Knight Club: A History of Medieval Times Dinner Theater

Anthony J, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Anthony J, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the 1960s, on the small island of Mallorca, Spain, Jose Montaner had a thriving barbeque business. So did someone else. Montaner and his rival each vied for customers, locals and visitors from the island’s tourist trade.

One day, Montaner overheard some English tourists talking about medieval fairs, and an idea occurred to him: What if he could lure more barbeque patrons by seating them in front of an indoor dinner theater with dueling knights, serving wenches, and horses?

The smell of manure may not have earned him any Michelin stars, but Montaner was on to something. By the 1980s, he and a group of investors had taken his notion and expanded it into the U.S. under the Medieval Times banner, a sprawling bit of performance art that marries the spectacle of professional wrestling with a four-course meal. While it’s never been heavily franchised—there are only nine locations in North America—the marriage of simulated chivalry and free Pepsi refills has proven to be a surprisingly effective form of entertainment.


Kristen Menecola, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Part of what motivated Montaner’s pursuit of what would become Medieval Times was his interest in Spanish history. He was also influenced by the 1961 movie El Cid, a drama starring Charlton Heston that featured many of the tropes meant to transport his visitors to 11th-century Spain: sword duels, castles, and galloping horses.

Montaner put on a show in Spain for years before an investment panel was gathered to bring the idea to the States. Scouts visited Orlando, Florida in 1980 and came across a prime spot of real estate in Kissimmee, just 15 minutes from Walt Disney World. By 1983, the first Medieval Times on American soil was open for business.

Then as now, the concept of “dinner theater” was not held in the highest of regard. The first stage production that served meals opened in 1953 in Richmond, Virginia, and initially kept their meals separate from their plays until audiences who drove distances to get there complained about getting hungry during the shows. After experiencing a surge of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, the idea of combining a live performance with a plated meal started to collapse. The aging actors who could provide publicity for such shows started gravitating toward television spots and commercials, where they might earn as much for one day of shooting as they did doing several weeks of stage-and-steak work.

While Montaner briefly flirted with the idea of having Heston appear at the opening of his Florida location (ultimately, the actor proved too expensive to hire), Medieval Times wasn’t dependent on marquee names. The appeal came from the idea of seeing what amounted to a live stunt show, with armored knights hoisting broad swords and ramming into one another in jousts. Their stage would be a massive sand floor; attendees could enjoy Cornish hen and cheer for one of six knights depending on which section they were seated in. In keeping with their (loose) interpretation of medieval practices, no utensils would be allowed.

Whatever stigma had been attached to dinner theater for veteran actors didn’t apply to patrons. The Kissimmee location of Medieval Times saw its attendance rise steadily, from 183,000 in 1984 to 600,000 by 1993. The investment firm opened a second location in Buena Park, California in 1986, and a third in Lyndhurst, New Jersey in 1990. The last castle in their expansion opened in Atlanta in 2006.

Initially, fight choreographers at each location were left to develop their own house style, with knights dueling using titanium swords that had been dulled and edged to create a spark. In 2000, management decreed that the moves become uniform in the event knights had to substitute for one another due to illness or, more rarely, injury. (Knighthood is largely safe, though the occasional bruised finger is not unheard of.)

The duelists appearing in the show normally start out as stable hands for the horses. (Medieval Times uses so many Andalusian, or Spanish, horses that they have their own breeding farm in Sanger, Texas.) After three to 12 months of training, they’re expected to take a physical fitness test—running one mile in under 10 minutes, performing 30 push-ups and 50 sit-ups—before taking hold of the 20 pounds of weaponry.

Although the company tends to tweak the shows slightly every four years, the narrative remains largely the same: A king will read birthday notices or offer retirement congratulations to attending parties. He’s then blackmailed by the Herald of the North, who insists on compliance or the King’s daughter will be held hostage. Six knights duel; a falcon flies over the crowd. At the climax, the winning knight plucks a female patron from the crowd and anoints her the Queen.

For this experience, tickets are typically $66, or $46 for children under 12. The price includes a four-course meal of one half-chicken, tomato bisque soup, garlic bread, and various side dishes, all served by “serfs” and “wenches.”


Boris Kasimov, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While the nine locations still admit roughly 2.5 million peasants annually, things have not always gone swimmingly at Medieval Times. In 1997, two locations in Buena Park and Kissimmee filed for bankruptcy after being hit with $10 million in IRS tax claims. They remained open. The company was also the subject of a 2011 lawsuit after one audience member at California's Buena Park restaurant alleged that he had been struck in the eye by a sliver of titanium. The suit was settled under undisclosed terms.

One torn retina notwithstanding, Medieval Times has remained stable in a fluctuating economy and evolving entertainment landscape. In a nod to the times, the King will often remark on smartphones and make scornful references to cyberbullying. And while it might be a departure from historical accuracy, the theme restaurant will concede to modern approaches to both hygiene and diet: Moist towelettes and vegetarian dishes are provided.

12 Festive Facts About A Christmas Story

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Which Oscar-winning star wanted to play Ralphie Parker's dad? Which actor went on to have a seedy career in the adult film industry? Can you really get your tongue stuck to a metal pole? On the 35th anniversary of A Christmas Story's debut, here are a few tidbits about the holiday classic to tide you over until TNT's 24-hour Christmas marathon.

1. JACK NICHOLSON WAS INTERESTED IN PLAYING RALPHIE'S DAD.

Though Jack Nicholson was reportedly offered the role of The Old Man Parker, and interested, casting—and paying—him would have meant doubling the budget. But director Bob Clark, who didn't know Nicholson was interested, said Darren McGavin was the perfect choice for the role.

2. IT OWES A DEBT TO PORKY'S.

What does Porky's—a raunchy 1980s teen sex comedy—have to do with a wholesome film like A Christmas Story? Bob Clark directed both: Porky's in 1982 and A Christmas Story in 1983. If Porky's hadn't given him the professional and financial success he needed, he wouldn't have been able to bring A Christmas Story to the big screen.

3. RALPHIE SAYS HE WANTS A RED RYDER BB GUN A LOT.

For anyone keeping count, Ralphie says he wants the Red Ryder BB Gun 28 times throughout the course of the movie. That's approximately once every three minutes and 20 seconds.

4. THESE DAYS, PETER BILLINGSLEY SPENDS HIS TIME BEHIND THE CAMERA.

Peter Billingsley, a.k.a. Ralphie, has been good friends with Vince Vaughn since they both appeared in a CBS Schoolbreak Special together in the early 1990s. He doesn't do much acting these days, though he has popped up in cameos (including one in Elf, another holiday classic). Instead, Billingsley prefers to spend his time behind the camera as a director and producer. He has done a lot of work with Vaughn and Jon Favreau, including serving as an executive producer on Iron Man (in which he also made a cameo).

5. YES, YOU CAN GET YOUR TONGUE STUCK ON A PIECE OF COLD METAL.

Mythbusters tested whether it was possible to get your tongue truly stuck on a piece of cold metal. Guess what? It is. So don't triple dog dare your best friend to try it.

6. ONE OF THE YOUNG ACTORS MOVED ON TO A CAREER IN ADULT FILMS.

Scott Schwartz, who played Flick (the kid who stuck his tongue to the frozen flagpole), spent several years working in the adult film industry. In 2000, he turned his attention back to mainstream films. His most recent role was as "Disco City Hot Dog Vendor" in the 2017 TV movie Vape Warz.

7. RALPHIE'S HOUSE IS NOW A MUSEUM.

Next time you're in Cleveland, you can visit the original house from the movie. It was sold on eBay in 2004 for $150,000. Collector Brian Jones bought the house and restored it to its movie glory and stocked it up with some of the original props from the film, including Randy's snowsuit.

8. THE IDEA FOR THE FILM CAME TO BOB CLARK WHILE HE WAS DRIVING TO PICK UP A DATE.

Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, and Ian Petrella in A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video

Director Bob Clark got the idea for the movie when he was driving to pick up a date. He heard Jean Shepherd on the radio doing a reading of his short story collection, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, which included some bits that eventually ended up in A Christmas Story. Clark said he drove around the block for an hour until the program ended (which his date was not too happy about).

9. IT PARTLY INSPIRED THE WONDER YEARS.

The Wonder Years was inspired in part by A Christmas Story. In fact, toward the very end of the series, Peter Billingsley even played one of Kevin Arnold's roommates.

10. YOU CAN STILL BUY A RED RYDER BB GUN.

The real Red Ryder BB Gun was first made in 1938 and was named after a comic strip cowboy. You can still buy it today for the low, low price of $39.99. But the original wasn't quite the same as the one in the movie; it lacked the compass and sundial that both the Jean Shepherd story and the movie call for. Special versions had to be made just for A Christmas Story.

11. THE LEG LAMP CAN ALSO BE YOURS.

Peter Billingsley and Melinda Dillon in A Christmas Story (1983)
Warner Home Video

While we're talking shopping: you know you want the leg lamp. Put it in your window! Be the envy of your neighbors! It's a Major Award! You can buy it on Amazon (there's a 40-inch version, as well as a 20-inch replica). If you're not feeling quite so flamboyant, they also make a nightlight version.

12. IT SPAWNED A TRIO OF SEQUELS.

A Christmas Story led to two little-talked-about sequels. The first one was a 1988 made-for-TV movie, Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Jerry O'Connell played 14-year-old Ralphie, who is excited about his first job—as a furniture mover. Of course, it ends up being awful, and it might make him miss the annual family vacation at Mr. Hopnoodle's lakeside cabins.

My Summer Story, a.k.a. It Runs in the Family, debuted on the big screen in 1994. Kieran Culkin plays Ralphie, Mary Steenburgen is his mom, and Charles Grodin is his dad.

And in 2012, the direct-to-video sequel A Christmas Story 2 picked up five years after the original movie left off, with Ralphie attempting to get his parents to buy him a car.

An earlier version of this story appeared in 2008.

10 Timeless Facts About The Land Before Time

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Five years before Jurassic Park roared into theaters, a gentler, more meditative dinosaur film endeared itself to audiences of all ages. Initially met with mixed reviews, The Land Before Time is now regarded as an animated classic. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Steven Spielberg-produced film, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A DIALOGUE-FREE MOVIE.

Gabriel Damon and Candace Hutson in The Land Before Time (1988)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the mid-1980s, executive producer Steven Spielberg began toying with the idea of a Bambi-esque dinosaur film. “Basically,” he later said, “I wanted to do a soft picture … about five little dinosaurs and how they grow up and work together as a group.” Inspiration came from the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)—a scene in which prehistoric beasts wordlessly go about their business. At first, Spielberg wanted his own dinosaur characters to follow suit and remain mum. Ultimately, however, it was feared that a non-verbal approach might bore or confuse the film’s intended audience. As such, the animals were given lines.

2. DIRECTOR DON BLUTH WAS AN EX-DISNEY EMPLOYEE.

Don Bluth grew up idolizing Disney’s work, and began working for the studio in 1955. Over the next two decades, he did various odd jobs until he was brought on as a full-time animator in 1971. Once on the inside, Bluth got to peek behind the magician’s curtain—and disliked what he found there. “I think [Walt Disney] would’ve seen that the pictures were losing their luster,” Bluth said. Frustrated by the studio’s cost-cutting measures, he resigned in 1979. Joining him were fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Together the trio launched their own company, Sullivan Bluth Studios, and began working on The Land Before Time in 1986.

3. OVER 600 BACKGROUND PAINTINGS WERE MADE FOR THE FILM.

Most of these depicted beautiful but barren wastelands, which presented a real challenge for the creative team. As one studio press release put it, “The artists had to create a believable environment in which there was almost no foliage.” Whenever possible, Bluth’s illustrators emphasized vibrant colors. This kept their backdrops from looking too drab or monotonous—despite the desolate setting.

4. LITTLEFOOT’S ORIGINAL NAME WAS “THUNDERFOOT.”

This was changed when the filmmakers learned that there was a triceratops in a popular children’s book called Thunderfoot. Speaking of three-horned dinosaurs: Cera evolved from a pugnacious male character called Bambo.

5. THE FILMMAKERS HAD TO CUT ABOUT 10 MINUTES OF FOOTAGE.

“We compromised a lot with The Land Before Time,” Goldman admitted. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than on the cutting room floor. Spielberg and his fellow executive producer George Lucas deemed 19 individual scenes “too scary.” “We’ll have kids crying in the lobby, and angry parents,” Spielberg warned. “You don’t want that.”

6. “ROOTER” WAS INTRODUCED AT THE URGING OF CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS.

In Bambi, the title character’s mom dies off-screen. The same cannot be said for Littlefoot’s mother, whose slow demise goes on for several agonizing minutes. Naturally, there was some concern about how children would react to this. “A lot of research went into the mother dying sequence,” Pomeroy said. “Psychologists were approached and shown the film. They gave their professional opinions of how the sequence could be depicted.” Thus, Rooter was born.

One scene after Littlefoot’s mom passes, the wise reptile consoles him, saying “You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you as long as you remember the things she taught you.” Sharp-eared fans might recognize Rooter’s voice as that of Pat Hingle, who also narrates the movie.

7. JAMES HORNER DID THE SOUNDTRACK.

The late, Oscar-winning composer behind Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009) put together a soaring score. Along with lyricist Will Jennings, he also penned the original song “If We Hold On Together,” which Diana Ross sings as the end credits roll.

8. THE ACTRESS BEHIND DUCKY PASSED AWAY BEFORE THE MOVIE’S RELEASE.

Judith Barsi’s career was off to a great start. By age 10, this daughter of Hungarian immigrants had already appeared in 70 commercials and voiced the leading lady in Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). For The Land Before Time, Barsi voiced the ever-optimistic Ducky, which was reportedly her favorite role. Then tragedy struck: In July of 1988, Barsi’s father József murdered both her and her mother before taking his own life.

9. IT HAD A RECORD-SETTING OPENING WEEKEND.

From the get-go, The Land Before Time had some stiff competition. Universal released it on November 18, 1988—the same day that Disney’s Oliver & Company hit theaters. Yet, for a solid month, Bluth gave Oliver a box office beating. The Land Before Time enjoyed the highest-grossing opening weekend that any animated film had ever seen, pulling in $7.5 million to Oliver & Company’s $4 million. Since then, of course, The Land Before Time has long been dethroned; today, Incredibles 2 (2018) holds this coveted distinction with a $182.7 million first-weekend showing.

10. THERE ONCE WAS TALK OF A LAND BEFORE TIME STAGE MUSICAL.

“The time has come for dinosaurs on Broadway,” the late theatrical producer Irving Welzer told The New York Times in 1997. Emboldened by the recent cinematic success of Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), Welzer expressed an interest helping Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, and the rest of the gang make their Big Apple debut. Soon, however, the idea faded.

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