Adorned in the latest 17th-century accessories — leather moccasins, corsets, elf ears — a trio strolled past a shop at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. A curmudgeonly voice called out to them from the shadows.
A man in rags, filth smudged on his face and teeth rotting, stepped into the sunlight. One of the “nerds” did a double take, chuckled, and walked on.
Next, a child with feathery flourishes drawn on her cheeks walked by.
“You got your face painted,” the man growled. “It didn’t do any good.”
So says the Rat Catcher, one of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival’s most enduring — and most divisive — entertainers. Known for the clever insults he flings at patrons and the grotesque lengths he’ll go to for a laugh, the Rat Catcher has been a staple of the festival for more than 40 years, and a legacy for the man who created him, actor Carr Hagerman.
“I’m the one who says all of the stuff you’re not supposed to be saying,” said Hagerman, 58.
Audiences eat it up, most of the time. They fill wooden benches and laugh heartily while the Rat Catcher lampoons the patrons who walk by with no idea they’re about to be accosted by an aging street urchin with a vaguely cockney accent and honking horn.
Most of his targets crack up by being caught off guard. Some families with kids turn back to engage in extended bits. Others, like a gaggle of teens, beeline away, fast. It’s up to Hagerman to know how to zero in on the best foils for his humor.
“I don’t think I’m necessarily a great performer or a typically gifted improviser,” he said, “but what I’m good at is engaging people and being able to read what I can do with them.”
The man behind the makeup is as amazed as anyone that a character who’s mean and dirty (he’ll actually dig turkey legs out of the trash and eat them) can be so beloved. A credenza in his home displays handmade gifts that fans have given him.
Even more surprising, he said, is how central the festival has been to his life. Hagerman essentially grew up there and never left, as drawn to the spontaneous interaction with his audiences as they are to his antics. Over four decades, the Shakopee fair, with its creaking village shops and jousting track, has become a second home to him.
Hagerman was 14 when he tried out for the festival, inspired by a 1632 Rembrandt print of a “rat catcher” he saw at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
His mother, Marilyn, was an actress at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, and Hagerman had the performing arts in his genes. But at his audition, dressed in a fur vest and face slathered with foundation makeup, stage fright gripped him.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. So he turned his frustration outward, and started yelling at people. He got hired.
“The insults that I’m known for all came out of anxiety,” he said. “It just seemed like I couldn’t contain it.”
Hagerman was a quieter kid off stage. His Hopkins childhood had been marred by the divorce of his parents, his struggles with attention deficit disorder, and sexual abuse at a summer camp, he said. At the festival, he found acceptance.
“I had a place where I had a family that wasn’t broken.”
It was there that he met a pair of stage magicians just a couple years his senior, who took him under their wings. They worked those summer weekends together, and they later invited Hagerman on tour with them.
“It was odd seeing him do the Rat Catcher at 16,” said Penn Jillette, half of the famed magic duo Penn & Teller. “Carr came up with this character who was more world-weary than he had any right to be.”
But it worked. Audiences seemed to love being insulted by Hagerman, who presents a far more distinguished air when the rags come off. His friends say it’s because he has an underlying sweetness to him.
“If you’re doing stuff that’s essentially negative, you have to be completely magnanimous and completely full of love, or you will fail,” Jillette said. “That is the absolute test that Carr passes.”
Indeed, bookish Hagerman is nothing like the Rat Catcher. At his home in Richfield one recent afternoon, he was perusing a copy of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, a 1752 manual on morals and etiquette.
“It’s such a counter for what this life is,” he said. “The older I’ve gotten, I’ve become really interested in this transaction. How can I get away with this stuff? Why do people enjoy being yelled at?”
Books and business
Hagerman never finished college, instead investing time and energy in his burgeoning career. He has primarily made his living lending his crisp, deep voice to national television commercials. And yet every summer he’s back at the festival, playing the Hyde to his Jekyll.
One festival patron who initially had no tolerance for the Rat Catcher was Marian Hagerman, Carr’s future wife.
“I remember when I would see him in the distance, I would turn around and go the other direction,” she said.
They met early in the summer of 1988, and come August as the festival approached, Carr told Marian about his late-summer job.
“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m dating the Rat Catcher,’ ” said Marian. (She has since come around and now operates a couple of stands at the festival, including Rat Catcher Coffee.)
He may have won her over, but patrons who don’t appreciate the Rat Catcher’s brand of humor occasionally will lodge complaints with the festival. Robert Beller, director of business and legal affairs for the festival, will field those calls.
Hagerman said sensitivities to his jokes have grown since he began performing the character in the free-flowing 1970s.
“Everything was up for grabs then,” he said.
Now, he is careful not to be too provocative or politically incorrect. His safe zone is to criticize festival culture itself, rather than innocent individuals who might not appreciate being called ugly.
“I yell about the price of the place, the bad food, the long lines, essentially calling the enterprise of the entire place a joke. I can do that. But I can’t do the interpersonal anymore.”
Hagerman doesn’t dress up as the Rat Catcher as much as he used to. Partly, he needs to protect his voice for his commercial work. And he’s busy. A dozen years ago he took over as artistic director for the whole festival, overseeing up to 500 performers each weekend.
He has also established a public speaking career, advising major corporations on strengthening relationships with customers — knowledge he’s picked up as a street performer. In 2006 he wrote a business book on the subject, “Top Performer.”
In January, he’ll come out with a book of his own photos titled “Prologue: The Art of Performing at the Renaissance Festival.” He calls it “my valentine to the performers.”
When he hires young actors, he looks for kids like he was, “who have a talent and don’t know where to put it,” he said. With any luck they’ll learn, as he did, that a summer job playing dress-up can be not only career-launching, but a friendly place to return to again and again.
“The Renaissance Festival,” he said, “is like the land of misfit toys.”