Friday, January 27, 2023 Jan 27, 2023
60° F Dallas, TX

Living Legends: Heroes for Hire

Once upon a time, these guys were salesmen, welders, and students. Now they’re full-time knights in shining armor, donning tights, wielding swords, and dazzling audiences five nights a week at Medieval Times.

Medieval Times is a lesson in the circuitous nature of modern chivalry. Eight knights are employed in the white castle on Stemmons Freeway across from Market Hall. It is no life for the inflexible and incurious. The current roster includes a college student who signed on to play the trumpet and six months later was raising a battered shield to fend off a spiked-ball attack. Another, while applying for a job as a receptionist, mentioned that he was a black belt in karate. He was led forthwith to the arena. A third is just out of the Marines where, had he not broken his foot, he was going to re-enlist and enter sniper school. “This is the perfect job,” the ex-Marine told me, sporting a wide and convincing grin. “You stay in shape, but you don’t have to shave. I’m a hero five nights a week and get paid more.”

First knight Jeremy Turner, lieutenant Michael Winship, and I crowd into Winship’s blue pickup and make our way from the castle on Stemmons to the Commerce Street viaduct. There’s an errand to run before afternoon practice and the 7:30 p.m. show. We’re headed to a machine shop in Oak Cliff to see about having some new swords fabricated, but Turner doesn’t want to talk about swords or life as a knight. He rarely does. Real estate is his love, foreclosures his Guinevere.

Turner recently transferred from the Medieval Times in Orlando where he bought and sold houses on the side. “I always loved Monopoly,” he says from the middle seat, squarely in front of the air vents. “Payday, too. Payday has stocks and bonds and real estate.” He plays it in his head until we cross the river. “I’ve got a good board game at home,” he says. “It’s called Cash Flow. It was created by the guy who wrote Rich Dad, Poor Dad. He does seminars and stuff.”

Turner will need a different outfit to collect rents in Texas. He is dressed in black, sparkly tights and tall riding boots with spurs. The tights look like chain mail. “Do you ever feel awkward wearing that around town?” I ask. He looks down to see what he has on. He’s been a knight for 11 years.

“Nah,” he says. “I usually wear a Medieval Times t-shirt though.”

Winship drives in uncharacteristic silence. Ask him a question on any subject—say, hydroponics—and the answer will drip toward knightly affairs. It’s understandable: he’s been a knight for 15 years, including four as a full-contact jouster in a traveling show. He once took a lance in the head.

The machine shop is decorated in steel and linoleum. None of the men inside wears tights, but they are not put off by Turner and Winship’s sudden appearance. “So the reason you use titanium, is it the sparks?” the metal man asks.

“Not really,” Turner answers. “It’s the weight.” The metal man pulls out a large sheet of paper and begins tracing the swords.

“Do you need the serrated edge?” he asks, working his way around the swords’ eccentricities. “Do you need these points?”

Turner isn’t thinking about edges and points. “I don’t know if anybody told you,” he says, “but we lost our manufacturer so we’re looking for a new source for swords.”

The metal man looks up, his eyebrows raised. He appreciates volume. “How many do you think you might want?” he asks. “Ten?”

“Maybe a hundred,” Turner says. “But I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

“What’s this called anyway?” the metal man asks.

“An espada,” Winship answers. “It means ’sword’ in Spanish. The other one is a mandoble. It’s a two-handed sword.”

There’s a reason for the Spanish names. Medieval Times began with two dinner theaters in Spain. Today it has operations in Orlando, Los Angeles, Chicago, Myrtle Beach, Toronto, and of course, Dallas. The Dallas location is the smallest; nevertheless, nearly 240,000 guests enjoyed the show last year.

After he finishes his patterns, the metal man looks up at Turner and Winship with autograph eyes. It is not uncommon. “I’ve got to say that I’ve been to the show a couple of times,” he says. “The riding, the spearing of that little ring. It’s really something.”

When we get back to the castle, knights and squires fill the arena floor, hacking and skewering each other in mock battle. (Squires are apprentice knights.) The bulk of a modern knight’s workday is filled with practice, which is a good thing given that the weapons are dangerous and the horses are fast. Ralph Prodoti is working out with a bola, a ball and chain. He looks positively scary. In fact, at the beginning of this year when Walker, Texas Ranger filmed a show at Medieval Times, Prodoti was chosen as the villain. “I’ve looked this way since I was 15,” he tells me during a break.

“Even the goatee and sideburns?” I ask. They run at wild angles.

“Even then,” he says.

Prodoti worked as a welder in New Haven, Conn., until he got sick of the cold. Before moving to Florida, he went to New York City for one last fling. He stumbled into the Medieval Times retail store. Something clicked with him. The guy behind the counter handed him a brochure and told him, “They’ll hire you in a heartbeat.” Prodoti went to the Medieval Times castle the first week he was in Orlando. They didn’t hire him in a heartbeat. They didn’t want him at all. They thought he was a criminal. But he kept going back. He showed up on a day when three or four people quit after some commotion in the stable. That was eight years ago. “The bad part of this is knowing that I’m not gonna get to do it forever,” he says, nodding toward the arena. Out in the sand, the knights whirl and fall—swinging heavy iron within inches of each other’s heads.

“Are you careful who you fight with?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. “It’s like dance partners. You dance better with some people.”

The present show is historically based if not historically nitpicky. It seems that the army of a certain King Alfonso of Perelada has just defeated Robert VIII, the Blackheart, in pitched battle. King Alfonso decides to throw a medieval tournament to celebrate his great victory. In the middle of the tournament—after games, falconry, and food—a sorcerer informs the king that Blackheart’s son is coming to avenge his father’s defeat. The sorcerer goes on to tell King Alfonso that only the winner of a tournament can produce a champion who can defeat the Black Knight. Each fight begins with a joust and ends in two-footed, highly choreographed fury.

A couple of hours before the show, Turner and Winship go over the lineup. There are only six slots for Alfonso’s knights and one for the Black Knight, which means that somebody will sit out tonight or work as a squire. Turner calls to one of the younger knights.

“Hey, Pony,” he yells. “How’s your back?”

The knight lowers his sword. His opponent puts down his axe. “It’s okay,” he says. “Sore.” It dawns on the young knight that Turner is looking to cut someone from the show. Imagine a baseball player being pointed to the popcorn stand and you get the picture of the knight’s face as he runs over to Turner. His back grows stronger with every stride. By the time he reaches the rail, he is healed.

“You’re a squire tonight,” Turner says to him.

“Oh, man,” the knight protests weakly. He walks away mumbling.

“So who wins tonight?” I ask.

“Red and yellow,” Turner says.

“How do you choose who wins?”

In answer, Winship holds up a sheet of paper with names written in boxes matching up horses with knights and knights with each other. He starts with the champion and works his way back to the beginning of the show. It takes him three minutes.

“Is being champion a reward for hard work or something?” I ask.

“Not really,” Turner says.

Prodoti takes a seat nearby. “It’s more time in the ring,” he says. “The champion has to fight for 15 minutes longer than everyone else. He fights twice.”

The practice ends, not with a whistle, but in exits of ones and twos. The knights head to the locker room or chat in the stands. The squires reorganize the equipment and prepare the arena for the show. The general sense among the knights is that the current batch of squires leaves something to be desired. “It’s hard to get the squires to work,” one knight says to me. “There’s not much work ethic anymore.”

Knights are a superstitious bunch. One takes a shower precisely an hour and a half before show time so his hair will be perfectly coifed. One arranges his capes in his locker with the knots perfectly centered over the hook, while the knight across the way dresses from the right side of his body to the left. They believe in curses, too. The worst curse is the family curse. If a knight’s family is in attendance, the knight is guaranteed a terrible show.

Fifteen minutes before the show starts, the crowd files into the arena wearing paper crowns. Some already hold souvenirs. They find their seats in sections painted to match a knight: red, blue, yellow, black and white, red and yellow, and green.

On a walkway behind the spectators’ seating, a fully attired Prodoti is pacing. He’s the Green Knight tonight and will square off against Turner—ball and chain versus an axe. “Man, am I fired up tonight,” Prodoti says. He scans the crowd for good-looking girls. The knights are quite skilled in finding them.

“I’ll cheer for you,” I tell Prodoti, and immediately feel silly because I mean it. Something is happening to me, to the rest of the crowd, to the knights even. “Thanks,” he says, still pacing and looking out at the crowd. Finally, just before the lights dim and the music starts Prodoti wheels. “I’ve got to go,” he says, and is gone.

Moments later, Prodoti, Turner, and the rest of the guys thunder into the arena on the backs of Andalusian stallions. By then the music is soaring, the colors are streaming, and the squires bear bright flags and smiles. The crowd stands and screams. I stand with them. Winship and I both yell to Prodoti, and he shoots us a big grin. It’s hard to imagine him ever retiring. “Sometimes,” one of the knights told me earlier in the day, “they scream so loud your hair moves.”