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    Lords and ladies, a last huzzah

    For four and 20 years, people have come to Largo for the Renaissance Festival. But alas, its time in the fast-growing city has come to a close.

    [Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
    Ed Schneider, as pirate Alisdair McDuff, carries off the mayor's daughter, Elizabeth Mary Winnifred Henry (Jenna Sezional).

    By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003


    LARGO -- The battle for Puddleton was hours away, but King Edward was already wistful for the little town.

    "I shall miss Puddleton," the king said Friday, leaning against an oak tree with a gnawed turkey leg in his hand.

    "It has become," the king said, "a real place."

    In a few hours pirates would invade, driving the wenches, peasants, lords and ladies out of the home they have known for 24 years.

    All this because the surrounding city of Largo ended its lease with the Renaissance Festival. The city needs the land that every year turns into the medieval town of Puddleton to build its spacious new library.

    It was an unpleasant parting, involving modern combat between lawyers.

    "It was painful for them and painful for us," City Manager Steven Stanton said. "It's been a good relationship. The city of Largo outgrew the Renaissance Festival, and the Renaissance Festival outgrew the city of Largo."
    The Kind of England, above, otherwise known as Michael Marzella, talks with Queen Eleanor (Caroline Jett) during the Renaissance Festival on Friday.

    The festival hasn't found a new location yet. It is scouting sites in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough counties. It hopes to find land within driving distance of Largo, so festival regulars won't have to give up the fantasy. Festival organizer Jim Peterson said he is close to a contract, but won't say where.

    "It'll be a wonderful site, wherever it is," Peterson said. "Puddleton is a state of mind. It can move. It never dies."

    King Edward, wiping his greasy hands on a peasant's shirt, said he will name the new town "New Puddleton."

    But he doesn't know if it will be the same.

    "I am just the king," he said. "Here there are cooks and washerwomen and minstrels -- people that give this place its heartbeat. For four and 20 years, people have been believing in this place."
    photo
    The Washing Well Wenches of the Renaissance Festival ham it up. John Lowe, 18, a student at Gaither High School, covers his eyes as Karen Willey, who plays Ruby Sweaters, teases him.
    The king only visits Puddleton for its yearly festival. His real name is Michael Marzella, and his castle is in some other imaginary place.

    Lord William Henry and his Lady Winnifred Mary Elizabeth Henry have the most to lose. It's their town. They will battle the pirate invaders every day this final weekend.

    They wish that, at least once, they might drive back the pirate horde and win the right to stay in Puddleton. But that is not in the script.

    "The city is going to miss us," the Lady said. "They have no idea."

    There has been "lots of easily weepiness" already among the townspeople and visitors, said the lady also known as Stephanie Moffett.

    More than 250 costumed villagers, some paid, some volunteer, turn out every weekend.

    Nothing could keep 14-year-old Brette Morningstar from missing the final Friday. Certainly not the School Board's attendance policy.

    "Being here," she said, tied to a tree with a hoop in her nose and a green feather in her hand, "is so much more important than school."

    Morningstar, who in character is Eliza Littleworth, said she will make it to New Puddleton next year no matter what. She can't drive, but she will find a way to get there.

    She imagines that Sunday she will linger in Largo Central Park for hours after the last song is sung. She doesn't want to let go.

    "Doing this," she said, "really made my life."

    Almost everyone in the village says they will move where the town moves, if they possibly can.
    Ian Smith, who plays Lt. Scott Wyatt, the second in command of his majesty's guard, gnaws on a turkey leg during his lunch break.

    There will be gypsies, knife-throwers, muckmasters, firewalkers, jousters and washing well wenches.

    The rat catcher is expected to return with his rats and stunt rats. The singing pickle peddler said he will bring his pickles to the people. Sweetums, furry star of the "Bunnies in Peril" act, will return next year to be shot from a cannon, according to her handlers James the Bunnyman and Joe the Talking Mute.

    But all over town, villagers know time is running short. Pirates are coming.

    "Because we can," said pirate Amber Ruckdeschel.

    "Aye," said Kenneth Arsenault, the high school student/pirate.

    "We're taking over the town and running them right out," said the Queen of the Pirate Horde, Grace O'Malley. In another life, she is Tammie Seaborne. In this one, she carries a sword. "We're going to show Largo what we're about."

    When the last battle nears, she parades the pirates through the town, toward the chess board, shouting.

    The king waits on his throne with Queen Eleanor and the royal court. The Lord and Lady wait with the Lord Mayor's household. The townspeople crowd the field. The pirates wave the skull and crossbones.

    In a town full of believers, it is easy to think the outcome is undecided. It is impossible not to hope that Lord Henry might prevail.

    But the pirates don't fight fair.

    They shoot a nun and steal Lord Henry's screaming daughter.

    They snatch Lady Winnifred Mary Elizabeth Henry and put a pistol to her head.

    They give Lord Henry a horrible choice.

    The town, the pirate queen says, or the girl.

    The Lord does not hesitate.

    "I yield the town," he says. He grabs his golden-haired Lady.

    The king lifts his mug into the air.

    -- Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or benham@sptimes.com .

    If you go

    The Renaissance Festival expects 26,000 people for its final weekend at Largo Central Park. The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today. There will be maypole dancing all day, egg hunts at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. and a May Queen contest at 1 p.m. Tickets are $14.95 for adults, $6.95 for ages 5-12, and children under 5 get in free. Seniors pay $11.95. Parking is free. For information call 586-5423 or go to www.renaissancefest.com.

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