Taking the A Train to the Middle Ages

Taking the A Train to the Middle Ages

The life of a New York clown takes many roads. For John Grimaldi, last Saturday it meant stilt-walking on the Metropolitan Opera stage, in Franco Zeffirelli’s production of “La Bohème.” A day later he was juggling and singing in medieval garb in Upper Manhattan.

“It’s quite a varied life, the performing life,” Mr. Grimaldi said.

Mr. Grimaldi, 75, moved to New York as a young man to be a serious actor, but he discovered that if he wanted to pay the bills, clowning was a better course.

For most of the last 40 years, this has included performing at the annual Medieval Festival in Fort Tryon Park, which began at the Cloisters before the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation revived it in Fort Tryon Park in 1983, in an effort to draw people to the neighborhood. “Back then, people were afraid to come here,” said Dennis Reeder, executive director of the development corporation and producer of the festival.

It worked, fabulously. With no advertising, the festival draws upward of 60,000 people to the park to watch professional stunt actors joust and clang swords, and to eat highly inauthentic turkey legs (the turkey, native to the Americas, did not exist in medieval Europe).

This year the crowd included the photographer Landon Speers, 30, who said he was “just looking for something weird to do.”

As often happens in New York, the show began on the subway ride uptown, where increasing numbers of riders boarded dressed as “Game of Thrones” extras.

“One guy on the train had a quiver with arrows and a couple of bows, a huge curly mustache and a black shirt like the puffy shirt from ‘Seinfeld,’” Mr. Speers said. “Everyone was taking the odd look at him.”

Knights battled, jugglers juggled and sang, visitors sampled mead or rhyming quatrains. Period authenticity was prized but not strictly adhered to.

“About 100 people come every year in costume and don’t get out of character,” Mr. Reeder said. “They take the subway and speak in their fake accents. Somehow, people think medieval, everyone speaks with an English accent. But English royalty did not speak English until the Renaissance. But those kinds of details spoil the fun.”

As for Mr. Speers, he discovered that mead was sweeter and less beery than he expected, and that crowds at medieval festivals leave less trash than those at outdoor concerts.

“The mead went down easy,” he said, adding, “I definitely would go again.”

John Leland, a Metro reporter, joined The Times in 2000. His most recent book is “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old,” based on a Times series. @johnleland

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