The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
By Sandy Sims
“Don’t drop the penny,” Cat Taylor warns the more than 750 performers bedecked in Victorian-age costumes. She is speaking at the dress rehearsal for the Great Dickens Christmas Fair inside South San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
Taylor, entertainment director for the fair, explains that “don’t drop the penny” refers to the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time. In the movie Christopher Reeves, the protagonist, magically travels back in time to 1912 to find his true love. When he mistakenly pulls a 1979 penny from his pocket, the magic is broken, and he is thrust back into modern times, leaving his true love behind.
Some 120,000 square-feet (three acres) inside the Cow Palace have been transformed into a combination of the Victorian London we know through history and the stories of Charles Dickens.
Harsh florescent lights have been removed to create a twilight atmosphere. Quaint artisan shops have come to life. So have teashops with paned windows, lecture halls, parlors, and pubs, Neighborhoods sport names like Fagin’s Alley, London Dockside, the Grand Concourse, and Pickwick Place.
The aroma of pine boughs, cinnamon almonds, fish and chips, meat pies, and scones, waft through old London town, as well as other traditional eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Charles Dickens’ beloved, fictional characters people the town: Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Fagin, Bill Sykes, Bob Cratchit, Miss Havisham, Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past to name a few.
Taylor says,“ costumes are approved right down to the buttons and the size of the lapels.”
Characters dress according to where they live in Britain—the midlands, the north, the south—or the part of London society to which they belong, cockney, or upper crust. “They need to know their characters’ backgrounds well,” Taylor says, “and understand their time and place, and never, ever leave character. Or we lose the magic.
Sailors carouse, bobbies (British police) keep order, carolers sing and costermongers sell wares from carts. Parlors and neighborhoods offer up entertainment. For the youngsters, a Punch and Judy Puppet show, a hand powered carousel, Father Christmas and more. For grown ups, the Dark Garden shop window where live women pose in lingerie,and the adults-only Saucy French Postcard Tableaux Review (an evening show) at Mad Sal’s Ale House.
Mr. Dickens himself strolls through town, chatting at times with his own fictional characters, like the flirty Flora Finching (from his book Little Dorrit), who is dressed all in pink. And of course, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert make their appearance, everyone curtsies. Stage performances spill over into town, A Christmas Carol, Pinocchio, and more. Everyday, the toy parade and Father Christmas wind through crowded streets.
In its forty-second year, the Dickens Fair has grown in size and depth of detail says Taylor. We are always getting new ideas.
The Dickens Fair was itself a new idea in 1970. Phyllis and Ron Patterson, creators of the hugely successful Renaissance Pleasure Fair in 1963 wanted to keep their talented staff and craft community employed year round. So they decided to bring another era to life. “They picked the Victorian Age because it was a perfect complement to the Renaissance Fair’s Elizabethan Age,” their son Kevin Patterson says. “Both eras had strong female monarchs and both had literary giants—Shakespeare and Dickens.”Kevin Patterson and his wife Leslie now run Patterson’s Red Barn Productions.
The Dickens Fair has offered up its Victorian London in different venues over the years. But in recent years, it’s found a permanent home at the Cow Palace. This has allowed the fair to grow in depth and detail. “It’s the only event of its kind in the world,” says Kevin Patterson. It’s not copied because it is so difficult to produce. Its magnitude defies description,” he says, “because of the amount of detail and authenticity involved.”
He says the focus of the Dickens Fair is specifically on the years 1850 to 1870. Actors are so in tune to the time they represent that they might even know the year their costume was in style. It’s the details, Kevin Patterson says, that allow people to feel the magic of the time. “And,” he says, “talented directors like Cat Taylor have picked up the passion and dedication to keep the fair’s authenticity.” To be sure, no one in the production wants to drop the penny.
The fair runs the day after Thanksgiving and on the weekends until Dec. 22. The entrance fee covers all shows and events for the day. Cat Taylor says approaching this huge bit of London and the events is quite daunting and suggests looking over the whole program and picking a couple of things you really want to see. Perhaps you’d like to see Father Christmas or Mark Lewis, the storyteller, or take High Tea. (Reservations are necessary for high tea and the French Postcards show.)