Renaissance Man

Thanks to the vision of founder George Coulam, the Texas Renaissance Festival is a huge success at 25. And we’re not pulling your turkey leg.

AS WE DRIVE DOWN the deserted streets of New Market Village, it is as though the present has melted away in the late-June heat. The medieval-style buildings with their half-timbered walls and heavy wooden signs pass by like a movie set or images in a dream. I have little trouble catapulting my imagination back five centuries, until (zounds!) my eyes land on Ye Olde ATM, a reminder that we are in neither a movie nor a dream but a theme park, a massive recreational village designed to transport visitors back to olden times.

A fifty-acre medieval village is a strange sight in the middle of Texas. Located in a slice of the Piney Woods between Plantersville and Magnolia, about 45 miles northwest of Houston, the hamlet belongs to a tall, lanky man named George Coulam. So do the nearby orchards and the closest town, Todd Mission, of which the 62-year-old Coulam is the founder and mayor. Coulam—or King George, as his full-time staff of thirteen respectfully refer to him—is also the founder, owner, and head honcho of the Texas Renaissance Festival, one of the largest festivals of its kind in the country.

A seven-week extravaganza that takes place on Saturdays and Sundays through November 14, the festival turns 25 this year. Though its name would seem to indicate that it celebrates the period in Europe extending roughly from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth, the festival plays fast and loose with history, incorporating just about anything with an old-world patina.

Renaissance festivals are known for being havens where nerdy escapists—unregenerate anglophiles, people who wear capes and cloaks and quote endlessly from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in strident English accents or who played too much Dungeons and Dragons as kids (and haven’t stopped)—munch on turkey legs and guzzle wassail while browsing acres of silver jewelry and watching swordfights between guys in tights. And though the festival is a magnet for those types , you’ll also find plenty of people in street clothes strolling around and taking in the spectacle. The festival has been known to attract as many as 37,000 people a day—ordinary tourists as well as peasants, wenches, knights, and various other figures from the past eight centuries or so—who pay an admission fee of $17.95 at the gate.

A man of few words, Coulam is content to let his creations speak for him. As a rule, they are monuments to his idiosyncratic tastes. His pick-your-own orchard, down the road from the festival grounds, produces figs, peaches, blueberries, and strawberries as well as several fruits (like apples) that the experts told him wouldn’t grow in this part of Texas. It is as flawlessly laid out as the gardens at Versailles and equipped with state-of-the-art fertilization equipment. Across the street, his vast estate, Stargate Manor, includes a sprawling sculpture garden, and a forty-acre lake complete with a waterfall and a jogging track is planned; both the lake and the garden will ultimately be open to the public—“when I die,” says Coulam. His house, which he designed in the bizarre, dripping style of the Spanish Modernist Antonio Gaudí, boasts stained-glass windows that he made himself. The floors, furniture, and even dining table are covered with spotted cowhides. A separate, circular art studio he built—where he makes everything from wood sculptures to wrought-iron gates for his estate—features brass-plated doors and porthole windows. His 28-year-old wife, Susie, who is from Thailand, often works side by side with him on her own art projects.

And then there’s the festival itself. Almost every year since its humble beginnings in 1974, when today’s crowded village was little more than the gravel pit Coulam bought that year, he has added a new attraction. The past few years have seen a series of elaborate gardens: a rose garden, a water garden, and this year, formal English gardens. Next year’s addition is going to be a $300,000 Greek amphitheater.

The objects and landscapes Coulam has crafted appear to be his major engagement with the world. As we rumble around his kingdom in his mammoth four-door pickup, he seems rather remote, entirely preoccupied with the environment he has created. He deflects questions about himself, instead pointing out projects he is especially proud of, such as the water gardens and the tree-lined parking lot.

But Coulam is more than an eccentric artist. He is a serious businessman, and he’s also a monomaniacal tyrant who will let nothing stand in the way of his idea of perfection. He has the reputation of being as quick to hire someone with no experience because of an intuition as to fire someone with a stellar résumé who doesn’t fit in. And despite his consuming interest in flowers and art, his language is unapologetically in the gutter. “People whine that he can be rough,” says chef Charles Prince, who is the largest food vendor at the festival, providing everything from alligator-on-a-stick to six-course meals served in the Feast Hall. “He’s got a reputation for being harsh. He’s driven by an obsession for quality, and anything he sees that’s not quality, you’ll get the message. But I think that his keeping the pressure up is what makes it good and makes it work.”

Not surprisingly, Coulam identifies with another purveyor of fantasy. “Everything I got I copied from Walt Disney. I got it right from that book,” he says, referring to The Story of Walt Disney: Maker of Magical Worlds, by Bernice Selden. One of the biggest mistakes Disney made, Coulam thinks, was not foreseeing the suburban growth that would one day hem in Disneyland. Coulam has guarded against that eventuality by buying up as much of the land surrounding the festival grounds as possible and even taking the step of establishing the town of Todd Mission (taking the name from a mission that once existed in the area), where many festival employees live year-round—all in all, some 1,200 acres.

King George was born in Salt Lake City, the third of six children in a Mormon family. “I was a bad dog,” he says

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