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You Want It? Fair’s Got It : With 313 Acres of Fun, Don’t Forget Walking Shoes

Times Staff Writer

OK, here’s a tough one:

Where can you buy a $600 crystal ball from Italy, ride the tallest portable Ferris wheel this side of the Mississippi, milk a cow, register to vote, buy a lamb, show off your best layered chocolate cake or pickled relish or homemade beer, get your feet massaged and teeth checked, watch Chinese acrobats, call a hog, purchase a log cabin--or a time share--eat a falafel and discover all the kitchen gadgets you never knew existed or needed?

A) The 50th annual Del Mar Fair.

B) The 106th annual Agricultural and Horticultural Fair for the County of San Diego.

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C) The Southern California Exposition.

It is all of the above, and it opens today at the Del Mar Fairgrounds for an 18-day run that, its promoters say, will leave you with a good feeling.

And probably dog-tired, too.

The county fair. It’s the place that’s got something for everyone but too much for just one person. Whose kid wants to be dragged into the home arts building to see crocheted Christmas decorations or a sewing demonstration? Then again, no mom in her right mind will wander into the fun zone and climb aboard the Zipper--the thrill ride, not something you sew on.

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The county fair. It’s a gigantic show-and-tell with more than 36,000 different entries on display. Grandmas show off their quilts and jams, dads show off their mustaches, high school students show off their pigs and coffee tables, 5-year-old girls show off their collection of My Little Pony toys and accessories, Fallbrook shows off its avocados, Marie Hitchcock shows off her puppets and, at the grandstand, Dick Clark shows off rock ‘n roll.

The county fair. It’s noisy and crowded and the parking lot’s jammed and hawkers try to sell you something you don’t need and there’s always a line for those cinnamon rolls but what the hay, you have a good time and maybe you’ll even come back one or two more times.

Yessirree, step right up for the biggest show in town!

You won’t find the sideshows with the two-headed goats, the snake with feet or the fat lady cascading off a small stool. They were dropped two years ago because they didn’t exactly further the cause of family entertainment.

But, on the other hand, there are still the carny workers with their cigarettes and tattoos and grimy hands who’ll take the tickets from your little darlings and load them onto rides that make unsettling noises and disturbing vibrations. Don’t worry, the fair officials say; all the rides have been checked out as OK. Just keep your feet and hands inside and don’t stand up.

Some facts and figures:

- The fair runs from today through Sunday, July 6. The fairgrounds open at 9 a.m., and the exhibits are open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The fun zone carnival--with its 71 rides and 77 game booths--is open from 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

- General admission is $5, $1 for children 6 through 12, free for kids 5 or younger, and $2.50 for people over 62.

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Children 12 and under get in free next Tuesday and July 1.

- The Del Mar Fair is the second largest in California (the Los Angeles County Fair at Pomona is the biggest) and the 19th largest in North America, based on last year’s attendance of 821,494. More people are expected this year.

- There is free parking for more than 11,000 cars. Fair officials figure that during the day, three cars will come and go out of every space--roughly, a morning/early afternoon crowd, an afternoon/early evening crowd and an evening-into-the-night crowd. Pick your crowd.

- Top-name entertainment will be offered free at the grandstand nightly at 7:30, along with several matinee shows. Entertainers include the Miami Sound Machine tonight, Menudo twice on Saturday, Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock ‘n Roll Show twice on Sunday and the likes of Lou Rawls, The Kingston Trio, Merle Haggard and Jermaine Jackson.

- The fair covers 313 acres. Wear walking shoes.

- The best day to go to the fair is today. Historically, opening day has the lightest attendance, as if everyone’s holding back to read the reviews. Average daily attendance will range from lows of 35,000 (weekdays) to 70,000 and upwards (weekends).

- Last year, 45 pounds of house and car keys were lost at the fair.

The fair’s fun. It’s also business.

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It’s run by the 22nd District Agricultural Assn., a nonprofit public agency that’s governed by a board of directors appointed by the governor, supposedly for their blending of business and agricultural acumen and a sense of public good. One of their jobs is to educate the public about agriculture; historically, the fair is one way of doing that.

The fair costs about $8 million to put on--and will probably make a little more than that--with the profit going back into next year’s operation.

They’re getting better at making money. It used to be that the fair would select a single contractor to run the entire carnival. He, in turn, would line up any number of other ride operators to work for him. They’d pay him a fee plus a cut of the action. Then the contractor would pay the fair a percentage of the take.

Two years ago the fair management realized it could make more money, and better control the quality of the rides and the game booths, by selecting and contracting games and rides on its own. The Del Mar Fair became the first in California to take such action.

Now, the fair--not the carnival people--sells the ride tickets; 51% of the gross revenue is turned over to the ride operators based on the number of ticket stubs they turn in (determined by a very sensitive weight scale). The game booth operators pay a flat one-time fee: $90 per foot of booth frontage and depth.

Consider the results of this new management technique: Before, the fair would make $250,000 in revenue from the single carnival contractor; now, as its own boss, the fair makes nearly $1 million in revenue. Ta da.

Exhibitors who sell merchandise pay a rental fee of $1,000 and up, depending on location and size of booth, plus 5% of their gross sales. Food sellers pay $1,250 and up--depending on location--or 22.5% of their gross sales, whichever is greater.

Last year people spent about $20 million buying stuff at the fair. That’s more than $1 million a day in jewelry cleaner, cotton candy and TV sets.

If you run out of money buying things at the fair, don’t panic. There’s an automatic teller machine near the clock tower, and MasterCard and Visa card holders can cash checks near the front of the Home Arts building.

Or maybe you can swap your pig for something.

Roger Vitaich got smitten by country fairs when he was a kid. As a 12-year-old, he won a fourth-place ribbon for a rose at the Davis County Fair. “It was a good feeling,” he said.

This is the fourth year that Vitaich has been general manager of the Del Mar Fair, and he’s proud of the fact that every youth who participates in the fair will take home a ribbon, no matter how he placed in the competition with his sheep, GI Joe collection or melon-carving.

“I respectfully submit that, aside from our educational system, we may be the only government agency that provides this kind of service to our youth,” he said. “The ribbons they take home--even if it’s just for a cigar box filled with their rock collection--will be memories for the rest of their lives.

“We have an obligation to instill in our children a sense of pride,” he said.

Lewis Miller, executive vice president of the International Assn. of Fairs and Expositions, said:

“We want every kid (who enters a fair) to be a winner, even if he just wins last place. It may be his first taste of the real world because his rabbit didn’t win first place and he knows he’s got to do better next year.”

Child or adult, there are collections for everyone. Someone’s entered 200 key chains; someone else, a bunch of owls with the promise, “no two alike.” One year, a fellow submitted 650 business cards and, by the end of the fair, another 100 were added to the collection. Another person showed off his collection of silk ties and, at fair’s end, he was 45 silk ties richer.

Perhaps the most famous collection was the one of lost shoes, submitted by a lady who found them along highways and byways and picked them up. Missing a shoe?

And there are contests for everyone. Best homemade wine, fastest crawling baby, strongest farm tractor, prettiest gingerbread house, longest hair, and most intriguing “split personality"--that is, a floral arrangement with contrasting elements.

Gerald Bailey is superintendent of the industrial education exhibit, featuring 1,600 different junior high, high school and community college student projects involving photography, drafting, graphic arts, wood, metal, plastics and electronics.

“Teachers use these exhibits as standard-setting for their students’ works for the coming year,” he said. “A teacher came in here the other day with a professional photographer who took 200 pictures, so he could show his students the kind of quality in the county that they’re up against.”

Roy Johnson of Clairemont knows about competition, too. He’s a 62-year-old electrician at Convair who is infatuated with the smell and taste of warm bread, and for the past seven years he’s been entering the bread baking contest. He took a first-place one year for his cinnamon bread, and a second place a different year for his wheat bread.

This year he entered a sourdough and an Arab bread. “My wheat didn’t turn out this year,” he said. “Tasted good but it just didn’t look good.” He shrugged.

In all, there are 4,300 different entries in the home arts department--right down to Miretta Peterson’s knit lace, 48-inch circular table cloth that surely took a year to make, and the 24 different types of chocolate chip cookies.

Everyone is convinced that their whatever is the best whatever in the county. Consider the cooks who concocted more than 300 different types of canned seafoods, canned meats, canned syrups, canned pickles, canned jams and canned juices.

They were all judged by the same judge on the same day, in between doses of lemon-flavored water.

Pass the Pepto.

It’s a fair life style for people like Richard Glazier and Bruce Horner, a couple of carnies, and Pat and Angelo Greco, who go from fair to fair selling Austrian crystal, German holograms and American pewter.

Glazier said he makes about $235 a week, nine months a year, as a foreman over five men who set-up, operate and tear down a couple of thrill rides they know like the backs of their hands. On the road, his living quarters are a bedroom-bathroom unit, one of 12 atop a 40-foot-long trailer pulled from one carnival to the next by his employer.

“I’m a Vietnam vet and when I came back home to Michigan, I couldn’t get work for seven months. Then I started doing this. At least now I’m not on welfare.”

He’s been doing it for 10 years.

“We put up with a lot--like people closing their Laundromats when we come to town, and not getting service at restaurants.”

Horner echoes the complaint. But, he said, it beats his old job washing dishes. “I get restless easily, and I’ve always wanted to work for a carnival, ever since I was a kid,” he said. He gets paid $200 a week and lives in a small camper owned by his employer. “This job gets old, too,” he said.

The Grecos live in San Bernardino, but are on the road eight months a year, selling their imported and domestic gifts.

“You figure you got six to eight seconds to get someone’s attention as they pass by your booth,” Pat Greco said. “And if it’s too crowded, that’s no good either because they’ll just be pushed along by the crowd and won’t stop.”

It’s not easy for a concessionaire to get in to the Del Mar Fair; there’s a waiting list, and a screening committee looks over all the applicants to select a cross section of merchandisers, depending on their prices and types of goods. Once you get your foot in the door, you can come back.

“We came here eight years ago,” Greco said. “We were on the waiting list but on the first day we showed up anyway and waited in the office. Someone didn’t show up for their booth, so we took it.”

But this is the only fair the couple will work in California. “We come here because it’s the first big fair of the (summer) season. From here we’ll go to Ohio. The fairs in the Midwest are cheaper to work, and people get more excited about fairs back there. Out here in California, there’s too many other forms of entertainment.”

Diane Martos is manager of the midway; she helped pick out the carnival rides for this year’s fair by visiting other fairs all around the western United States. There are 800 different kinds of carnival rides and she’s ridden most of them.

“My favorite is the Falling Star. It feels like your heart’s going to drop and you hope the ride will stop. That’s the sign of a good thrill ride.”

Pat Hoffman is a ride safety engineer, the fellow who checks out the rides to make sure they’re lubricated and bolted and soldered and fastened correctly.

He’s confident the Del Mar rides are safe and sound. National statistics indicate that of all injuries incurred by riders, more than 80% are the riders’ fault, he says.

The only carnival-related death at the Del Mar Fair in recent memory was last summer when an inattentive ride operator was struck by a roller coaster car.

Hoffman is armed with manufacturer’s specifications and tolerance levels for the various rides. Some can’t go too fast; others can’t go to slow.

“You check every ride every three days, and you’re constantly roving the grounds, looking and listening to the machines,” he said. “Once you get used to them, they’ll talk to you. You can hear a problem.”

Also roving the grounds will be Sgt. Bill Hammond of the sheriff’s vice squad, looking for games that may call for chance instead of skill. That’s illegal.

“A game is legal if an average player over an average amount of time can improve his score because he improves his skill at the game,” he explained.

Hammond and his crew no longer pre-check the games before the fair begins. “They know what’s legal and what’s not,” he said of the joint operators. “We’ll play some during the fair, and we’ll watch to see if the plush (prizes) are going out at a reasonable rate.”

What else does he look for? That the prizes aren’t hung too low above the coin-tosses, prohibiting a player from achieving a high-enough arc on his coin to settle in a glass or dish; that the feathers aren’t shaved or the points blunted on the balloon darts, that the milk bottles aren’t too heavy to be knocked over.

“They’re supposed to weigh between 5 1/2 and 7 pounds,” he said. “We came across one once that weighed 25 pounds. It almost pulled your arm out of your socket when you went to pick it up.”

Fairs go back to the days of ancient Greece and maybe to the time neighboring cave men compared tools and competed to see who could build the quicker fire.

San Diego’s first fair was in 1880. It changed names several times and hopscotched around the county, from National City to Escondido to Bostonia to Balboa Park before settling in Del Mar in 1936.

The Works Progress Administration transformed an existing golf course at the current site into fairgrounds, and Bing Crosby, Pat O’Brien and friends brought further focus to the fair by building a mile-long harness racing track on the grounds.

There was no fair between 1941 and 1945; when it resumed after the war, there were a couple of large buildings and a bunch of Army squad tents housing exhibits. Hellcats, Corsairs and Mustangs were a big hit that year, along with an underwater welding demonstration by the Navy.

The Bing Crosby Hall and the main exhibit hall were built in the 1950s; the O’Brien Hall was constructed in 1981.

The fair has not been without its controversy; several employees got themselves in a legal wringer in 1982 when they were caught allegedly pocketing tickets for personal resale. The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute.

And local Teamsters picketed in protest in 1984 when the fair board cut back wages and hired non-union workers to fill the ranks. The protest eventually fizzled, the fair has saved “a substantial amount” in labor costs and there is no unrest today, Vitaich said.

Vitaich said he calls on two different types of life experiences in shaping himself as the general manager of the fair. On the one hand, he is a former Boy Scout executive and enjoys working with and for youth. And, on the other hand, he made 82 parachute jumps as a member of the Army’s Special Forces.

“That scared the bejesus out of me. It was good training for what I’m doing now.” He laughs. And then he turns admittedly cornball about the fair.

“The fair is a piece of the American quilt. And the fair is changing. It’s cleaner and, from a family standpoint, more wholesome. We’re trying to come up to Disneyland standards, but we’ve only got 18 days to create that kind of fantasy before we’ve got to tear it down again.

“Disneyland would be a job. This, the fair, is a calling.”


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