On November 12th 2001 the W.C.J.A. lost a good friend and stalwart champion of jousting. LONG LIVE THE KING!
William G. Huttel, known to thousands for his portrayal of England’s King Henry VIII at Renaissance festivals and other events from Florida to Ontario, died suddenly Monday in Temple Hills, Maryland, of an apparent heart attack. The king, as he was affectionately known to his friends, fans and strangers on the street, was 48.
A native resident of Forestville and Ocean Pines, Maryland, Huttel played the infamous English monarch for the past 13 seasons at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville. His booming laughter and immense stature–he stood 6-foot 8-inches and weighed well over 300 pounds–made him an instantly recognizable symbol of the popular outdoor event, which last year attracted more than 290,000 visitors. “Bill stood out, not only by his size,” said general manager Jules Smith. “He had an aura that could capture any crowd. During the festival I’ve watched hundreds of children, and even some adults, line up to be knighted by him. For them, he wasn’t just a character. You really got the feeling you were in the presence of somebody special.”
Huttel came to his unusual occupation by way of a classic chorus-line-to-leading-man story, and once there, defined the role for any who may try to come after him. “Bill’s greatest secret was that he brought himself to the role,” said Bobby Rodriguez, owner of the Florida Renaissance Festival, where Huttel had also played Henry VIII for the past 8 years. “He was a huge man in stature, but even bigger in heart.”
An only child, Huttel greatly admired his father, a World War II navy veteran who outlived the sinking of his ship and was later commissioned by the navy to write a life raft survival manual. The young son grew up dreaming of one day joining the navy himself and working as a deep sea diver. His size precluded entrance into the navy, however, but led to the second great passion of his life: football. In college, he played defensive end for two seasons before knee injuries sidelined his career. He also loved to sing in his powerful baritone and studied voice in school, leading him to joke he was the only music major to go to Catholic University of America on a football scholarship. He graduated from Catholic in 1975. Throughout his life, he was a devoted Redskins fan.
After college, Huttel worked for a time as a road manager for the Second Coming Band, a popular top-40 cover band that became something of an Ocean City institution.
In 1988, Huttel agreed to help out a friend by working at the Maryland Renaissance Festival as master of the list, a sort of glorified announcer on the then-unamplified jousting field, a job perfectly suited to his prodigious vocal capabilities. The next year, the festival decided to switch monarchs from Queen Elizabeth I (Henry VIII’s daughter by Anne Boleyn) to Henry and held extensive auditions to fill the role. Huttel was passed over in favor of a Washington-area actor with more impressive theatrical credentials. As the 1989 season approached, Huttel prepared once again to spend his time making announcements on the jousting field.
Then, just four days before the opening of the show, the actor hired to play King Henry abruptly resigned. In a bind, the Maryland festival asked Huttel to take on the role with practically no rehearsals. Like an open fumble on the 20 yard line, Huttel grabbed the opportunity and never looked back.
“The first weekend we literally had a more experienced actor walking directly behind him whispering ‘Look to the left. Smile. Wave. Now look to the right,’” said Carolyn Spedden, who was beginning her first year as artistic director of the festival when Huttel became king. “But in remarkably short time Bill was doing the role as if he’d been born to play king.”
In fact, it was Huttel’s striking, almost eerie, resemblance to the real King Henry that so often startled even casual students of history. Many of the portraits done during Henry VIII’s reign from 1509 to 1547 were painted by German master Hans Holbein. In his day, at somewhat more than six feet tall, the real Henry was considered a giant of a man. Huttel’s extra inches in height seemed proportional, and each year when he dyed his hair and beard red to match the color of the Holbein portraits and donned costumes meticulously copied from those paintings, the illusion was absolute. But the similarities were only skin deep.
To historians and many of the English, Henry VIII is a decidedly ambivalent character. An oftentimes ruthless tyrant who had two of his famous six wives beheaded, he consolidated English power and broke with the Roman Catholic church over his desire to divorce his first wife and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. When the break came, he was not beyond looting the vast riches of the nation’s convents and monasteries to finance his own luxuries and to buy the friendship of influential supporters. In America, however, such historical unpleasantries are generally overlooked, and Henry VIII is usually remembered as the archetypal hale-friend-well-met monarch, with arms wide open, a shank of roast in one hand and generous flagon of porter in the other.
It is this image that Huttel so wonderfully embodied. During his 13 years at the Maryland festival the event gradually progressed through each of the six wives, allowing plenty of opportunity for patrons to glimpse the less savory aspects of Henry’s character. But none of the nastiness ever seemed to rub off. “People asked me, does Bill have many friends?” said Washington actress Theresa Flynn, who played wife number three Jane Seymour, “and I’d answer, only every person he ever met.”
“Modern monarchs could take a lesson in how to be a king from Bill,” said Spedden. “I never heard him utter a bad word about anybody. He treated everyone he met–regardless of what they did–with the same respect. And he was universally well-loved as a result.”
It was this unique quality that brought Huttel such success–and, say his friends, personal satisfaction–in the role. In addition to the Maryland and Florida festivals, Huttel played Henry for four seasons at the Ontario Renaissance Festival in Canada and in innumerable smaller events up and down the East Coast. As a result, it was not unusual for him to be recognized, and warmly greeted, by complete strangers in public, a recurring motif in many of the tales shared among his friends.
Mary Ann Jung, who played the fiery Anne Boleyn to Huttel’s Henry in both the Maryland and Florida festivals, remembers one season spent bowing before Huttel in front of a jousting arena of startled fans as he angrily ordered her beheading on trumped-up charges of adultery. Yet they remained good friends throughout, and for years thereafter. One evening, Huttel was visiting Jung and her husband and stayed well into the wee hours. When he went to his car to drive home, he discovered he had parked in a space reserved for a neighbor, who had arrived home and parked so as to block him in. “He had to knock on my neighbor’s door at two in the morning and wake him up,” said Jung. “So there he is, and there’s my neighbor whom he’s never met before, and Bill says, ‘I’m sorry, I seem to have parked in your reserved space.’ And my neighbor looks at him and doesn’t blink. ‘That’s no problem, your majesty,’ he says. ‘I’ll move my car at once.’”
Huttel is survived by an uncle, Paul C. Staubus of Lusby, Maryland. An early marriage ended in divorce