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

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.

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John P. Johnson, HBO
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Charles Dickens Wrote His Own Version of Westworld in the 1830s
John P. Johnson, HBO
John P. Johnson, HBO

Charles Dickens never fully devoted himself to science fiction, but if he had, his work might have looked something like the present-day HBO series Westworld. As The Conversation reports, the author explored a very similar premise to the show in The Mudfrog Papers, a collection of sketches that originally appeared in the magazine Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1838.

In the story "Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything," a scientist describes his plan for a park where rich young men can take out their aggression on "automaton figures." In Dickens's story, the opportunity to pursue those cruel urges is the park's main appeal. The theme park in Westworld may have been founded with a slightly less cynical vision, but it has a similar outcome. Guests can live out their heroic fantasies, but if they have darker impulses, they can act on those as well.

Instead of sending guests back in time, Dickens's attraction presents visitors with a place very similar to their own home. According to the scientist's pitch, the idyllic, Victorian scene contains roads, bridges, and small villages in a walled-off space at least 10 miles wide. Each feature is designed for destruction, including cheap gas lamps made of real glass. It's populated with robot cops, cab drivers, and elderly women who, when beaten, produce “groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect.”

There are no consequences for harming the hosts in Westworld, but the guests at Dickens's park are at least sent to a mock trial for their crimes. However, rather than paying for their misbehavior, the hooligans always earn the mercy of an automated judge—Dickens's allegory for how the law favors the rich and privileged in the real world.

As for the Victorian-era automatons gaining sentience and overthrowing their tormenters? Dickens never got that far. But who knows where he would have taken it given a two-season HBO deal.

[h/t The Conversation]

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Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Today marks what would have been the 101st birthday of Ella Fitzgerald, the pioneering jazz singer who helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the birthday of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. SHE WAS A JAZZ FAN FROM A YOUNG AGE.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. SHE DABBLED IN CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AS A TEENAGER.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. SHE MADE HER STAGE DEBUT AT THE APOLLO THEATER.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A NURSERY RHYME HELPED HER GET THE PUBLIC’S ATTENTION.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. SHE WAS PAINFULLY SHY.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. SHE MADE HER FILM DEBUT IN AN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MOVIE.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. SHE GOT SOME HELP FROM MARILYN MONROE.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. SHE WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN A GRAMMY.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. HER FINAL PERFORMANCE WAS AT CARNEGIE HALL.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. SHE LOST BOTH OF HER LEGS TO DIABETES.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

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