The 80th annual Arkansas State Fair, Little Rock, rebounded from a 2018 event that had six days of rain and attendance of barely over 300,000 people, to nine days of sunshine and attendance of 472,308.
Doug White, in his first year as president and general manager, said the lack of rain was the big reason for this year's success. White had been a member of the board before taking over from Ralph Shoptaw, who left to join Mike Featherston's Goldstar Amusements.
It was the second highest attendance in the fair's history, going back to 2015, when Shoptaw was at the controls. It was also reminiscent of the days when the late Jim Pledger, and before him, the late Johnny Holmes, were in charge. Dates this year were Oct. 11-20.
White was quoted as saying that a new parking lot helped traffic flow immensely. “The addition of the safe and secure lot where we could park 1,200 vehicles really helped the experience of our patrons. Not having to park offsite, knowing that the Little Rock Police Department and our sheriff's office and state police were here helping to protect all of them, made it a great 10 days.”
The fair finished the third year of a five-year contract with North American Midway Entertainment to provide the carnival. “They did a fantastic job,” White said. In charge for NAME was Tony Diaz, who also heads up the carnival's Canadian Unit. With him was his regular management team of Wayne Kunz, Scooter Korek, John Anderson, and Michael Hupalo. The same crew that was at the State Fair of Oklahoma in Tulsa, before moving into Little Rock.
Booked in with rides at Tulsa and Little Rock were Terry Swyear of Swyear Amusements, Alan Cockerham of Carnival Americana, which was formerly known as Bill Hames Shows, and Jeremy Floyd, with his Space Roller and several kiddie rides.
After Little Rock, NAME played the Greater Gulf State Fair in Mobile, Alabama. Speaking on Tuesday, Nov. 12, Diaz said, “We finished there eight days ago. We had rain and cold at the beginning that was hard to make up, but we finished with three good days in a row. We actually lost the first weekend.” NAME's All-Star Unit was there, headed up by Rich Wyatt and Carl Snoddy, and Floyd booked the same equipment that he had at Little Rock and Tulsa. Mobile was the final date of what Diaz called a very good season where it was evident that the economy was good, and people were spending.
Diaz then asked if it were cold in Nashville, where Christine and I live, and I told him it was 28 degrees. “I'm in McAllen, Texas, and it's just 39 degrees here on the Mexican border.” Diaz and his wife, Daphne, were flying the next day to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the Canadian Association of Fairs Convention.
Entertainment at Little Rock included Rick Springfield, Craig Morgan, Ralph Tresvant, and the Oak Ridge Boys. Also, the Show Me Swine Racers, Reptile Adventure, Sea Lion Splash, and the Exotic Animal Petting Zoo.
The 65th annual Mobile Fair, held Oct. 25-Nov. 3, featured the Marshall Tucker Band, Lanco, the Equestrian Chaos Stunt Troup, Pirates of the Sky, and various local acts, according to Grounds Executive Director Josh Woods.
I can't help but think of Buddy Clewis, who was the building manager in Mobile when I started working for Amusement Business in 1972. I met him at the International Association of Auditorium Managers Convention in San Diego. It was also where I met Thaxter Trafton, who managed the Bangor, Me., State Fair and Arizona State Fair, besides becoming president of the National Basketball Association's Cleveland Cavaliers, running the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, and even owning a carnival, Shamrock Shows. He had a couple other heavy duty jobs and always said that I got him every job he ever held. That's an exaggeration, but I did help with a few.
Anyway, I'm in this bar and I hear this feisty little former Golden Gloves boxer say to the crowd, “Nobody gets into my building until I get my share.” I introduced myself, asked if I could quote him on that and was told, 'You do anything you want with it, kid. That's the way it is. If you want to know more, call Buddy Lee (at the time, a leading talent agent in Nashville). He knows the score.' Clewis wound up having a few legal scrapes with local officials, but always came out on top. You talk about colorful characters! Carnivals don't have the patent. Clewis once had himself wheeled into a courtroom stretched out like a mummy. It was a different time.
I've known Don Frenkel, general manager and owner of the Pensacola, Fla., Interstate Fair, for a long time, too. The first time I ever called for a report on how the fair did, his late father said that if I wanted to know about the fair I should come and see it.
Over the years, I formed a closer relationship with Don and his late brother, John. Milt Kaufman's Gooding's Million Dollar Midways had the fair for years, and Christine and I got invited to a lot of fancy dinners at the finest restaurants in Las Vegas and Tampa with Milt and the Frenkels. Rick Reithoffer's Blue Unit of Reithoffer Shows is in the middle of a multi-year contract now.
“We got rained out the first Friday, and had two other days with rain, but not total washouts,” said Frenkel. “We still wound up pretty good financially and the last day was beautiful. The crowd was terrific. Reithoffer did a great job for us, as they always do.”
The 85th annual fair was held Oct. 17-27. Concerning the rain, Frenkel said, “It had not rained around here for eight straight weeks before the fair started, but that's the way it goes.” Frenkel said he has used David Musselman of Capital International Productions, Negley, Ohio, to book his talent for many years. “He always comes through.”
Talent at Pensacola included Starship, featuring Mickey Thomas, Mitchell Tenpenny, Jordan Davis, Seaforth, White Tie Rock Ensemble Presents a Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Thane Dunn's Elvis on Tour, and Not Quite Fab, A Tribute to the Beatles.
From Pensacola, Reithoffer went to its final date of the year, the National Peanut Festival in Dothan, Ala., which was held Nov. 1-10. “Two tropical storms affected us in Pensacola, but we had a strong finish and a very good fair,” said Reithoffer.
At Dothan, the show broke all records for attendance and gross revenue at the 76th annual event, according to Carrie Cavender, longtime office manager. The new president is Beverly Lamkin. Reithoffer said it was a little cool at the beginning but then the weather turned great. “It was a great way for us to end our season.”
Dothan entertainment included Az-Izz Band, Creativity Band, Russell Dickerson, Jimmy Allen, The Manhattans, Demolition Derby, Matt's Family Jam, Eudora Farms Petting Zoo, Lew-E the Clown, Stilt Guy Gary Ledbetter, Swifty Swine Racing and Swimming Pigs, Pittman Magic, Farmer Ed, chain saw art, and Wade Henry, Unicycle Juggler, who is known as the High Roller.
If you bet on football games, as I do, how can you explain the Atlanta Falcons beating the New Orleans Saints? Without going to the dark side, as my buddy, Buddy Lee used to do when strange things occurred, I'll chalk it up to an off day for the Saints, and this week I'll try to figure it out all over again. I'll be wagering with my heart when I pick the Philadelphia Eagles over the New England Patriots, but you never know. For those of you whose seasons are over, safe travels home and have a great winter.
One of the best friends I've ever had, the ubiquitous Bill Alter, who worked most of his life for National Ticket, is not attending the park show in Orlando, Florida, for the first time in 56 years. He will definitely be missed. Boy, have we had some great times together!
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Have all great days, and God Bless!