Period fun at the Renaissance Faire doth maketh the bottom line strong
Few business people in Central Pennsylvania seem to be having more fun than Chuck Romito.
His employees are knights and jousters, magicians and musicians, fools and fiddlers and a 16th-century-style cook he affectionately refers to as "the pig lady," alluding to her culinary specialty, whole roasted pig.
As the producer of the annual Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire and owner of the Mount Hope Estates and Winery in Rapho Township, where the festival is held, Romito has made it his mission to be certain that the faire's visitors - all 200,000 of them each year - eat, drink and make merry.
Yes, this 52-year-old corporate lawyer appears to be having a grand time presiding over one of the region's most popular summer attractions. Since the first modest Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire was held for two days in 1981 on the property's parking lot, the event, which now runs on 11 weekends from August through mid-October, has grown to include 250 employees, 70 professional actors and more than 80 food and craft vendors from around the country. Having long outgrown the parking lot, the faire, complete with a replica of a Renaissance village, a jousting ring and a Shakespearean theater, sprawls over 35 acres.
"It's so uniquely different than anything else in this area," Romito said. "We create a living, working (Renaissance) village. This is high-touch entertainment, and it's different every time you come out."
Last year, the American Bus Association ranked the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire as one of the top 100 events in North America, along with events such as the Philadelphia Mummer's Day Parade and the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, according to Ginger Croce, the association's director of communications. The selection is based on an event's appeal and its accessibility to motor-coach groups.
While operating a Renaissance festival may sound like more fun than a barrel of mead, what about ye olde revenues? Gross sales for wine purchases and tickets for shows at the Mount Hope Estates - including Christmas, Halloween, Roaring '20s and other theme performances - hover around $4 million, according to Romito. The budget to produce the faire is $2 million.
"Festivals, in general, are good business; the entertainment dollar is there, and people are willing to spend it," said Mark Tucker, a spokesman for the International Festivals and Events Association in Port Angeles, Wash., an organization which tracks Renaissance faires, among other events. "Communities like a sense of celebration, especially when it incorporates history and the educational process.
"Events that incorporate family entertainment are becoming more important than ever. Families provide a real focus for the producers of these events, and they're good community relations."
Estimates place the number of Renaissance faires throughout the country at between 20 and 35.
The Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire also has proven to be good business for vendors who attend the event. Patricia A. Singer of Dover, a.k.a. "The Pig Lady," has been operating a food booth, The Boar's Den, for 15 years. During faire season, the 61-year-old accountant serves up 20 whole roast pigs, 6,000 pounds of pork and 30,000 pounds of turkey legs to individual customers and presold groups, resulting in more than $50,000 in gross sales.
"It's not terribly profitable, but I do make a profit," said Singer, who also bears the title Official Feast Mistress. Singer and up to 30 assistants work from a two-room, 30-foot by 70-foot building on the faire grounds. They, like all other vendors, are required to wear approved costumes, and they must attend classes held at Mount Hope to learn the dialect of 16th century England.
"Being part of the faire is a tremendous commitment of time, but it gets into your blood. It's like a disease," Singer said, noting that her boss at Susquehanna Glass in Columbia, where she works as an accountant, allows her to take time off to participate.
Ann Brodrick of Clay met her future husband and business partner, Alan Brodrick, at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.
"I went to the faire with some of my friends dressed in costume," Ann recalled. "I stopped at the glassblower's booth and fell in love." Alan, 48, has worked at the faire since 1987; Ann, 35, joined him after their marriage in 1993. Although Alan used to travel to Renaissance faires throughout the country, he has stopped since the couple opened a shop, AB Art Glass and Beadwork in Clay, five years ago.
"The Renaissance Faire is a really good place to do business," Ann confirmed. "There are people who come to us year after year to buy glass. We've built up a following."
Unlike some other vendors, the Brodricks work as contractors for the faire and are paid a stipend, as well as receiving revenues from sales of goblets, vases, mugs and art pieces.
"We're considered entertainment," Ann said, explaining that she and her husband do five glass-blowing demonstrations each day. "The toughest part of working at the faire is that when people come into our glass shop on the grounds, they don't believe the items are for sale. They think it's part of the fantasy."
For Romito, the long-time fantasy of owning Mount Hope Estates became a reality in 1980, when he purchased the land and its 32-room, early 19th-century mansion for $1 million. But he had never heard of a Renaissance festival and had no inkling that the estate would become a tourist Mecca.
Romito began by converting the property into a winery, hiring six employees to produce and sell 5,000 gallons in the first year. Today, the winery produces 40,000 gallons.
To attract visitors to the winery, Romito presented special events, including an art show, a bluegrass concert, a '50s revival, a country-western weekend, a classical orchestra and a surprisingly popular jousting tournament. In his travels, Romito had discovered that jousting is the official sport of Maryland, and he invited members of a jousting club there to Mount Hope for a one-day demonstration.
The following year, in 1981, the jousters performed for two days, dressing up themselves and their horses in period costumes. Romito added a juggler and a magician to the mix, set up a couple of food booths selling fruit and roast pig, and began calling the event the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.
"I wasn't emulating anyone," Romito said with a chuckle. "I thought I had discovered Renaissance faires. I was shocked to learn that I wasn't the creator." Romito built the business by concentrating his advertising budget in the Central Pennsylvania and Philadelphia markets, as well as counting on word of mouth to spread the message. Today, most of the faire's visitors come from a 75-mile radius of Manheim.
The business has grown steadily over the years and is now virtually a year-round activity for the Mount Hope staff. Mount Hope maintains an acting company of at least 13 performers, and the staff includes a costume designer, stage and production managers and directors. Planning, building and upgrading the Renaissance village takes place throughout the year.
While there is great competition for entertainment dollars, especially from other regional amusements such as Hersheypark, video arcades and even the Jersey shore, the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire has no direct competitors, according to Romito.
"We do everything that Disney does, but on our own scale," he said.
In the future, Romito would like to incorporate bigger special effects into the faire: louder bangs from the cannon, more fire on stage, even a battle of ships.
But beneath the big bangs, Romito sees the bottom line.
"Business is business," he said, "but this is more fun than most."
This itinerant jester is one of many participants in the 16th-century-style fun at Rapho Township's Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.
"Sir James" the jouster is actually James Kilgore, a performer at the Renaissance Faire.