San Francisco is known for its sophistication and flair — and partying with Charles Dickens is no exception.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair comes to the Cow Palace on Nov. 25, bringing the smell of roasted chestnuts and the magic of a Victorian Yuletide. The dazzling production — which runs four weekends — transforms more than three acres of exhibition space into the narrow streets, quaint shops and busy pubs of 19th-century London.
“It’s beautiful that we can produce this, that we have this jewel,” says actor Robert Young, the fair’s theatrical director. “It’s Christmas when it was still very young and innocent.”
It takes a lot of magical lighting to create old London at twilight, but it works. Hand-painted signs advertising elixirs and absinthe look just as they did when Dickens roamed his beloved city. The costumed characters go about their day, perhaps performing on one of several stages or interacting with fairgoers as they stroll streets scattered with faux snow.
“Everything good about Christmas in old London is here, and it’s all real,” says fair director Kevin Patterson.
More than 700 costumed performers are on hand, including Queen Victoria and Edgar Allan Poe — not to mention regular folks like chimney sweeps and London bobbies. This is interactive theater at its best, so don’t be surprised if Fagan tries to recruit your kid as a pickpocket.
The elaborate event offers plenty of other treats, such as a toy parade with Father Christmas, a hand-powered carousel with jungle animals and vendors selling handmade wares. There’s an all-new “Lewis Caroling” show and a children’s painting garden.
Grown-ups will enjoy the popular “Saucy French Postcard Tableaux Revue” (for 18 and up only), as well as the can-can show at Mad Sal’s Dockside Alehouse.
The fair was started in 1970 by Ron and Phyllis Patterson, who produced the original Renaissance Faire in Marin. The family, which ran that fair for more than three decades, wanted to do a winter event.
“My parents were really charmed and intrigued by the indoor markets in London,” says Kevin Patterson, who has been at the helm for the past 12 years. “We hit the ground running and never looked back.”
It takes three weeks to set up, he says. Everything is stored in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse on Mare Island and then delivered in 14 tractor-trailers.
The fair is expected to draw more than 40,000 visitors. As it gets closer to Christmas, Patterson suggests coming later in the day and enjoying dinner and a show to beat the crowds: “Stay until we throw you out.”
The men who make the fair
If Occupy Wall Street needs a leader, look no farther than Ebenezer Scrooge.
Scrooge — the redeemed Scrooge, of course — would be at the front of the line, says Martin Harris, the British actor who plays him at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair.
“How foolish we are to be so focused on me, me, me,” says Harris, slipping into the gravelly voice of Scrooge. “I was probably as bad as the bankers — clutching to the money, as much as I could get.”
Scrooge’s metamorphosis into Mr. Nice Guy is what makes “A Christmas Carol” such a poignant story. The message that true joy is found by giving back to others is just as relevant today, Harris says.
“Whatever age you are, this is a story for you,” says Harris, who has played the role for more than a decade.
Dickens is played by Robert Young, the fair’s theatrical director. The world-famous Englishman has plenty of fans — as well as a few critics.
“I get the rare person who comes along and shakes their finger at me and tells me how poorly I treated my wife,” says Young, who has played Dickens for more than 20 years.
Young has spent time in England researching the writer’s life. Dickens, he says, penned “A Christmas Carol” in about six weeks.
“We needed money,” he says, speaking as Dickens. “I had to write something very quickly.”
Fairgoers might see Dickens dining at his home with his family or speaking at a club. Wandering around the streets, they also might see Sherlock Holmes or Jules Verne.
Over the years, the performers have included doctors, lawyers, real-estate agents and housewives, Young says. Many are loyal customers of the fair’s well-stocked antiquarian bookseller. Plenty of visitors also dress up in period costume and show up every day.
“They’re addicted. They love it,” says Harris. “Where else are you going to find something this real and this entertaining?”
— Cathy Bowman
IF YOU GO
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
Where: Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva Ave., San Francisco
When: Opens Nov. 25; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes Dec. 18
Cost: $12 to $25, free for children under 5; passes and discounts available
Contact: (800) 510-1558,www.dickensfair.com
Note: Parking costs $10, but a free shuttle runs from the Glen Park BART station