Tony D. Batres
A man is dressed in a Middle Eastern-style embroidery fabric ornate costume with a multi-colored silk hat (white, dark gold/bronze, and faded silver) plus several jewel rings on his fingers as his mouth is slightly open indicating a yelling facial expression
Tony D. Batres
Bow Before the Barons typographic title
Ren fair hails thirty years as a self-supporting nonprofit
By Scott Rhode

enetian glass came to Alaska during the European Renaissance. Blue beads discovered in 2005 at archaeological sites in the Brooks Range were dated to the mid-1400s, having changed hands along the 10,000-mile trade route from Italy, through Eurasia, and across the Bering Strait. The artifacts are a tangible connection between where we live now and Venice from 500 years ago.

I tell this story to patrons who visit the Three Barons Renaissance Fair (3BRF). Or rather, the character I portray shares this tale with New Worlders partaking of the festival in Hillshire.

This summer is my third as a performer at the fair, which has existed in Anchorage for the last thirty summers. The organization has stood as a self-supporting nonprofit, offering two weekends of outdoor entertainment and an enthusiastic market for independent vendors.

Welcome to Hillshire
Before the Plague Year, the fair’s record attendance was 13,336 during the first two weekends of June 2019. My castmates and I had begun rehearsals in 2020 when the fair was canceled for the first time in its history. The 2021 event was downsized to a two-day “Crown’s Market” with free admission, to keep the hearth warm.

When the full fair (and full fare) returned in 2022, so did more than 15,000 patrons. “That really kind of blew our minds, that we blew past our high day. Almost 2,000 over it, and people were just excited to get out,” recalls Kevin Hall, president of the 3BRF board of directors.

Entering the gate transports fair patrons to the fictional village of Hillshire, about 500 years ago. Attractions include the Crooked Toad Tavern for grown-up entertainment and the Twisted Tadpole for toddlers, games of skill at the Crimson Dove Inn or with the Tomato Wives, puppet shows by the Alchemist’s Guild, roving improv by the Fools, living history demonstrations, a mind-bending maze, and plenty of vendors and food trucks.

And, of course, the eponymous barons from the Blue, Green, and Red Courts. “We’re the person you want to meet. Want to get your picture taken with the baron and the baroness? Come and visit us in our pavilions,” says Shane Mitchell, who has portrayed the Blue Baron at every fair since 1993. “We send them on quests, we grant them special favors and ribbons and tokens of esteem, we open and close the fair, we officiate at the Fight Show, and the baronesses officiate the costume contest. You know, the titular heads of the fair.”

Mitchell’s character within the fiction of Hillshire, Ali Akbar Mohammed el-Mutamin the Magnificent (supposedly the descendant of a real-life 11th century Andalusian emir), mediates the neutral ground between the cruel and greedy Green Baron from Elizabethan England and the kind and honorable Red Baron from the Serene Republic of Venice.

As production director within the 3BRF, Mitchell mediates for real among the courts, guilds, and other subgroups that rehearse their separate parts, to “produce a single unified desired effect,” he says. “Basically, my job is to make sure that all of those people are communicating, to be the liaison from that body of people to the board of directors.”

The volunteer cast of 300 to 400 sets 3BRF apart from the summer’s other markets, fairs, and festivals. “Everybody loves the Girdwood [Forest] Fair. Everybody loves the State Fair. The Highland Games are wonderful,” Mitchell says, “but the performance aspect gives us a Disneyland feel, gives us that quality of stepping into a completely different world. It’s not just an opportunity to buy and eat and have a pleasant day out in the sunshine, as wonderful as those things are. It’s a chance to interact in a fantasy realm.”

Pre-Barons Fair
Anchorage has had a Renaissance fair since the early ‘70s, not long after such things were invented in the ‘60s. At first, the state arts council hosted it at Campbell Creek Park.

Mitchell was there at age 13. “The fair had a different vibe,” he recalls. “It was very much a craft fair. Queen Elizabeth was there with a limited court, and they had a stage, but very often the music that was played was folk music.” As the fair cast more actors, Mitchell joined as a 17-year-old attendant to the queen.

He has seen the fair through its darkest days. “One year in the mid-‘80s, it rained every day of the fair. Every. Day. And it became financially insolvent,” Mitchell says.

The statewide economic crash didn’t help, either. Greater Anchorage, Inc., the organizer of Fur Rendezvous, came to the rescue. After about three years, though, some fair veterans split over artistic differences. They formed a for-profit corporation, Iron Hat, and conceived the original Three Barons storyline, which Mitchell describes as a blend of Shakespeare, Brothers Grimm, and Arabian Nights. He recalls, “When the Three Barons fair started, it was a mammoth undertaking. None of us knew how big of a mouthful we had bitten off.”

The first site was on the slopes at Hilltop Ski Area (hence, “Hillshire”). “It was quite a workout,” says Hall, who visited as a patron in 1993. “I paid the extra money to go up on the chairlift and walk down, as opposed to walk up.”

The previous fair competed with the new one for a few years, until Iron Hat was the lone survivor. Iron Hat re-incorporated as 3BRF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with an educational mandate.

Vendors at the Three Barons Renaissance Fair mainly sell handmade goods, whimsical goods, or whimsical handmade goods.
Vendors at the Three Barons Renaissance Fair mainly sell handmade goods, whimsical goods, or whimsical handmade goods.

Tony D. Batres

Vendors at the Three Barons Renaissance Fair mainly sell handmade goods, whimsical goods, or whimsical handmade goods.
Smiles all around at Peasant Dancing and pretend violence at Fight Show, two of the eighteen performances staged each day of the fair.
Smiles all around at Peasant Dancing and pretend violence at Fight Show, two of the eighteen performances staged each day of the fair.

Tony D. Batres

Smiles all around at Peasant Dancing and pretend violence at Fight Show, two of the eighteen performances staged each day of the fair.
Coin of the Realm
Mounting the fair costs about $80,000 annually, according to Hall. Security is the single largest budget item, and 3BRF also pays for site rental and insurance. The organization owns, stores, and maintains most of the stages, tents, pavilions, and other scenery.

Performers’ costumes are off budget; the cast buys their own clothing. When I joined as a performer in Red Court, I paid a couple hundred dollars for a puffy shirt, linen breeches, stockings, shoes, and a dagger, plus a couple hundred more to a local seamstress for a bespoke doublet (outer jacket) and capelet. Now I’m committed to Red Court for several more years, to amortize my investment.

Core revenues for 3BRF are from ticket sales: $10 for ages 13 and up, $9 for seniors and military, $5 for kids. Items sold at 3BRF-owned vendors, such as games at the Crimson Dove or alcohol at the Crooked Toad, also yield some proceeds. The only other source of income is vendor fees, which vary according to space, with discounts for seniority.

Hall says 3BRF hosts about seventy vendors, and there is a wait list. When selecting vendors, 3BRF prefers handmade wares. “We try to make sure that we favor those things that are more unique to history, the Renaissance, or even just Alaska,” Hall explains. “We’re not closed off to modern items for sure, but you know the audience is looking for that Renaissance fair experience, so it’s going to be dragons, it’s going to be Harry Potter, people dressed as hobbits, and things like that.”

Chester Mainot, owner of Get Scent, sells homemade candles. His first year as a vendor was 2022, and he is returning for 2023. He decorates his booth, dresses in costume, and offers special merchandise to fit the theme. “I created special edition Three Barons candles,” Mainot says. “That sold out fast! Also, I did some interactive games for customers with a chance to win a free candle or special discounts.”

Of all the markets where Mainot sells candles, he says 3BRF is his second-most profitable, after the Girdwood Forest Fair. “In terms of time and labor, it is very convenient since they have it for two weekends and I do not have to break down and set up every day, like other vendor markets I have that are one-day events,” he says.

Intimate Interactions
For some, it’s not about the money. “Many of our vendors,” Mitchell observes, “choose to be at the Three Barons Fair even though it’s less lucrative. They choose two weekends a year to not be at Saturday Market but instead to be at the fair, because of the performance, because of the environment, just because of the vibe of the place.”

When the cast does its job properly, patrons linger for an average of four hours. The more time they spend, the more money they spend, and hopefully vendors go home with no unsold inventory.

Hall considers commerce to be the most “intimate” interaction patrons can have. “We can laugh with them, we can tell a joke, we can do improv, we can teach them a skill, and sometimes that’s very passive,” he says. “But the fact that they reach into their purse or their wallet, pull out money for the vendors’ wonderful handmade products—I think that’s a real powerful thing.”

One of the few booths by a physical store is Bosco’s. The comic book shop sells plastic swords at the fair, after selling 3BRF tickets at its Spenard and Dimond Center locations.

Bosco’s also hosted “open casting” in February, like a job fair where 3BRF guilds and courts recruit new members. Bosco’s owner John Weddleton watched with a big smile, calling 3BRF a “fantastic group” and noting that the audience has a “90 percent overlap” with the shop’s clientele.

Despite that synergy, Bosco’s is not a corporate sponsor. Indeed, 3BRF has zero formal sponsorships. It does benefit from business-to-business donations, such as Alaska Sand & Gravel dumping a truckload of rock in the fair’s marshy areas, and Hall says these informal relationships are important. However, “We have not actively pursued any outside grants or supports like that,” he says, adding that the founders believed in being self-sustaining.

One exception is some proceeds from this year’s Fur Rendezvous Outhouse Races, where a friend of the fair named 3BRF as a beneficiary. Hall says that extra cash was donated knowing that a big expense is coming soon: a change in location.

Peaceful Alliances
Years ago, heavy snow at Hilltop Ski Area forced Hillshire to move, first to University Lake and then to Tozier Track, home of the Alaska Sled Dog & Racing Association (ASDRA). Hillshire will move again now that ASDRA is developing a new track along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. However, it’s not ready for 3BRF this summer, so the old site is hosting one last fair.

Next year, Hall expects disruption. “We talk about the fact that we’ll lose patrons because it’s not, ‘I know exactly where to go,’ though it is only about a quarter mile down the road,” he says. The new site will also require reconfiguration from the long, narrow 10 acres at Tozier Track to a 20-acre square.

Hall is grateful for ASDRA’s accommodation, just as 3BRF benefits from alliances with other nonprofits.

One partner is TBA Theatre, which Mitchell co-founded twenty years ago. Unlike other 3BRF courts and guilds, Blue Court is essentially a co-production of TBA, which owns its scenery. Merchant booths at Blue Court are fundraisers for TBA, helping to pay for annual field trips to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

Two other nonprofit allies are the Historic Recrudescence Guild (HRG) and the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), Barony of Eskalya.

As a separate nonprofit, the Historic Recrudescence Guild provides educational content at the Three Barons Renaissance Fair and other events throughout the year.
As a separate nonprofit, the Historic Recrudescence Guild provides educational content at the Three Barons Renaissance Fair and other events throughout the year.

Tony D. Batres

In character at the 2022 Three Barons Renaissance Fair, the author offers a Venetian glass bead as a souvenir to a young patron.
In character at the 2022 Three Barons Renaissance Fair, the author offers a Venetian glass bead as a souvenir to a young patron.

Tony D. Batres

HRG is Hall’s bailiwick. In modern day, he runs a graphic design company, but HRG lets him dwell in the past. “I do carpentry, so I teach people what different tools were and what they used them for,” he explains. Within 3BRF, HRG populates a medieval village and demonstrates crafts, etiquette, cooking, and everyday life skills.

A slightly more violent variation is SCA’s domain. Full-contact combat is only one aspect of SCA’s living history, but it is the flashiest.

Thom Bates dons riveted lamellar armor as Baron Gavin Woodward, titular head of the local SCA chapter. The group meets almost every week, he says, practicing archery, songs, and other antique activities. The two weekends at the fair are SCA’s highest visibility. “The Three Barons Fair is our most successful time for recruitment,” says Bates. “It’s kind of ‘our people,’ if that makes sense… I usually frame it as, ‘Is two weekends not enough? Do you want to do more stuff like this year-round?’”

No money changes hands between SCA and 3BRF; the fair allots demonstration space free of charge, and SCA holds its own fundraisers to pay for storing its gear.

Bake sales, car washes, or auctions are common avenues for nonprofits to earn cash, but not for 3BRF. The only fundraiser is the fair itself.

Paid in Joy
My castmates in Red Court begin rehearsals in February. By the end of May, we meet nightly, our efforts focused on the first two weekends of June.

Hall says 3BRF is open to holding events around the calendar. “We have some concepts going forward,” he says. “As we move locations, what can we do? There’s been some experiments in the past, before my time, with midwinter feasts and things like that.”

Any chance for the cast to stick together. Mitchell says, “To the audience perspective, it seems that Red, Green, and Blue are in competition. But in reality, it’s collaboration and, you know… that feeling of ‘one cast, one show’ has remained.”

Hall has witnessed the camaraderie, too. “When someone asks to help raise a 30-foot by 20-foot canvas tent or lift an amazingly heavy bridge, everyone jumps in,” Hall says. “That’s young men and young women, old men and old women. Everyone is welcome at the fair, so our cast has a huge cross section of our community.”

Paid staff from Drogon Security get into the act, wearing tabards they made themselves. “To blend in, right?” says Hall. “They’re not frivolous; they’re enforcing the rules. But they recognized that they can have a lot more fun with it, and it makes for a better fair experience.”

For volunteers, “There is only one coin we’re paid in, and that is joy,” Mitchell says. “As the production manager, when I speak to directors, I’m going, ‘If your cast is not experiencing joy, then you’re not paying your cast.’”

We are paid another way, I remind him.

“Plus T-shirts and the occasional barbecue,” Mitchell acknowledges.

That’s one more item in the 3BRF budget. Hall says, “People loved the fact that they could get a shirt that said ‘Cast’ on it. They earned it, for sure.”