There are certain events that tend to capture the imagination. So much so, that just about every community of any size will have its own iteration. Summer fairs. Amusement parks. Renaissance fairs.
For the past 10 years, Sleepy Hollow Sports Park has played host to the Des Moines Renaissance Festival, bringing hundreds of people into Pleasant Hill every summer. Before that, the event, formally known as the Iowa Renaissance Festival, had bounced around from location to location, but the move into Sleepy Hollow gave the event a feeling of stability and allowed for the construction of several permanent buildings, including a castle.
But no matter where the festival has been held, it has brought in dozens of entertainers, vendors and artists, all intent on entertaining the throngs of crowds each weekend of the event’s run. Very few of Sleepy Hollow’s regular employees are involved in the day-to-day running of the festival, meaning that the vast majority of the festival entertainers are freelancers, brought in from all over Des Moines and from as far away as Los Angeles.
Every year, the task of populating Sleepy Hollow’s renaissance fantasy falls to Greg Schmidt. The Clear Lake resident has been booking acts for the Renaissance festival since 1992.
“We started doing the Iowa Renaissance Festival, which moved to Des Moines from Mason City,” Schmidt says. “Before that, I was hiring talent for theater and outdoor concerts. That first year (of the festival), I decided to turn it into a professional booking company.”
The Renaissance festival is not the only act that Schmidt books now.
“During the Christmas season, we had 22 towns in the Midwest that we did strolling Dickens-themed groups for,” he says.
Each year, Schmidt takes an entertainment budget of about $35,000 and populates Sleepy Hollow with enough vendors, stage acts and roaming entertainers to fill the Renaissance fair for the three weekends each summer that the event runs. He said he likes to use a mix of local and touring talent.
“About half our acts each year are from the Des Moines region, and the other half tend to come from all over,” he says. “This year, for example, our opening weekend act is from Denver, our second weekend headliner is from Los Angeles, and our third act is from right here in Des Moines.”
That third, home-grown act, is the brainchild of Des Moines native Ian Miller — with the help of a very old friend.
Since 2011, Miller has been working on a special children’s book called “The Nitch.” Rather than writing it, however, Miller says he has only helped translate the original manuscript, which he, in turn, got from a mysterious character called Satyrus Jeering.
“Satyrus is an age-old face maker — today, we’d call him a mask maker,” Miller says. “He has been called forth over various ages to create masks of all kinds by various people. Along his way, he has collected stories of every kind. These stories have just begun to be made available to the public. ‘The Nitch’ is the first of his many tales to be released.”
Miller and his studio have created hand-made, leather bound editions of “The Nitch,” which he sells online and at performances. Each book takes about 40 minutes to construct and, because of the nature of making things by hand, each one is subtly unique.
In the Satyrus Jeering live show, Jeering’s animal/human assistants — Hairbrain, Taxus and Vulpis — present a dramatic reading of “The Nitch” to audiences.
“It’s an attempt at a reading of ‘The Nitch,’ ” Miller says. “Hairbrain, Taxus and Vulpis work to fool each other out of the handling of the book, stealing the show from each other. Cream pies, confetti cannon and the like all get used as methods of distraction.”
Clearly, booking for the Renaissance festival is more than just a matter of taking the first people who are available. Schmidt looks for acts that will appeal to a wide range of age groups and demographics. Acts that have proven to be consistent fan favorites among the regulars, as well as having the ability to hook first time attendees as well are a large part of the festival’s makeup, but new acts are constantly being brought in. It is a difficult job, but it is one that is made easier by always having more people to choose from than he can use in any given year.
“We have eight stages of entertainment,” he says. “People will tell us that they might see two, three shows a day, but we have 22 acts, doing 50-plus shows a day on eight stages, plus the roving sidewalk acts. Even some of the vendors have a shtick.”
“I like to rotate,” he continues, talking about the festival’s yearly lineup. “There are way too many people available to me than we could afford all at once. I have to figure out how to be diplomatic.”
At the end of the day, though, Schmidt’s biggest priority is ensuring that people are always surprised and entertained.
“I tell people that the Renaissance festival is a three-ring circus, with two musicals thrown in. If you want the physical acts, we’ve got jousting and sword fights,” he says. “If you want theater, we have that. If you have kids, we have activities that can keep your children occupied all day, both with shows to watch and with interactive activities.”
It is that kind of passion from the festival organizers and workers that keep people coming back. And make no mistake; people do indeed come back, year after year.
“We’ve gone every year since the festival moved to Sleepy Hollow,” says Des Moines resident Jake Dillion. “There are acts that come back every year that we like to catch each time, but it’s also fun to see what is new each year. There’s always something you didn’t see the year before, and it keeps being fun to see what they come up with.”
“This will be our fourth year,” adds Pleasant Hill’s Bonnie Mitchell. “Our kids love seeing the jousting and talking to the performers.”
Next year will bring large changes to the Sleepy Hollow Renaissance Festival experience. After 10 years of residence, the Des Moines Renaissance Festival’s lease is up. This won’t be the first time that the event has had to find a new home, so the only thing that Schmidt knows for sure is that this will not signal the end of the Des Moines Renaissance Festival. Instead, the event will be moving on to a different location, which has yet to be determined.
In its place, Sleepy Hollow hopes to install its own Renaissance festival, to make use of the permanent structures still located within the sports park.
“It will be interesting to see what happens there next year,” Des Moines resident Donna Murphy says. “Our kids like to see some of the same acts every year, so it will be sad if those don’t come back.
“I don’t really know what would be more important to the festival’s success, the familiar acts, or the familiar location,” she continues. “But I suppose it’s something that we’ll find out about.”