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County Fairs Go Pop

Times Pop Music Critic

County fairs--as much a part of Americana as family picnics and the Fourth of July--have long been characterized by such traditional symbols as cotton candy, pie bake-offs and country music. Think Johnny Cash singing “Daddy Sang Bass” or “Ragged Old Flag.”

But today’s fair-goers are more likely to encounter such ‘80s images as chocolate-covered strawberries on a stick, a senior citizen physique contest and sultry pop-rock. Picture Sheena Easton singing the racy “Sugar Walls.”

“This song has gotten me into a lot of trouble . . . the corrupter of the youth of America,” Easton said Saturday introducing “Sugar Walls"--the spicy hit written for her by Prince--during her hour performance on the grandstand stage at the Del Mar Fair.

Not everyone in the crowd estimated at 20,000 was pleased as Easton strutted across the stage in an eye-catching, bright red minidress. A few parents could be seen taking their their young children in hand and marching out of the grandstand.

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Mostly, however, the crowd--much of it consisting of the same under-25 date-nighters that you’d expect to see when Easton headlines the Universal Amphitheatre on Aug. 18--responded with whistles and catcalls. The crowd was even more gleefully boisterous as Easton changed to an even sexier black miniskirt and halter top.

“Times do change and fairs have to change along with them,” said Mel Simas, Del Mar Fair grandstand manager, summarizing the virtual revolution in county and state fair entertainment that has evolved during the ‘80s.

“We have to compete with Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, Disneyland, ‘Batman’ and everything else out there, and we’ve found that entertainment-- concerts --is one of the ways to do it. For years, fairs relied on country acts and oldies . . . and you still find your share of them, but you’ve also got to reach out to young people by bringing in the Sheena Eastons, the Milli Vanillis, the R.E.M.s . . .”

When Simas, who has booked acts for county fairs since the late ‘60s, started working with the Del Mar Fair in 1984, attendance for the 18-day event was 709,000. This year the fair, which closes its 19-day run today, is expected to top the 1-million mark. That puts the Del Mar Fair--which kicks off the active fair season in California--comfortably within the national Top 20 in attendance.

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A key reason for that spurt, Simas said, is the increased emphasis on contemporary entertainment.

“Entertainment isn’t the only reason for the growth because we have a great fair and people enjoy coming for all the traditional things that fairs have to offer,” he said. “But there’s no question that we have added to the appeal with what we do in the grandstand.”

A survey conducted in 1987 by an independent marking firm for the Del Mar Fair indicated that grandstand entertainment was cited by 12% of fair visitors as the most important part of the fair. This year’s talent lure at Del Mar included Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, the Jets, Ruben Blades, Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Concrete Blonde, Midge Ure, Milli Vanilli, Kenny Loggins and Stevie B & Sweet Sensation.

This same message as provided in the Del Mar survey been heard at other fairs around California and the country, said David Douds, who has headed the William Morris Agency’s fair department for more than a dozen years.

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“The reason the fairs went to a more contemporary artist is they wanted to draw a wider audience,” said Douds, who has booked fair dates this summer for such artists as Easton, Aretha Franklin and Bobby Brown. “The big problem we had at first was convincing some of the contemporary acts that it was all right to play fairs.

“Part of the problem was the production values. Artists would get to the fair years ago and the sound system would be lousy and there wouldn’t even be enough microphones, but a great deal of the fairs now are very sophisticated. The entire consciousness has improved in terms of the production--not at every fair, but in the 100 or so top fairs around the country, including the big state fairs in the Midwest.”

No California fair concentrates on pop acts more than San Luis Obispo County’s California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles. Maynard Potter, the fair’s general manager, must think some days that he is the concert business rather than the fair business.

The Paso Robles fair has grown in the 21 years that Potter has worked with it from a sleepy little affair that drew 38,000 people and generated revenues of $52,000 to a fair that now approaches 500,000 attendance with revenues in the area of $5 million. Again, a key reason: entertainment.

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Potter has assembled the most impressive lineup of pop stars of any California fair and, possibly, any fair in the country. Among the acts who have played the central California fair in recent years: Kenny Rogers, Sting, Bob Dylan with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Lionel Richie.

The lineup at this year’s fair, which runs from Aug. 8-20, will include such major country, rock and R&B; artists as Randy Travis, Bobby Brown, Jackson Browne, Smokey Robinson, George Strait, Kenny Loggins, John Denver and Easton.

One difference between the Mid-State Fair and the Del Mar Fair is that the concerts aren’t included with fair admission ($5 per adult at both fairs). This year’s Mid-State Fair tab per show: between $10 and $18.

“When I first got here, I talked a lot to people about what they wanted and the one thing I heard again and again was a higher caliber of entertainment. They also suggested that they would even be willing to pay extra money to see the acts, so I just took that and started running with it.”

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Potter said he had to combat the “fair stigma” issue. “A lot of performers thought of a fair show as a stage on some old field full of dust out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “We’d say Paso Robles and they’d say, ‘Paso what?’

“But when Huey Lewis and the News played here a few years ago and we sold out two shows--that’s 30,000 people, the word started getting around the industry pretty fast. We have advanced our technology, too, so performers don’t have to worry about sound and lighting. They can come in here and it’s just like playing a regular concert facility.”

Potter said the fairs also provide entertainers in many parts of the country a chance to reach fans who might not be served by traditional rock tours. One of the reasons for the success of the Mid-State Fair is that it is relatively isolated. Pop-rock fans in the area would have to otherwise drive to San Francisco or Los Angeles to see many of the acts that play the fair.

And, there’s big bucks involved. Where the Del Mar Fair’s ceiling is around $50,000 for an act, Potter has paid between $100,000 and $200,000.

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“We can can pay any price (for an act) that can be justified by how many tickets we can sell and how much we can charge. I have no ceiling,” the fair executive said. “I offered Neil Diamond a half million for two nights two years ago.”

The Ventura County Fair, which will operate Aug. 16-27, doesn’t pursue as ambitious a “hard-ticket” concert policy as the Mid-State Fair, but it does charge between $10 and $13 above the $5 admission price for some concerts. This year’s line-up: Julian Lennon, Stevie B, Tony Bennett, Mike + the Mechanics, and the Oak Ridge Boys.

“When the Ventura Fair started bringing in paid grandstand concerts a few years ago, it was really in response to public demand,” said Teri Raley, media director for the fair. “People said, ‘Look we have this big arena and we want to see acts in there in addition to rodeos.”

But Raley doesn’t think the concerts play a significant role in the fair’s attendance, which was approximately 300,000 last year. “The shows are to provide some additional fun,” she said. “We aren’t as isolated as Paso Robles, so the audience here has more access (in Los Angeles) to big-name entertainment.”

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The Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, which expects to draw about 500,000 customers with a 12-day run that begins July 12, offers leans toward more traditional concept of fair entertainment: mostly country and oldies artists in free shows. The line-up includes Johnny Cash, Lee Greenwood, Bo Diddley, Eddie Rabbitt, Gary Puckett, the Gatlin Brothers and Three Dog Night. The talent ceiling is in the $20,000 to $30,000 range.

“We are spending more on entertainment this year, but we feel the best way to serve the community is to make the show part of the regular admission,” said Norb Bartosik, fair general manager.

“It’s different in Paso Robles because the entertainment thing is the biggest thing they have going for them and they are very, very successful with it. Here, we have so much competition in the concert market. The Pacific Amphitheatre is on on our own grounds.”

The Los Angeles County Fair, which will be open Sept. 14-Oct. 1 in Pomona, is the nation’s fifth-largest fair, drawing almost 1.4 million people last year. Ironically, it has the least emphasis on entertainment of key Southern California fairs. The fair did attempt some big-name, extra-charge pop shows a few years ago, but quickly abandoned the experiment and now centers on a variety of family-oriented acts, especially oldies. It rarely pays more than $5,000 for an act.

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“Our philosophy dates back to some research that was done of the people who come to our fair,” said Sid Robinson, who handles media relations for the fair. “We found only 3% come for the entertainment, so we thought we needed to reevaluate.

“Rather than have (big name) acts that people can probably see somewhere else in Southern California, we decided to take the emphasis off the main stage and put up several smaller shows around the grounds and emphasize that the shows are included in the price of admission.”

Douds, the William Morris agent, said there are probably as many different philosophies about how entertainment should be featured at a fair as there major fairs.

“I’m amazed at the growth. Every year it gets bigger. When we started doing this (at William Morris), a secretary and I could cover the whole country in about six months. Now, it’s a year-round job and we have added an agent in Nashville and I have a staff of four secretaries and assistants here.”

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