“Are you ready to be a queen?” Queen Isabella asks the young girl standing in front of her as a mid-size crowd of tourists gathers in the main hall of a replica castle on Beach Boulevard on a recent Monday night. “It’s quite exciting,” she assures the child.
Just before show time at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament in Buena Park, actress Alexa Moffo performs knighting duties for the general public, officiating over the ceremony that turns commoners to nobility starting at the low price of $20 per thrill.
Moffo herself is a newly annointed noblewoman—she and five other actresses play the lead role in Medieval Times’ latest show, which debuted at the sole California location of the dinner-theater chain on March 16. “As the princess, we had a little tiara, and as the queen, of course, we got an upgrade,” she noted of the ornate gold crown adorned with large faux rubies and pearls. Princesses, as Moffo was for about a year, used to get their own tiaras and have a bit more freedom in choosing their headwear. But now that the role was phased out, the crown is one size must fit all.
The metal adornment is a bit larger than Moffo’s head, but she makes it work by padding the interior. To observe her, one would never know—thanks to this small adjustment, the accessory stays straight just above her brunette curls, making the beautiful young woman look perfectly regal. And besides, padding makes wearing the crown more comfortable.
While script changes aren’t uncommon for the show—the Irving, Texas-based company revamps the production every five years or so—this particular changing of the guard hit the headlines harder than past incarnations. Doa Maria Isabella now presides over “the Realm,” as well as the jousting tournament and the queen’s feast that accompanies it. This marks the first time a queen has been the sole ruler and master of ceremonies at the show. While there have been queens and princesses in the show, they played a secondary and supporting role up until now. “The matriarchal move came as a result of guest feedback on the roles that women played within the fantasy storytelling production,” reads a recent press release from Medieval Times. The e-proclamation describes the fictitious Queen Isabella as a “firm, but kind, ruler” who inherited the throne at the passing of her father, the former king.
“Our new female queen is a sign of the times and we couldn’t be more excited she is reigning in Southern California,” Pedro Goite, Medieval Times Buena Park’s general manager, said via the press release. “Historically, female characters have held strong supporting roles in our production, but now we are showing a woman in charge who is respected throughout the kingdom for her authority, leadership and incredible strength. And she definitely has risen to the occasion.”
The announcement of a new matriarchal storyline was met with both cheers and jeers that were not unlike the audience’s response to the drama that unfolds during the actual show. Folks have celebrated their champion or booed and hissed their foe almost as if on cue, depending on where they’re seated in the political and social arena.
Leigh Cordner, the show’s director, said in a New York Times report from earlier this year that he began to write the new script over a year and a half before the #metoo and #TimesUp movements began. “The fact that a woman is sitting on the throne in our show at the same time the gender equality movement hit is a coincidence,” he told the Times.
But Medieval Times is in the business of making money, and as such, it makes sure there’s a little something for everyone, even for the trolls who think women must stay in the dungeons of the dark ages. So the Grendels among us should fear not: The show still refers to the female servers as wenches. “They’re definitely not doing anything particularly feminist or politically correct,” says Nancy McLoughlin, an associate professor of history at UC Irvine who teaches medieval European history with an emphasis on gender. “There’s plenty of historical precedent for women to be in power.”
Though it wasn’t common for a medieval queen to rule her kingdom without being married, it did happen, McLoughlin explains. The most prominent example is Queen Elizabeth I of England, daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and who is sometimes referred to as “the Virgin Queen.”
“There’s nothing controversial about a queen watching a tournament and awarding a winner,” she says.
So, then why the outcry?
“The objection to having a queen or having a woman watch a tournament—which is an idea medieval people came up with themselves—and its part as the response to the #MeToo movement or a response to feminism in general, is misplaced,” McLoughlin observes. “It’s people taking their frustration out about what’s going on now. . . .
“The reason why Medieval Times is a fantasy—and why it works—is that everybody can walk into that event, with themselves intact as they are, and then experience the Middle Ages as they’re being presented, and they don’t care if it’s historically accurate, right?” she asks. “It has to be accurate enough to where they feel like they get to go to a different time and place.”
And who doesn’t want to feel that?
The new script even has an unexpected, though probably unintentional, nod to Orange County’s own history. There’s a rather lengthy back and forth between Queen Isabella and her adviser, Lord Cedric, in which a reference is made to the queen’s cousin, King Rodrigo of Valencia, Spain, sending a gift.
“Is it oranges?” asks the adviser excitedly, then goes on for several minutes about how great the oranges in Valencia are.
Lord Cedric is right—Valencia is known for growing sweet and delicious oranges. Which is exactly why William Wolfskill, the pioneer Orange County agriculturalist, named the orange hybrid developed on his farm in SanTana in the mid-19th century a “Valencia orange.” Developed just a few miles from where the Medieval Times castle is now, it became the most popular citrus used for juice in the country.
A 32-year cornerstone of the Beach Boulevard tourist district, second only to Knott’s Berry Farm in longevity in the immediate area, Medieval Times has become a piece of Orange County history itself. The show began in the 1970s in Spain and worked its way stateside, opening the first castle in Kissimmee, Florida, in 1984. The company pulled a reverse-Disney and opened their second location in Orange County two years later. The Buena Park castle opened next to Knott’s Berry Farm and the Movieland Wax Museum (RIP) in 1986 anno Domini, moving into what was previously another tourist attraction, “The Kingdom of Dancing Stallions.” It later served as the setting of the iconic Medieval Times scene in The Cable Guy, starring Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick. (“SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!”)
Over the past three decades, there have been several styles of figureheads playing the lead in the show including count, master of ceremonies and king. For just shy of 25 years, actor Robert “Lawrence” Whatley of Cypress held court at the Buena Park location as the lead role in its various incarnations—most recently as King Don Carlos.
Whatley—who drew comparisons to Willie Nelson, both in appearance and salt-of-the-earth demeanor—was a Shakespearean actor by training. According to first-hand accounts, he also enjoyed model trains, the High Sierras, strong drinks and Disney.
He retired his crown at Medieval Times in April 2014, an occasion that was marked by the Orange County Register as the “end of an era.” After Whatley’s final performance before retirement, he received a standing ovation, according to the paper. A small photo of him still hangs on a bulletin board in the costume room.
Whatley passed on to the big castle in the sky on March 24, just eight days after Queen Isabella made her debut at the castle he called home for a quarter of a century.