Audience enjoying the Manfrog Circus’ Bizarro Brothers. Photo from the Comox District Free Press Collection, July 2, 1980.
From the mid-70s to the mid-80s, the Comox Valley’s Renaissance Faire was a joyous celebration of West Coast folk arts and crafts, offering guests lively music, engaging workshops, international cuisine and children’s entertainment.
It provided an eclectic opportunity for local artists to showcase their work, for musicians and theatre folk to perform, and for guests to participate in a unique expression of unrestrained creativity.
Over eleven years, the fair blossomed from a small, local craft show into a unique event that drew exhibitors from across Vancouver Island and all over BC.
The first fair in July 1974 was a modest collection of local vendors, performers and musicians who gathered in the square outside of today’s Sid Williams Theatre. Their goal was simple: to raise funds for the Central Island Arts Alliance, an organization dedicated to bringing together artists so that their interactions could stimulate creativity.
Crafts for sale included pottery, leatherwork, jewellery and macramé. Guests enjoyed free demonstrations of stained glass making, spinning, and ivory carving. Entertainers included Denman Island’s Manfrog Theatre group and the Delux Portable Band from Vancouver. It was the first event organized by the Arts Alliance, and while the mood was festive and sunny, there were some public complaints. A local paper spoke of the ‘questionable lifestyles of the craftsmen’.
But for all the grumbling of the establishment, the fair returned in 1975, bigger and better and, this time, hosted in Lewis Park. It attracted several thousand visitors over the weekend, and while the overwhelming response from attendants was positive, it also prompted a few anti-hippie complaints. Some city councillors and local business owners claimed that this counter-culture party snarled traffic, attracted members of the hippie lifestyle, and provided an opportunity for questionable behaviour. Still, the festival continued to grow, moving to the Exhibition Grounds in 1978 and drawing over 10,000 guests.
Over the years, the event showcased the homegrown talent of many Comox Valley performers. It also booked acts like Valdy, Jim Byrnes, Pied Pear and Bim, as well as the Imperial Puppet Theatre from Victoria and Le Poop Troupe Clowns for the kids.
By 1980, the fair had a volunteer crew of over 150 people, ranging from construction and hospitality to food preparation and security. The Renaissance Faire Bus picked up guests at centrally located areas, then took a tour of the valley (including Comox Lake) before dropping them off at the fair. Attendance records of 1983 show around 15,000 visitors to the three-day event.
But financial troubles dogged the fair, even as attendance grew. The Arts Alliance hoped to use profits to remain in operation, but in 1983 a steep increase in rental fees for the fair grounds and higher royalties paid to entertainment agencies put the fair’s viability in jeopardy. Rainy weather impacted ticket sales, equipment like electrical cords were stolen, and confusion over discounts only made the problem worse. By that year, the fair was $14,000 in debt. Despite the enthusiasm of the Arts Alliance, volunteers, and guests, the final fair was held in 1984.
As one of the first arts and crafts fairs to be held in the valley, the Renaissance Faire kicked off a trend that is now a regular part of summer — a wonderful legacy for what some affectionately nicknamed ‘The Hippie Fair’, and a unique part of Comox Valley’s history.