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Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010 03:52 am

A grand tradition at the Grandstand

50 years of entertainment at the Illinois State Fair

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Darius Rucker (above, far right) returns to the Illinois State Fair Grandstand in 2010. His former band Hootie and the Blowfish (above) performed at the grandstand in 1995 and 2003.

It wasn’t too long ago that the popular rock band Hootie and the Blowfish sold out the Grandstand at the Illinois State Fair. In 1995, the year after late author David Foster Wallace wrote about the fair in Harper’s Magazine, more than 13,350 people from around the state packed the venue to see the band perform their soon-to-be-multi-platinum album Cracked Rear View. The Illinois-born Wallace didn’t think much of the fair – its Midwestern charms didn’t seem to jive with his adopted East Coast proclivities – but that didn’t stop more than 604,000 people from coming to the fair in one of the hottest years anyone could remember. The band played the state fair again in 2003.

Darius Rucker, the band’s lead singer – often mistakenly called “Hootie” himself – will return to the Grandstand at this year’s fair, but not with “the Blowfish” in tow. (Hootie and the Blowfish were allegedly nicknames for two of Rucker’s college friends and didn’t actually refer to any band members.) Rucker is now a platinum-selling solo country music star, and his third appearance at the Illinois State Fair carries on a tradition of big-name acts at the Grandstand that goes back more than 50 years.

Originally built in 1894 as seating for horse races and livestock auctions, the Grandstand hosted its first auto races in 1910, and tractor shows eventually joined the lineup. It was rebuilt in 1927 and hasn’t changed much physically since then, though the variety of acts has certainly evolved.

The rock trio ZZ Top took the grandstand in 1997 and again in 2008.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ILLINOIS STATE FAIR MUSEUM
“In 1927, it was probably a premier [venue] in the United States,” says Pam Gray, chairperson of the Illinois State Fair Museum board. “If you go to other state fairs, they don’t have really cool places like that.”

Gray is on a mission to preserve the fair’s history through the museum, and researching the Grandstand is part of that project. Museum researchers have compiled at least a partial list of Grandstand acts through the years. Although it’s unclear when the Grandstand first started hosting television and music stars, the 1958 fair featured big names like famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Joining him was actress Jane Russell, perhaps best known for her leading role opposite Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and actor James Garner, who was then probably best known as Bret Maverick in the popular comedy-western show “Maverick.” Prolific comedian Jonathan Winters, one of the stars of “The Jackie Gleason Show,” appeared that year as well. Since that early show, hundreds of big-time entertainers have taken the Grandstand by storm – crooners, comics, rockers and rascals.

Some performers became favorites over the years, such as the Grand Ole Opry, which performed at the Grandstand 13 times between 1959 and 1974. Renowned country singer/songwriter Willie Nelson appeared at the Grandstand 12 times between 1979 and 2001. (In 1987, Nelson donated half of his $50,000 performance fee to the FarmAid charity he helped create.) Country rockers Alabama played the Grandstand 11 times between 1983 and 2001, while surf-rock greats the Beach Boys have played the Grandstand 15 times, doing multiple shows on at least one occasion.

Early in the Grandstand’s history, television stars were a major part of the show: Bob Hope, the Three Stooges, Red Skelton, Dick Clark, Lorne Greene, Art Linkletter, Andy Griffith and Ron Howard all took the stage. In the late 1960s, the focus began to shift more toward musical acts, though some musical performers like Jimmy Dean and John Davidson were also popular television stars when they appeared in Springfield.

Eventually, the Grandstand became a music-centric venue, and the list of big music acts to take the stage in the past 52 years reads like a who’s-who of famous performers. There were country starts like Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, Dolly Parton, Roy Clark, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Eddy Arnold, Brooks & Dunn, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Daniels, George Strait and a host of others. Rock legends like Iron Butterfly, Cheap Trick, Chicago, Def Leppard, Foreigner, Boston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Nazereth, Neil Young, REO Speedwagon, Velvet Revolver, ZZ Top and Ted Nugent have shown Springfield a good time from the Grandstand stage – the same stage that has held jazz, soul and blues artists like B.B. King, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores, Dave Brubeck, Pete Fountain and Ray Charles. Acts that may elicit a nostalgic laugh now were once major attractions at the fair – acts like Liberace, Engelbert Humperdinck, Captain and Tennille, Hall and Oates, The Bay City Rollers, Sonny and Cher and The Osmonds. Rock pianist Jerry Lee Lewis played at the Grandstand in 1971, but canceled in 1979 and 1982. There is even evidence that Elvis Presley might have played at the Grandstand stage, though not during the State Fair.

Garth Brooks took the Grandstand in 1990

Fair manager Amy Bliefnick and Grandstand manager Carol Faires have worked together on Grandstand booking since 2005, though both women were involved with organizing the fair for several years before taking over their management posts. They say planning for a fair sometimes starts while the previous year’s fair is still going.

“The hardest part is figuring out who’s going to be a one-hit-wonder and who’s going to go all the way,” Bliefnick says. “Somebody that’s big now may fizzle out by next summer. We pay attention to industry studies, we scour other venues and we listen to our agents, but sometimes we just have to take a chance.”

When country musician Garth Brooks took the Grandstand stage in 1990, Faires says, he was still a relatively small-time performer. Brooks’ first album, named after himself, had just been released in April of that year, but it wasn’t until right after his Grandstand performance that Brooks’ career really took off, Faires says.

“We hurried and booked him again for the next year,” she says. “He sold out immediately.”

Sometimes, booking the big names doesn’t work out as planned, Bliefnick and Faires say. They recall booking pop artist Fergie for the 2008 fair, expecting ticket sales to go wild, but attendance at that concert was way below average, they say. Timing is another factor to juggle, Bliefnick says, because prices sometimes rise rapidly. She says the fair had been in negotiations to book R&B singers Rhianna, Chris Brown and Ne-Yo together for under $100,000 a few years ago, but the cost quickly skyrocketed when they signed a multimillion-dollar touring contract, and fair organizers were forced to look elsewhere for acts that year.

Though talent agents and industry analysis are a big part of the booking process, the governor of Illinois also has a say in who performs at the fair, says former fair manager Joe Saputo. Though he now markets the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, Saputo recalls taking over the fair in 1995, when country singer Clint Black was already booked. Then-governor Jim Edgar wasn’t thrilled at that selection, Saputo says.

“We were kind of on pins and needles about that, and it might have even been on Governor’s Day, which would have made it even worse,” he says. “But it all worked out. We didn’t really catch any heat over it.”

Willie Nelson performed there 12 times between 1979 and 2001.
Saputo says Edgar always paid for his own tickets and made a point of attending shows.

“He always thought it was important to support the fair,” Saputo says. “I would say for at least 50 to 75 percent of the shows, Gov. Edgar would attend. He wouldn’t always stay through the whole show because he had a lot of other events, but he would come regularly.”

 Saputo says the governor’s aides usually poll the governor for suggestions, and Edgar apparently suggested ditching longtime performers like Willie Nelson, a favorite of Edgar’s predecessor, Gov. Jim Thompson.

“I think Gov. Edgar was kind of tired of that and wanted to change things,” Saputo says. “Same with the Beach Boys.”

He remembers the fair’s agent at the time, Jam Productions of Chicago, tried to convince him not to book Hootie and the Blowfish in 1995 because their asking price had risen from $25,000 to $60,000, but Saputo booked them anyway. They ended up grossing $210,000 at the sold-out show, plus an additional $60,000 in merchandise, he says.

“That gave me a little more confidence to not always go by the rule of thumb,” Saputo says. He follows that up with the story of booking singer Sheryl Crow, who cost $90,000 but only brought in 2,700 fans.

“She had just released a big album, but it hadn’t gotten enough listens,” Saputo says. “The timing on that one kind of backfired.”

Art Linkletter appeared at the Grandstand in 1970. His long-running TV show “House Party” featured a segment titled “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” in which Linkletter conversed with children about everyday topics with comedic results.

Managing the fair was beyond his wildest dreams, Saputo says, recalling how, as a young man, he worked as a valet parking cars at his father’s restaurant across the street from the fairgrounds.

“I grew up going to the fair,” Saputo says. “I have a lot of great memories, both from going as a kid and from working there.”

This year’s Grandstand lineup is sure to create some lasting memories as well, with country acts like Lady Antebellum and Darius Rucker, rockers Cheap Trick, Shinedown and Chevelle, and a cornucopia of other well-known performers during the 10-day fair, which runs Aug. 13 through Aug. 22.

Ticket sales this year have been strong, Bliefnick says, pointing to a sold-out Lady Antebellum show and a Selena Gomez show that is selling “very well.” The cost to book the largest acts was collectively more than $710,000 this year – $125,000 for Lady Antebellum, $100,000 each for Darius Rucker and Selena Gomez, $85,000 for Shinedown, $75,000 each for Cheap Trick and Blondie, $50,000 for MercyMe, and $25,000 each for Eric Church, Blake Shelton, Mitchell Musso and Chevelle. Most entertainers also get a percentage of the ticket sales above a certain dollar point, which varies from artist to artist. That may sound like a lot of money, but a sellout crowd of 13,500 on a single night could gross around $300,000, Bliefnick says. Ticket prices for Grandstand shows are pretty reasonable, she asserts, especially considering the performers.

“If you went to Chicago or St. Louis, you’d pay way more to see acts like these,” she says. A quick online comparison confirms her claim: Tickets to see Lady Antebellum in Toronto, Ontario, on Aug. 7 range from $37 to $105, compared with $18 to $28 at the Grandstand. Meanwhile, Darius Rucker tickets for Aug. 7 in Dallas, Texas, cost between $25 and $55, compared with $18 to $25 at the Grandstand.

Joe Saputo, the former fair manager, says the overall cost of attending the fair is justified.

“When people attend the fair, if they just took a step back to see the massiveness of it and what it entails to put it on, compared to what they have to pay, it is a very economical way to create some great memories with your family,” he says. “I have six grandchildren now, and I plan to be a part of their experience at the fair as they grow up. … To a kid in preteen years, going to the fair is such a great experience. I think the State Fair tradition to gear it toward the family and youth will keep those young people coming back when they become parents.”

It’s hard work putting on the fair, Bliefnick and Faires say, and it wouldn’t be possible without their staff of janitors, maintenance people, ushers and other workers.

“I love my job,” Faires says. “It can be stressful, but with all the hustle and bustle, it really gets in your blood. It’s exciting and rewarding, especially knowing that it may be a big deal to someone else.”

“When we sell 13,000 tickets and the stands are full and the crowds are cheering, it’s just wild and crazy,” Bliefnick says with a smile. “You just have to love it.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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