It had been a pretty laid-back Sunday before Monet Lerner’s afternoon shift at Medieval Times. She poured a cup from her Mr. Coffee and watched a little “Beyond Stranger Things” on Netflix. She thought a lot about acting, and did some vocal warm-ups. Then she pulled on her shiny black rain boots, said goodbye to Hoppy Joe, her rescue bunny, and headed out.
Lerner’s drive to work takes about seven minutes in her used Nissan Sentra which, like her condominium, she never would have been able to afford if she hadn’t gotten lucky and landed what for now is her dream job.
She works in a replica of an 11th-century castle off the Stemmons Freeway north of downtown. It can pack in 1,000 people who pay $60.95 (less for children or anyone with a coupon) to put on paper crowns, slide behind long counters and tear apart chicken with their hands while watching a low-tech, two-hour drama that wraps elements of professional wrestling inside a Renaissance fair.
As the fog from dry ice floated out over the arena’s sand pit and waiters set slabs of spongy garlic bread in front of the audience, Lerner adjusted her gold cape and rode out on an Andalusian stallion bred especially for the show. She was Doña Maria Isabella, the sole ruler of a kingdom filled with battling knights.
For the 34 years Medieval Times has been in business, that monarch has been a man. But the show, which draws an estimated 2.5 million customers each year, is replacing all of its kings with queens. And its peculiar brand of dinner theater — a sort of G-rated “Game of Thrones” — is taking on an unlikely resonance amid the national jousting over gender equality provoked by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
The new production, with a woman wearing the crown, had its debut here last fall, then opened at the castle in suburban Chicago. It was rolled out in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, on Jan. 11. By year’s end, a queen will reign in all nine of the castles in North America.
In the show’s old plot, the king had to fight off a challenger from another realm using a knight who bested five others in a tournament. In the new script, the queen has taken over for her late father (presumably the king from the previous show). She presides over a tournament to find the best knight in the land; drama ensues when a knight who has been acting dishonorably challenges her authority.
Leigh Cordner, a former Marine who left his job as an FM disc jockey 30 years ago to join Medieval Times, directs the show. He started rewriting it a year and half before the sexual harassment accusations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, chef Mario Batali and a host of other men started a national conversation.
“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 said. Cordner was simply responding to audience members who kept asking why women played nothing but princesses. (On the other hand, the show still refers to its waitresses as wenches.)
The joust-and-eat prototype for Medieval Times was created in 1973 by an entrepreneur who wanted to capture the tourist trade in Majorca, Spain. Since the American version began in Orlando, Florida, in 1983, almost 66 million people have attended.
Here in Dallas, the production runs Thursday through Sunday; on a busy Saturday, they’ll run three shows, and go practically nonstop for the nine days during spring break.
Medieval Times has a campy cachet among the young, and the rich and famous. Celebrities routinely show up at the castles in New Jersey and Southern California. In Dallas, Katy Perry and about a dozen of her pals took front-row seats on a Saturday night this month.
“She ate everything,” said Gretchen Midkiff, the Dallas marketing and sales manager.
A different queen was on the throne that night. Lerner, 27, shares the role with three other actors, including Quinn Coffman, 23, a close friend who was her roommate until Lerner saved enough money to rent the condo.
Both see larger implications in their coronation. “If it can help empower women and we can be role models for these young women and men and show you need to respect women, then it is very fortuitous timing,” Lerner said. “It gives you the chills.”
But on a recent Sunday evening in the lobby of the Dallas castle, the #MeToo movement hadn’t shown up. As guests wandered around with $17 souvenir schooners of beer and watched Lerner perform some preperformance knighting ($20 extra), questions about the social significance of the new show were largely met with blank stares.
One Australian tourist allowed that it was a clever idea, but many audience members said they had no inkling — or didn’t care — that the show had changed.
By the time the performance ended, John Freeman, 38, had formed an opinion. He didn’t like it one bit. He was there celebrating his sister’s birthday. It was the family’s fifth visit.
“The king gives it a more powerful feeling,” he said. “You can just feel the emotions better.”
His son, John Jr., who is 16, said he was there mainly to watch the knights fight. His daughter, Miakoda, 13, just shrugged.
His wife, Stacey Freeman, 34, thought the queen freshened things up. “In my everyday life, I don’t see that I’m treated any different than a man,” she said, “but I know it happens.”
Stacey Freeman was more concerned when a reporter mentioned that Medieval Times is thinking of tinkering with the menu, which is exactly the same at every castle.
Women in corsets and skirts, and men in tights and tunics (called serfs) pour every guest a metal bowl of tomato soup that tastes like Campbell’s slightly more sophisticated sister. Next they hustle through their stations serving 24-ounce roasted chicken halves from deep sheet pans.
Then come stubby ears of corn steamed with soy butter, sugar, paprika and a little cayenne pepper, and large russet potatoes, each cut in half and roasted in oil with a host of spices that include garlic powder.
“Just do not change the food,” Stacey Freeman implored. “Do not take my corn away. I love that corn.”
Frank Dameron, 60, is the director of food service for the company, which is headquartered in nearby Irving. He lost his job as chef for a hotel chain during the last recession. Medieval Times was a life saver.
Even though the menu is formulaic, Dameron tries to innovate. Before the show, he was in the kitchen working on a recipe for roasted carrot and zucchini sticks. Guests aren’t given cutlery, so every dish has to be easy to pick up with fingers. There is no sauté station. Everything is cooked in ovens so big you could walk into them.
Dessert is another potential area for experimentation. Everyone gets a slice of lemon poundcake, which arrives at the castle frozen, in cardboard boxes. Could they make the course in-house? Dameron is pondering a chocolate crepe.
The menu has changed before. Cornish game hens were the original entree, but guests balked at how bony they were. The company has added some optional vegan dishes, a three-bean stew and hummus; it dropped the pork ribs after diners complained that the meal was too protein-heavy or had religious objections. Besides, the ribs were a bit of a pain: The racks varied too much in size.
“You don’t want to be sitting next to somebody who’s getting something bigger than you,” Dameron said.
The food is popular with the staff. If there are leftovers, crew members eat chicken on benches in the locker room or walk out with foil-lined bags containing the complete meal, minus the soup and cake.
Lerner is allowed to eat while perched on her throne during the show, since the story line is built around a banquet. But on this night she was already full. She has been experimenting with a paleo diet, and had eaten some spaghetti squash with tomato sauce and garlic she made in her slow cooker.
In the stables, a knight, Kyle Calloway, 24, was making do with a coffee-flavored Monster energy drink as he warmed up for his star turn.
Three years ago, he was a carhop at a Sonic Drive-In in Garland, Texas. He is into parkour and freerunning, in which devotees run through a city using objects like walls and park benches as a kind of athletic obstacle course. He thinks that helped him get the job.
The switch to a queen hasn’t made much difference, he said, except in the part of the show when she rebukes the sexist knight who defies her.
“You do get a huge reaction from the females in the crowd,” Calloway said. But he doesn’t spend much time thinking about it. “All I do is eat, sleep, joust, repeat.”
After the show, Lerner drank some water, took off her microphone and found her Sharpie. She had to make one more trip to lobby to sign autographs and perform any last-minute knighting ceremonies in the same formal, vaguely English accent all the actors are encouraged to use.
She gets paid by the hour, and doesn’t mind having to do her own makeup at a sink near the toilet stalls in the locker room or to work the lobby before and after the performance. It’s show business, and she has loved it as long as she can remember.
Her father, Fred Lerner, was a stuntman, working in movies like “E.T.” and “Die Hard.” When she was a girl, he cracked his head open jumping out a window on the set of “Days of Our Lives.” The accident wasn’t his fault, she points out, but he was never quite the same after that.
Instead of attending a high school, she was home-schooled so she could dedicate herself to acting and writing music. Her first credit was as a mean girl on “The Bernie Mac Show.”
Then her dad died of lung cancer. She was 18. Her career faltered. “I just collapsed,” she said.
She had to get out of town. Friends had moved to Dallas. Why not join them?
Lerner got a job as the manager of a gelato shop. Then she enrolled in acting school, and landed roles in some well-received local productions. She worked princess parties for kids. (She still teaches vocal technique and acting to children.)
A year and a half ago, she saw a notice on a school bulletin board for a princess job at Medieval Times. She was hired in an instant.
There weren’t many guests left in the lobby on this night, so her shift ended early. She handed her dress and cloak to the woman in charge of cleaning costumes and pulled on an oversize Walmart T-shirt printed with an American flag superimposed over a white tiger.
When she heard that some audience members didn’t seem to grasp the larger social significance of replacing the king with a queen — and that some even wanted the king back — she seemed slightly crestfallen.
“Well, at least a seed has been planted,” she said.
Lerner grabbed the Medieval Times umbrella that management gave her as a holiday gift, punched out and said good night to the operations manager camped at a desk near the back door. She walked out into the damp Dallas night, a foil-lined bag of chicken and vegetables in her hand.
Hoppy Joe was waiting.