LYNDURST, NJ – In 11th century Spain, a nobleman trying to raise his hand with the queen’s skirt after a royal feast may be subjected to medieval torture methods.
Monica Garza, one of the many actresses who has played the Queen at Dinner and Star, said that dealing with this kind of behavior at the Medieval Times off Route 3 has been accepted as part of the job for far too long. .
Garza said management made her feel like a “singer” to request additional security protocols after she noted an increase in daring behavior from guests. Only after an incident in which a boisterous ticket holder approached her throne and tried to scream into her microphone, Garza said, did management install a chain to block access to her.
A desire to enhance security and other safety measures at the castle – where horse falls can be part of the job description – was one reason the queens, knights, squares and stables workers at Lyndhurst Castle on Friday voted to form a union.
The union’s efforts, first reported by the Huffington Post, prevailed on Friday, when employees voted, 26 to 11, to join the American Guild of Diversified Artists. Medieval followers will join the wide range of artists represented by the guild, including Radio City Rockettes, some circus performers, and character actors who perform at Disneyland—including Mulan and Aladdin, for example—in California.
Employees also strive for higher salaries (Garza receives $20 an hour, Squires starts at about $14 an hour), and higher bosses treat them like skilled workers—trained businessmen who engage in complex battles with spears, swords, and axes, and experienced actors who… More than just reading the lines. Medieval Times management did not respond to requests for comment.
“A big point in the union is just the basic respect,” said Garza, 25, a trained actor who describes himself as a history geek. “People will always take advantage of you when it’s something you love, because they know you’d do it for nothing.”
Many performers eventually fall in love with the job, even if they did not initially dream of working in the concrete castle, with its vast weapons hall and a seemingly endless supply of tomato soup. The two-hour shows are staffed by a diverse crew that includes a former Marine, former reserve singer for Elton John, music theater student turned entrepreneur, former park ranger, and actor known for his voice work on the video game “Grand Theft” robot.
“We’re a bunch of misfits,” laughs Sean Quigley, 33, the backup singer who’s also a classically trained actor from London, making him no need to fake a British accent. (The show was technically staged in Spain, but New Jersey fans aren’t selective.)
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On orders from the company’s Texas headquarters, Lyndhurst shows are designed to follow the same structure every night. Visitors here wear the same paper crowns and eat the same four-course meal as in Atlanta and Baltimore. Queens are paid to say the same lines as in the company’s other nine castles, where 1.5 million guests visited last year.
“Good nobles, welcome to the hall of my grandfathers,” Garza says, riding atop a white Andalusian man in an apron of boisterous children carrying luminous swords.
The queen was not in charge of the kingdom for long. The show had always cast the King in the title role, but about five years ago the company rewrote the script, putting a queen on the throne to meet demands for more substantial roles for women.
The new story goes something like this: After inheriting the kingdom, the Queen organizes a tournament in which six knights on horseback compete for the title of a braggart, but her power is threatened by a sleazy counselor who plans to marry her off. The dialogue is often drowned out by the aforementioned cries and the noise of “serfs and gangs” (in the Middle Ages they speak of waiters), who are known to end the evening with “money or cards, lady?”
For actors, who can perform the same script several times a week, and year after year, the streaks begin to feel tattooed on their brains – so they find ways to entertain themselves.
‘I will do a show where I pretend to be secretly in love with the Queen;’ said Quigley, who plays Lord Marshall, the show’s director, ‘I will do a show where I am secretly in love with a knight. “In order to keep it current, you can tell a different story in your mind.”
Quigley, who auditioned for a job at Medieval Times after struggling to make a smooth transition between London’s West End and New York’s theater scene, also amuses himself by assuming different accents. He experimented with Cockney drawl, performed the entire show like he was Sean Connery and put on a voice like Jon Snow from “Games of Thrones” – only when he tried to perform the entire performance with a lisp, the sound department sent a runner’s voice to tell him to cut it.
For Christopher Lucas, the video game voice actor who has also appeared on the daytime TV series, his improvisations come during a scene where, as the sticky Queen Counsellor, he follows through and talks about his adoration for oranges from Valencia in a sermon that edges on unravel. For reasons that even Lucas can’t quite understand, the audience loves it, and sometimes begins a hymn — “Oranges! Oranges! Oranges!” — and brings fresh fruit for him on their next visit.
“As an artist, these are the kinds of things you live for,” Lucas said.
Ultimately, the Medieval Times, which began in Spain and reached the United States in 1983, is about knights, who roam the arena on horseback before dueling and fencing for the Queen.
One of New Jersey’s most seasoned riders, Antonio Sanchez, was disillusioned with the idea of long-term employment in the US Marines when he saw on Facebook that Medieval Times was hiring. On a whim in 2014, he drove up to Lyndhurst Castle, walked to the horse stables, and was quick shoveling stalls and saddlebags before showtime.
“From behind the stables, you could hear the roar of the crowd,” Sanchez said, recalling the moment he began dreaming of becoming a knight.
To get the job, no experience with horses is required. As cadets’ apprentices, the men undergo hundreds of hours of training, learning how to ride and how to glide safely through the sand when rival riders “knock out” them.
“I don’t think I’ve ever run into a horse before,” said Joe Devlin, 28, who started as a boxer after he came home from a stint as a touring musician and was in desperate need of a job.
Protecting themselves with aluminum shields, the apprentices learn to fight choreography that will gradually stick to muscle memory.
Accidents still happen. Purnell Thompson, a stable worker hired after losing his job looking after farm animals at a local zoo, said the fact that the show is based on a stable of about two dozen horses adds an element of constant danger. In the arena of boisterous revelers, there are many potential triggers for horseback riding, including if audience members break the rules and hit their plates and metal bowls on the tables.
Once, when Devlin was in training, he broke his ankle while learning how to jump off a horse. Jonathan Bekas, a two-year-old jockey, sustained a knee injury and head injury, one of which hit a wooden shovel in the head. (Full-time workers receive health insurance.)
One of the reasons riders join unions is that they feel very underpaid given the risks they take on the job, said Becas — a 27-year-old trained stuntman who earns $21.50 an hour, up from $12 when he started as a boxer. “I am a knight, but I am also a human,” he said.
This is not the first time that a union vote has taken place in this castle. There was a similar effort in 2006, with complaints largely centered around a lack of job security and concerns that the Giants would become Knights too quickly. This vote went hard against the formation of a guild.
Even before Friday’s vote, employees said they were seeing changes. After news of the unions’ efforts became public, mobilize support from Gov. Garza, Phil Murphy, said the administration had put a more robust barrier on her throne.
Now, the knights had bargaining power, and they planned to use it.
“Becoming a knight is every little child’s dream,” Sanchez said. “But I’m growing up, and fun doesn’t pay the bills.”