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Best scenes happened backstage
Tom Jones was itchy. The sexy singer had just charmed the pants and panties off a raving crowd at the 1970 Allentown Fair and he was too revved up to retire for the night. He wanted to see a movie after 11 p.m. in a town where movie houses were already closed.
To the rescue came Al Moffa, owner of the Americus Hotel. That night he opened his theater to Jones and his entourage. The fortunate group watched The Night of the Iguana, a humid Tennessee Williams drama starring Richard Burton, Jones fellow Welshman, as a defrocked minister hiding out at a small Mexican hotel crawling with edgy guests. An 18-year-old girl, played by Sue Lolita Lyon, lusted after the ex-clergyman the way Lehigh Valley women had just lusted after Jones, tossing hotel keys onstage as he sang Whats New Pussycat?
It was just another colorful, crazy story starring an entertainer who has played the fairs grandstand. Since Guy Lombardos orchestra performed the sweetest sounds this side of heaven in 1956, making Allentown the first fair to plug into the popularity of TV idols, the track at 17th and Chew streets has presented a 4-H exhibit of emergencies, feuds and surprises involving everyone from Johnny Carson to Ed McMahon, Roy Rogers to Trigger, Donny to Marie Osmond.
The following tales are based on the memories of longtime fair president Martin H. Ritter, recorded by John F. McHugh, historian for the fairs 150th anniversary committee. They prove celebrities can be as stubborn as pool-diving mules and as slippery as sweet-potato wrestlers.
Merv Griffin was mad. The singer was in Ritters office, demanding $42 he said he lost during the 1956 fair. The games of chance were rigged, insisted the man who first spun the wheel of fortune with the ditty Ive Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.
Ritter disagreed. He authorized a refund of $17, to teach Griffin a little humility.
Six decades later, Griffin and Ritter still dont see eye to eye. Griffin cant remember their 1956 showdown, said an assistant in his Beverly Hills office. His official response is That sounds off the wall.
Strangely, Griffin wasnt at the 1956 fair to perform. He came to visit Lu Ann Simms, a Your Hit Parade regular who was singing at the grandstand. Griffin returned to Allentown in 1969, this time as a headliner. He was joined by singer John Davidson, a frequent guest on his TV talk show, and Allentown native Lillian Briggs, a comic trombonist nicknamed the Bombshell of Rhythm.
By then Griffin was famous as the impresario of Jeopardy!, Lets Play Post Office and other game shows. Today, hes just as well known for running casinos.
Trigger II was ill. Roy Minninger, stage manager of the 1962 fair, was worried that the horse wouldnt be able to perform in a few days with his owners, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. The previous year Minninger, who was the M in H&M Concessions, had ordered a pint of ice cream before each show to settle Lawrence Welks queasy stomach. This time he made a late-night, nervous phone call to Stewart R. Rockwell, an Emmaus veterinarian.
After Rockwell diagnosed colic, Minninger made a strange request. He wanted Trigger II moved immediately to another Lehigh Valley city. Rockwell was puzzled; as far as he knew, the fair didnt have stables in Easton.
Because if Trigger is to die, better he dies in Easton and not at the Great Allentown Fair, Minninger explained. Every kid in America will hate the fair, but they will not know where Easton is!
Trigger recovered in time to march, waltz and carioca. There are no reports if he entertained the animals in the 4-H stalls.
Liza Minnelli was happy. It was Aug. 9, 1974, the night after her ecstatic first show at her first fair. Backed by an orchestra, she had brought down the house with the title song from Cabaret, which two years before had earned her an Academy Award as best actress. Now she was backstage, renewing old acquaintances with Emmaus native Chuck Kalan, who met her in 1964 while dancing in Flora, the Red Menace, her first big Broadway musical.
Minnelli was so happy, she just had to blurt some major news. A Morning Call photographer/writer, who had been shepherded backstage by Kalan, became the first media type to hear her announce her engagement to Jack Haley Jr., producer of Thats Entertainment! The new documentary on MGM musicals featured The Wizard of Oz, which starred Haleys father, Jack Sr., and Minnellis mother, Judy Garland.
That night Minnelli did something else unusual. From the stage she asked spectators to visit a new musical theater in Whitehall run by Kalan, her favorite Broadway dancer.
That year Minnelli broke the fairs box-office record for a solo act. Her free ad triggered a modest sales rise for Kalans Crackersport Music Theatre. We had an upsurge for about a week, he recalls. People forget real quick.
Minnelli married Haley the next month. They divorced five years later. This past March she wed producer David Gest, her fourth husband.
Steve Martin was sweating. Here he was, after his first show at the 1979 fair, soaked from joke telling and banjo playing and balloon sculpting. The problem was, he didnt have another white linen suit on hand, his next performance was scheduled to begin in about 90 minutes, and all the nearby laundries were closed on Labor Day.
Desperate officials picked Pat Greenawald as Martins personal, one-time-only laundress. She had two excellent credentials. One, she was married to Bill Greenawald, the fairs security chief. And, two, she lived a quick drive away.
Greenawald was whisked home in a limousine, accompanied by two police officers and Martins suit.
I was thinking: What in the world am I going to do with this? she remembers, still tickled by the absurdity of it all. I cant say the suit was wringing wet, but it was very damp. But linen is very hard to press. And, of course, God forbid I should burn it or scorch it or, worst of all, shrink it. So I dried it a little bit, and I pressed it the best I could. All the while I was thinking: Why in the world doesnt he travel with at least 20 white linen suits?
She returned to the grandstand in time for Martin to change into the fresh suit and hit the stage on time, peering at faraway fans through binoculars he had bought at the fair. All in all, her spotlight had burned for maybe an hour.
Wynonna was feeling that lightning had struck again in Allentown. Her 1993 fair concert with Clint Black was delayed more than two hours by an electrical storm. Now, three years later, she was back as a solo act, blessing the onstage engagement of two local listeners who fell in love to one of her songs. Pleasing them was another act of generosity from a star who likes to surprise fans with phone calls.
After Barbara accepted Russ proposal, Wynonna changed from singer to lay preacher. It takes three to stay married, she said, the third party being the Lord. She could have offered another of her favorite sayings, one applicable to fairs everywhere: Wash your hands and say your prayers, Jesus and germs are everywhere.