All photos Darrow Montgomery
All photos Darrow Montgomery

Before you can start the nearly 300 hours of arduous training required to become a sword-fighting knight at Medieval Times, you must first pass a physical test wearing a heart monitor. 

“Usually the test occurs in the morning when people haven’t had coffee and they’re nervous, so they often fail,” says Josh Brown, a 30-year-old veteran knight at the Hanover, Maryland location of the 11th-century-inspired dinner theater giant with nine locations nationwide. Knowing this, he’s generous with second chances. 

Most people underestimate how draining the job is. “I’ve hired guys recently who worked here for maybe two or three weeks and then realized it’s not for them, they can’t handle it,” Brown says. “My ex-wife, she didn’t have an appreciation of the physical toll it takes on you—especially after two or three shows a day. I fall asleep on the couch every night.” 

It’s a gig that belongs in a documentary about dangerous jobs, but instead Medieval Times has been featured on Cake Boss, Hell’s Kitchen, and Celebrity Apprentice. On the big screen, who could forget that scene in The Cable Guy?

“You’re riding horses that are going 20-30 miles per hour and you’re asked to jump off,” Brown explains. The performance, almost two hours long, is choreographed for safety reasons. Even someone wearing drunk goggles could discern the falls are fake. “The job itself is dangerous. This is where the 200-300 hours of training comes in. We limit as many accidents as we can,” says Brown. 

Why is this knight different from all other knights? After 11-and-a-half years with the company, Brown has earned the title of head knight. He hires and fires the squires hoping to be anointed knights, and trains both staff members and horses. But he also gets to claim the villainous lead role in the show. One only needs to spot his painted-on Inigo Montoya-like scar to know he’s the bad guy. 

But behind the scenes, Brown is a Medieval mensch. “He’s good with the guys, strong when he has to be and nice and understanding when he needs to be,” Medieval Times general manager Nate Thompson says, adding that Brown is the first to don his knight uniform to volunteer at community events such as visiting the children’s ward at area hospitals. 

An Army brat born in Germany, Brown started working on his knight moves to cure his awkward teenage blues after community college and a few traditional desk jobs didn’t pan out. A friend who was working as a princess at Medieval Times encouraged him to apply, and soon after Brown’s office became an 1,110-seat arena inside a castle abutting a mall. His 6’3” frame and athletic volleyball player build prepared him well for faux hand-to-hand combat.

On days when there are shows, Brown says he arrives two hours early to start his day-to-knight transition. Knocking swords in tights and addressing over-sugared children as “my lord” and “my lady” sounds like medieval torture, but Brown says they’re able to stay engaged with guests show after show.

“We’re a bunch of 30- and 40-year-old goofballs. It’s a locker room environment” he says. “The most fun I have is when I’m fighting one of my more senior guys and we really push each other. I come away with sweat dripping off my beard.” 

Though Medieval Times hires female squires and actors, there are no female knights. “Historically there weren’t any, so it doesn’t make sense,” Brown says. 

Most of the men have wavy hair—long enough to be tied in a man bun after a hard day’s knight. Thompson says while Fabio-length locks used to be a requirement, there are now work-arounds. “We’re looking for a certain look, that era, that romantic long-haired knight kind of look,” he says. “It’s more photogenic, but times have changed. Now guys with short, trendy hair can wear a hood in the show.” 

Dinner and tournament shows are offered almost daily. Upon crossing the threshold of the Arundel Mills shopping mall just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway you enter the “Hall of Arms,” which has an atmosphere akin to a crowded airport terminal. You only need to stay there long enough to pick up your paper crown—which you’re expected to wear for the duration of the evening—and perhaps to pound a mug of mead piña colada before entering the arena. 

Once inside, the “four-course meal” begins with garlic bread and what tastes like Campbell’s tomato soup poured from what looks like the kind of coffee pitchers you find in break rooms at conferences. There are no utensils other than your God-given hands, which doesn’t register as a challenge until your server plops down the next plate, heavy with half a roasted chicken, half a potato, and half an ear of buttered corn on the cob.

The only way to make the meal passable is to make sure there’s at least one vegetarian in your party. The meat-free alternative—a cauldron of rice and beans swimming in more Campbell’s-esque soup—comes with little packets of hot sauce. Offer your first born child in exchange for the right to dribble some liquid fire onto the bland bird. 

Make sure you have a buddy to remind you not to rub your eyes with your filthy, hot-sauced fingers. And buy your vegetarian friend a round of drinks because he or she will be ridiculed by Medieval Times’ staff, including not-so-subtle off-with-your-head gestures. 

Both meals end with a slice of pound cake and coffee. 

Adult tickets for dinner and the performance start at $59.95 and can go up to $81.95, before tax and gratuity, for more VIP experiences. “If we just sold the meal it would be about $10 per meal,” Thompson says. “But our cost is closer to $4-$5 per person for food.” 

The performance starts with what looks like dressage. Horses perform precise dance moves and prance around in various patterns. Then the royal party perched above the arena introduces the knights with great fanfare. The king, who is a dead ringer for the Burger King mascot, acts as MC. The color of your crown corresponds to the knight you’re required to go ga-ga over. Cheer him on as he partakes in games of skill before the jousting and sword-fighting begin.

Occasionally knights pause to toss roses into the crowd, and at the end of the show a lucky lady is chosen by the winning lad. Her prize is a moment with him under the spotlight. It’s a reminder that men used to flirt with women on horseback rather than on Snapchat. Also, like Jazz in the Garden, outdoor movies, and apple picking in Loudoun County, a date at Medieval Times feels like an unabashed—yet charmingly sincere—effort to get laid.

Medieval Times got its start in Spain in the 1970s before the concept was exported to the U.S. in 1983 with the first location in Florida. What else has endured over those 34 years? Not Reading Rainbow, not Fraggle Rock, not The A-Team.

Somehow the company has single-handedly kept dinner theater cool across many demographics and across the country. Throughout the show, groups celebrating everything from school field trips and new pregnancies to 80th birthdays received shout outs.

“It’s that ambiance,” Thompson explains. He’s been with the company for 17 years. “How many restaurants can you go and let loose and strip away traditional thoughts? You’re eating with your hands, you’re allowed to yell … it brings you to that romantic time period inside a castle with a king.” 

One third of Medieval Times customers are return visitors, so the choreography and storyline change frequently, according Thompson. He says 80 percent of guests are individuals as opposed to school groups, and the main demographic is women 25 to 50. But chances are your invite will come from someone else. 

Remember that friend you had growing up who rocked a Legend of Zelda t-shirt and bribed you with all-you-can-eat Smartfood Popcorn to get you to watch The Outer Limits? Maybe he invented internet cafes later in life, or was an early adopter of Google Glass? When he decides to wed, don’t be surprised if his bachelor party is a wild knight at Medieval Times.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to lhayes@washingtoncitypaper.com.