, Schmidt decided that the next event needed to be at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. In 1993, the festival was split in two weekends in Mason City and then took three days to move and setup the entire Renaissance Festival at the Iowa State Fairgrounds for another two weekends. This was also the year of the great flood of 1993.
“I remember that first weekend in October, and the storms came through,” Schmidt says. “The city was already flooded, and we were sitting up on a hill in the campgrounds. All these tents just started falling into each other. Everyone piled into the shelter house, and we told
all the cast and merchants, ‘Well, guys, it’s all downhill from here because if we can survive this, we can handle anything.’ And there we went.”
The Iowa Renaissance Faire caught on, and it continued to run for two weekends in September starting in 1994. Organizers immediately started bringing in big acts such as the Royalty from the Kansas City Renaissance Faire and the Mud Show from the Bristol Renaissance Faire out of Chicago.
Around 1997, the Iowa State Fair introduced horseback jousting in the amphitheater. However, they couldn’t party too much as the interim director of the Iowa State Fair lived about 100 yards from where they performed.
“About four of five of the young people who worked with us went on to have professional careers. I had a little 9-year-old girl who dressed up as Dorothy from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ who used to take tickets for me. Her name was Jessica Saunders, and she went on to become a
professional opera singer.”
Schmidt and his cohorts were not just hiring acts to perform; they were also being hired to perform around the city including by the Coppola family (when they still ran Java Joes) who brought the group in to help revise Court Avenue.
The Iowa Renaissance Faire vacated Des Moines in 2000 and moved to the Amana Colonies.
“It was close to Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Iowa City and Marshalltown. It did really well, and we were out of Des Moines for about four years,” says Schmidt.
That same year, they produced the Millennium Festival in Chicago. Eventually Schmidt created a sister event called The Des Moines Renaissance Faire. The Iowa Renaissance Faire is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary this year at the Amana Colonies location.
Yes, Iowa’s art scene has a great history. I love hearing about the folks who hang out at the Des Moines Playhouse or Moberg Gallery, but also the people who will pile into tents for two weeks and joust on horseback just to entertain you for a few minutes. You can’t buy a piece of fine art from them, but you can buy an experience.
Wild times and wild lives. ♦
Kristian Day is a filmmaker, musician and writer based in Des Moines. He hosts the syndicated Iowa Basement Tapes radio program on 98.9FM KFMG.