By Jon Schuppe
WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Dennis Reeder isn’t a medievalist, doesn’t speak Middle English, and has worn armor just once.
Had things been different, he probably would have never attended any event where people dressed as wizards, played the lute, or jousted.
Twenty-seven years after he helped plan the Medieval Festival as a way to attract visitors to his Washington Heights neighborhood, Reeder now presides over what has become the largest annual event in New York City parks. More than 40,000 people typically attend the festival, which takes place around The Cloisters, the museum in Fort Tryon Park that is home to one of the world’s premier collections of medieval art.
This year’s festival happens on Sun., Oct. 4.
Reeder, an urban planner who runs the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corp., said his agency came up with the idea in the early 1980s, when the neighborhood was known mostly for its drug trafficking and street violence.
“A lot of people didn’t know where it was, and a lot of people thought it was a crime-ridden slum,” Reeder said. “They thought it was in the Bronx.”
Much has changed since then, and Reeder likes to think that the Medieval Festival has had something to do with it. The area is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, with an influx of young families and vibrant restaurants.
“A lot of (Medieval Festival) performers have moved up here over the years, and we like to take credit for that,” he said.
One of them is Carrie Isaacman, an actress and mother in her 30s who will be performing in her third Medieval Festival this year. She was introduced to the event by an actress friend, Alexandra Devin, and ended up buying an apartment in Inwood, a few blocks north of Fort Tryon Park.
Isaacman, Devin and a third actor, Ian Heitzman, are rehearsing scenes from Chaucer’s "The Wife of Bath," which they will perform on the Unicorn Forum stage while dressed in the garb of itinerant storytellers who traveled the medieval English countryside entertaining villagers. They spent weeks studying original texts, working out the meaning of some words, and trying to convey Chaucer’s bawdy humor.
“I love being in the costumes, I love the environment, I love the fact that other people are in medieval costumes,” Isaacman said. “I’m very drawn to the history. And, it’s fun.”
Many of the Medieval Festival performers — actors, musicians, magicians, dancers — live and work in New York City, but there are many others who are part of a national circuit of medievalists who travel from one medieval festival or Renaissance fair to the next. They play wandering minstrels, bearded wizards, human chess pieces, and yes, jousters.
“Some of these people are just like gypsies, going place to place doing medieval stuff,” Reeder said. “Some never seem to come out of costume.”
Many festival visitors dress in medieval clothing, and the event culminates with a children’s costume parade. Over the years, Reeder has enlisted his own family: one daughter serves as costume master, another volunteers with her young child, and his wife runs the hospitality tent. But he says he never has time to actually stroll the ground and enjoy the event. “I’m too busy,” he said.
Reeder admits to dressing up once, in a suit of armor, which he regretted. “It’s like walking around in an oven,” he said.
Her prefers to remain behind the scenes, even as the original motivation has become ancient history. Washington Heights is no longer a Manhattan backwater, and he expects 65,000 people to attend this year’s festival.
“It’s become a New York institution,” Reeder said.