San Francisco Victorians

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

"The entire event is stage managed," says Kevin Patterson with pride. "There are over 400 performers and 200 vendors here. The vendors have to provide quality wares in keeping with the era. Their employees have to attend workshops beforehand and wear period attire. Everyone must speak in cockney or highbrow English accents. Some of the groups have been with us for years and still hold rehearsals all year."

Such as Mad Sal, the publican of Mad Sal's Dockside Alehouse, a character who has been with the fair for nearly two decades. For most of the year, Mad Sal is East Bay educational administrator Robin Drisckill, but here she runs the lewdest saloon in town. The entertainments offered on her stage are worth the entire price of admission to the fair: the bawdy Ladies of the Oratorical and Recreational Society; the scandalous, authentic sing-alongs taught during the Cheapside Music Hall Christmas Extravaganza; the leggy Can-Can Bijou; and the coarse shanties of Paddy West's "Songs of the Seven Seas," among others.

"This is history brought to life," says Kevin Patterson. "It's a really large, wonderful, talented family that makes this town real."

On Mincing Lane, the village undertaker, Mr. Soursberry, accosts pedestrians, taking their measurements for coffins. He carries the custom "calling cards" prepared for all citizens at the local printers. At the Adventurer's Clubon Grenadier's Gate, generals, freshly returned from the "great mutiny" in India, discuss world affairs, pacing the room amid ocean charts, globes, ceremonial swords, and stuffed animal heads. At Miss Twinkleton's School for Proper Learning and Deportment, I find John Moynihan taking instruction "peculiar to young ladies." I watch folks send messages to their lovers across town at the Central London Telegraph Company, and witness morris, or bell, dancing at Jingles Gate.

Finding a vacant chair at the Pennygaff Stage, where a Punch and Judy Show is under way, I collapse.

"It's difficult to stuff a lifetime of Victorian living into one afternoon, isn't it?" comments a young lady cooling herself with an elegant fan from the Orient.

I couldn't agree more.

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