Illinois State Fair-y tales
Thrills, scandal and Keith Moon meets the butter cow
A quarter-century ago, Harper’s magazine published what is considered one of the finest essays penned by an American writer during the 20th century.
Ticket To The Fair describes, in sometimes brutal detail, a transplant’s return to flyover country to attend the 1993 Illinois State Fair. The 15,000-word tome, reprinted in David Foster Wallace’s collection of works entitled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, smacks of elitism, an East Coast snob’s take on cheap carnival tricks, livestock, knit shirts and a paucity of black people amid suffocating August heat. Wallace takes along a local dubbed Native Companion who serves as foil to his highfalutin notions.
“I theorize to Native Companion (who worked detasseling summer corn with me in high school) that the state fair’s animating thesis involves some kind of structured, decorated interval of communion with both neighbor and space – the sheer fact of the land is to be celebrated here, its yields ogled and its stock groomed and paraded,” Wallace writes. “A special vacation from alienation, a chance, for a moment, to love what real life out here can’t let you love. Native Companion gives me a look, then rummages for her cigarette lighter, quite a bit more interested in that.”
Personally, I’d rather hang at the beer tent with Native Companion than Wallace, whose uppity take on the fair that year stands in marked contrast to the event as covered by local media. Ray Charles’ performance at the grandstand goes unnoticed. Carnies are icky and lecherous, but Wallace doesn’t mention that the fair featured 10 Ferris wheels, plus a gondola wheel, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ferris wheel’s world debut in Chicago. He doesn’t talk to Jaime Garcia, who each day rode to the top of the gondola wheel, then climbed outside and walked in place, feet striding steadily forward on the framework of the rotating ride, no balancing pole, 100 feet above the ground without safety net beneath, body silhouetted against the sky while necks below craned.
“Wanna see me die? Come back at 6:30,” the man from Mexico, who also did dangerous things on motorcycles, told fairgoers and the State Journal-Register. “The really hardest part is when the wheel starts moving. It, like, jumps.”
Native Companion, too, enjoyed the rides, much to the consternation of Wallace, who frets about tattooed(!) ride operators looking up her skirt as she is spun around in a contraption called The Zipper. “There is a distended scream from the whirling car, as if she is being slow-roasted inside,” Wallace, stationed on the ground, writes. He clears his throat, twice, and is about to put a stop to this when the madness ceases and Wallace’s high school prom date pops out. “That was fucking great!” she exclaims.
At least twice, the Illinois State Fair has been featured in novels. The year before Wallace covered the fair for Harper’s, The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller became a best seller, with the fair playing a cameo role, a place for Francesca Johnson’s husband and children to disappear while she, left alone on an Iowa farm, meets a photographer and has a life-altering affair.
“You’re sure you don’t want to go?” Richard Johnson, the husband, asks Francesca, played by Meryl Streep, before heading to Springfield with the kids to show off a cow.
“I’m positive,” Francesca, soon to meet Clint Eastwood, responds.
The fair plays a more prominent role in Beyond The Shadows of Summer, a 2005 self-published novel by Jonathan Zemsky, who writes of a 14-year-old boy working his first-ever job, selling ice cream at the 1955 state fair just one year after his brother’s death. “All kinds of people came to the fair, from all over the region,” Zemsky writes from the perspective of a boy still struggling from the loss of his sibling. “We got cowboys, councilmen and cops one hour and teachers, preachers and creatures the next.”
That, perhaps, is as good a description as any.
Outside literature, the fair has a rich history. This year marks the 125th anniversary of the fair moving permanently to Springfield. It’s drawn presidents and would-be presidents and big crowds and not-so-big crowds and scandal and controversy and grandstand shows both epic and forgettable. Amid occasional tragedy – at least 16 people have died at the fair – there is everyday triumph as kids and grownups win blue ribbons and, sometimes, riches. Two years ago, three champion rabbits – Clyde, Jeffrey and Bill – raised by a 12-year-old kid from El Paso in hiked-up jeans fetched $3,000 at the fair’s annual livestock auction. “He plans to use tonight’s winnings to invest back into his rabbit colony,” the announcer told the crowd, which seemed a perfectly reasonable idea.
Presidents and performers
Last year, sellers of pork chops and pizza and popcorn and other things complained, and loudly, to the media: Business is down, we’re not making money. Fair officials this year responded by lowering admission prices to $5, weekdays, for adults, who will have to pay $10 on weekends. Still a bargain, according to the Department of Agriculture, which traditionally runs the fair at a loss and says that fewer than 307,000 people attended last year. But who, really, knows?
Fudging fair attendance figures has been as traditional as selling corn dogs. Claims grew so outlandish that the SJ-R in 2003 hired people equipped with clickers to count fairgoers as they went through gates, one year after fair officials announced that 175,000 people had flocked to the fair on a single day. The newspaper clicked-and-counted 90,000 fairgoers on test day, 6,000 fewer than the state tallied. A dozen years later, the fair’s newly installed manager said that old tricks had resurfaced. There was, he said, no way that attendance in 2015 plummeted to 411,547 from more than 840,000 the prior year – attendance, he asserted, hadn’t been more than a half-million in a decade.
Nationwide, fewer folks are going to fairs than in past years, and the trend is true in Illinois, where the state fair once boasted annual attendance of more than one million. Admission has been free when presidents visit, and they do, but did 155,000 people really show up in 1952 on the day that Richard Nixon, then a senator and vice-presidential candidate, gave a speech at the grandstand? In 1971, fair officials estimated attendance at 150,000 when Nixon returned to the fair as chief executive. What about 1954, when fair officials announced that a record-setting 225,000 people streamed through the gates when Dwight Eisenhower, the first sitting president to visit the fair since Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879, made an appearance? Fair officials estimated that 135,000 came to the fair on the day that Ronald Reagan delivered a speech in 1986. Pity George H.W. Bush, the last sitting president to visit the fair: Officials estimated the crowd at just 75,000 when he campaigned inside the Coliseum in 1992.
Politicians remain a fair staple, as do grandstand shows. The Beach Boys and Willie Nelson once were practically house acts, with the former performing 14 grandstand concerts over the years and the latter logging an even dozen. Always, country music has been popular, with Jason Aldean, Chris Young and Thompson Square drawing more than 15,300 spectators in 2011, the best-attended grandstand show since 1995, when nearly 14,000 concertgoers saw Hootie and the Blowfish in the band’s prime.
More typically, fewer than 10,000 folks see any given grandstand show, with performers – think Foreigner, Alabama, MC Hammer and Culture Club – often past their heydays. Some artists, however, are timeless.
That just 9,100 people witnessed Bob Dylan’s 2001 performance seems incredible. Dylan can be fussy about where he plays. “I didn’t want to be part of that thing,” he once said about his refusal to make Woodstock. “I just thought it was a lot of kids out and around wearing flowers in their hair taking a lot of acid. I mean, what can you think about that?”
But Dylan apparently liked the Illinois State Fair. His 2001 concert was his second grandstand show – he also played the fair in 1989, when even fewer people bought tickets. Dylan’s performance at the fair 18 years ago was the work of a master. Listening to a bootleg recording all these years later, you hear an artist who sounds as fresh as the day he started. Better, even.
When he played the fair at 60, Dylan was at the beginning of a late-career resurgence unequaled in rock history. Love and Theft, considered one of his finest records, was released on the day 9/11 changed the world, just one month after Dylan gave a two-hour show at the fair that included a five-song encore. He was equally sharp, delivering “Masters of War” with cynicism and anger, and loose, with a groove on “Everything Is Broken” that settles the question of what “Theme From Peter Gunn” might sound like if Roy Orbison had played it.
Dylan bootlegs aren’t impossible to come by, but there are, so far as anyone knows, neither pictures nor recordings nor written descriptions of perhaps the most famous show in grandstand history. “We get lots of questions about it,” says Suzanne Moss, who sits on the board of the nonprofit that runs the fair’s museum. “But we don’t know anything about it.”
Rick Mari does.
Mari, a musician, was 15 when The Who and The Association played the fair in 1968. “It was wild,” he remembers. “A lot of people were just standing there with their mouths open. It was stunning to see such a thing at the time.”
The so-called Cavalcade of Music lineups, a staple of grandstand shows during the 1960s, offered cheap entertainment, with tickets costing $1 and performers ranging from Bobby Vinton to Iron Butterfly to the New Christy Minstrels to, naturally, the Beach Boys -- groups that promoters figured would appeal to modern youth. The Association, with hits including “Windy,” “Never My Love” and “Along Came Mary,” were called “six long-haired rock ’n’ rollers” in the daily paper when the show was announced months earlier; The Who was dubbed a “vocal group.”
Mari says The Who arrived the day before the show, in time for someone from the crew to buy a guitar – a Rickenbacker, most likely – from House of Music. The instrument did not last long.
The setlist included “Happy Jack” and “Magic Bus,” Mari says, but not “I Can See for Miles,” a just-released song that is notoriously difficult to play live. Mark Kessler, owner of Recycled Records, also was at the show but has a foggier recollection that doesn’t include the set list. “They destroyed every instrument in the history of mankind,” Kessler offers confidently.
The bill was, arguably, as odd as Jimi Hendrix opening for The Monkees the prior year, and, in what surely ranks among the worst decisions in grandstand history, The Who opened for The Association.
The Who’s finale rhymed with “mayhem” as Roger Daltry kicked speaker boxes while Pete Townshend bashed his guitar. “He just whaled it down into the stage – it just exploded,” Mari says. Keith Moon acted like Keith Moon, splintering his drum kit. “Girls swarmed the stage, trying to get a piece of the guitar,” Mari remembers. “Things were smoking. It was just craziness.”
Cops in crewcuts rushed on stage to drag off girls in hippie garb desperate for souvenirs, Mari says. The innocent stood amazed. Jeff Basler, who played E-flat bass, a tuba-like instrument, had opened the night along with classmates in an ensemble band from Oregon High School in Ogle County – playing the grandstand was the band’s reward for winning a high school band contest earlier in the day. “Old Devil Moon” was one of their go-to numbers. “We’re like, 16, 17 years old, from a small town,” Basler says. “We were looking at our instruments. Our director goes, ‘Don’t get any ideas.’”
After an intermission, The Association came out and was well received. They sounded, Mari recalls, just like their records. “Half an hour after this bedlam, all this craziness is done, everybody is rocking back-and-forth, clapping their hands and singing ‘Windy,’” Mari says. “The Association was big shit back then. If it wasn’t sold out, it was close.”
Tragedy and scandal
Spectacle has been part of the fair almost from the start.
In 1858, five years after the fair’s debut and during an era when the exposition had no permanent home, an eight-year-old girl and her three-year-old brother became unwilling adventurers when they were left alone in the basket of a hot-air balloon that got loose from moorings after a trip originating at the fair, which was held in Centralia that year. Panic struck as the balloon rose into early evening skies then disappeared, according to news accounts. Search parties were deployed and messengers sent in all directions: Be on the lookout for a runaway balloon.
S.M. Brooks, aeronaut and owner of the balloon, was nonplussed, according to a story in the St. Louis Democrat. The balloon, he predicted, would come down in a couple hours and travel no farther than 30 miles. There was, he said, nothing to worry about, unless the kids landed in woods, or if the girl stepped out first, allowing her younger and lighter brother to rise again. “Apart from these perils, in themselves improbable, Mr. Brooks apprehended no danger to the little voyagers,” the St. Louis paper reported. A farmer about 18 miles from where the balloon broke loose found it in a tree near his house at 3 a.m., its occupants cold but safe eight hours after the adventure began.
Not every fair story ends so well.
At least 16 people have died at the fair, mostly in race car or motorcycle accidents. The deadliest year was 1966, when two motorcycle racers were killed one day after three men died when a catwalk attached to the grandstand roof fell while soldiers were preparing for a rappelling exhibition. Nearly 40 people on the ground were injured.
But such years are anomalies. Mostly, it’s corn dogs and people watching and hoping for nice weather and beer tents, which are at the heart of an only-in-Illinois fair story.
Beer hasn’t always been a given at the fair. Gov. William Stratton banned beer at the fair in 1953, and the fair remained dry until 1973, when Gov. Dan Walker turned taps back on. Despite suds, the 1970s were tumultuous years for the fair, with auditors and grand juries probing allegations of kickbacks and bribery and finding problems with fiscal management. In 1975, a Sangamon County grand jury issued no indictments but released a report excoriating fair officials for granting no-bid open-ended contracts ripe for abuse. A manure removal contract was one example.
“Estimates far more difficult than estimating how many animals and resultant manure will be at the state fair are made in state government every year,” the grand jury reported. “The members of the grand jury have been appalled by the number of witnesses who told the grand jury that they did not know what to do and that no one would tell them how to do whatever they should have done.”
Things got so bad that the state lost money selling beer in 1976, running a $50,000 deficit on sales of 200,000 cups, despite having a monopoly. The fair manager saw no cause for concern during an interview with the SJ-R.
“Why does a beer tent have to be looked at as a place where we have to make money?” he asked.
Contact Bruce Rushton firstname.lastname@example.org.