San Francisco Victorians

At the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, 'tis always the season for historical fidelity

As a band of 15 leather-clad bikers roars into the Cow Palace parking lot, a pale young man in a dark velvet tail coat and starched collar gingerly steps up to the entrance of the monolithic cement bunker. Immediately, he is swallowed by a torrent of motorcycle riders -- large men with garrulous laughs and big black boots and ruddy-faced women in tight T-shirts and tighter black Levi's. The bikers slap each other on the back and pull out wallets anchored by thick chains attached to their belt loops. The young man, a 23-year-old theater student named John Moynihan, gives the security guard a bewildered, beseeching glance.

"You must be looking for the Christmas Fair," offers a kindly Cow Palace employee, pulling the young man from the line. "This, here, is the Harley-Davidson swap meet. Go back the way you came and down the hill." Moynihan smiles gratefully and darts away from the crowd just as a middle-aged woman with bleached-blond hair and a large eagle pendant around her neck shouts, "Have a good Christmas, kid!"

Down the hill, Moynihan finds visible comfort in the sight of an elegantly dressed couple -- she in an ankle-length red velvet gown and fingerless black gloves and he wearing a soft gray felt top hat with corresponding long coat and cane -- winding their way through a line of waiting automobiles to the entrance of the 22nd annual Great Dickens Christmas Fair. Inside the sprawling lower building, which appears dwarfed next to the Cow Palace's main hall, Moynihan and the couple are guided into a small, bustling town -- complete with street names, public squares, and no less than 50 ornate buildings -- that has been erected to serve as a Victorian community for four weekends.

Off the main concourse, scenes from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carolare being performed in the center of Fezziwig's Dance Hall. The smell of sawdust, covering the cement floors, mingles with that of pine from huge garlands strung across the rafters. Ladies and gents dressed in the height of fashion from the 1800s circulate among matchbox girls and threadbare street urchins, as bartenders from the Pickiwick Club ply eggnog, hot toddies, and ale to passers-by. While a few people dressed inappropriately in modern-day clothes wander through the sizable crowd, they do little to dilute the atmosphere. The attention to detail is meticulous. The books being sold in a delightful corner shop with a steepled rooftop, by Arkadyan Victorian Books & Prints, are penned by period authors -- Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Byron, Edgar Allen Poe, William M. Thackeray, and Mark Twain. The articles of clothing proffered by Dark Garden, Madame Louise's Fashion Accessories, Greentree Weaving, and Miss Darla's Dolls Gone Wrongare Victorian in mien: corsets, gloves, bonnets, hand-woven shawls and capes, undergarments, top hats, and canes. Even the food is in keeping with Victorian London: bangers, hot chestnuts, fish and chips, cucumber tea sandwiches, roast beef, and scones.

Down Bell Ringer's Row, "the deserving poor" beg for alms and offer Christmas music on tenpenny whistle and concertina, while teenagers learn fencing at the Corinthian Rose Sporting Club, just near the village Christmas tree on Tinsley Green. At the Griffin and Thistle Social Club, "members" sit at lace-covered tables under paintings in gilt frames while across the way, at the Green Man Inn, commoners are regaled with the emerging theories of Charles Darwinbetween classical insinuations of Felix Mendelssohn played on the piano.

The Dickens Fair was created in 1970 by Ron and Phyllis Patterson, a Hollywood art director and a drama/English teacher who had also begun what was to evolve into the nationally renowned Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Wanting a wintertime outlet for the vast array of talent -- actors, historical re-creationists, carpenters, seamstresses, and teachers -- amassed by the Renaissance Faire, the Pattersons chose Victorian England, an equally rich historical period that was witness to the first typewriter, the first Christmas card, the first toy rubber balloon, and the first Tannenbaum (a Christmas tree brought to Queen Victoria from Germany by her husband, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha).

In those early days of the Dickens Fair, held in the old San Francisco Anchor Works, "chimney sweeps" would climb out onto the four-story rooftop of the warehouse and lower themselves through hatches in the roof singing Christmas carols, while the Pattersons' son Kevin, then 10 years old, would work the crowd as a pickpocket, taking the pilfered wallets to the stage where they were returned to their owners after some ridicule.

As workshops and rehearsals were held year round in preparation for the fairs, Kevin Patterson essentially grew up in the mock villages and communities built by his parents, coming to regard the history buffs and thespians as his extended family, and, eventually, meeting his future wife at a horse tourney thrown by his folks. When his parents retired, it was only natural that Kevin and Leslie Pattersontake over the family business, and carry on the scrupulous tradition.

From inside the Cat and Bull Gaming Parlor, Kevin and Leslie Patterson look out over Nickleby Road, where a row has erupted between a tousled strumpet and her brutish panderer.

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