Fair to Midway : Cooking, Crafts, Curiosities and Cows Draw Crowds

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some of them are exhibitors, vying for awards for everything from the fluffiest Angora rabbit to the munchiest chocolate chip cookie.

Some are vendors, hawking wares ranging from hot tubs to bird whistles.

But most of the 1.5 million people expected to show up this year are visitors like Alice Miller, who stopped by, once again, to see what's going on at the largest fair of its kind in the world--the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.

Miller, 53, of Los Angeles was slumped under a tin umbrella the other day, mopping her forehead, massaging her feet and munching halfheartedly on a vulcanized slab of pizza as the crowds swarmed around her.

"I'm hot," she said. "I'm tired. I'll probably eat too much and buy a lot of doodads I don't need. It's the same every year. . . .

"So why am I here? Because it's fun."

The competition gets pretty keen.

Richard Roth, 29, of Rancho Cucamonga and his 3-year-old son, Tyler, were lined up behind one of the squirt guns. Close pals Randy Alward, 29, and his son, Derek, 4, were lined up behind another.

The objective at the Water Gun Fun booth was to see which father-son team could nail the little orange dot in front of them with the most water.

Bells rang. Hydraulic pumps surged into action.

Their friends whooped, yelled and otherwise carried on, but the Roth and Alward teams were pictures of silent, determined combat as the little yellow lights showing which team was ahead inched slowly up the scoreboard.

"Concentrate," someone suggested helpfully.

"Don't mess up," Richard Roth muttered through clenched teeth.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

"We won!" Roth shouted, arms thrust skyward in a victory salute worthy of an Olympic gold medalist. "We won the frog! We won the frog!"

Tyler, who'd had his eye on the stuffed green frog for 10 minutes or so, clutched the prize to his bosom with a beatific smile.

"His name's Sammy," Tyler confided to a bystander.

Cecilia McDonald has been working the main information booth at the fair for 18 years. Somehow she still manages a cheerful smile for each bewildered visitor in search of help.

"The No. 1 question is, 'Where's the bathroom?' " McDonald said.

"No. 2 is, 'I'm lost, what do I do now?'

"No. 3 is, 'Where can I sit down?'

"There's a lot of others, like, 'Do you have a freak show?' (not any more) and 'How about a date?' (no thanks.) The dumbest question is, 'Where's my car?' " McDonald said.

Betty Chappelle, 59, studied the array of pickles, preserved beets, canned fruits and bottled fruit juices with a practiced eye.

There, spread out along a wall, stood the rows of Mason jars that proved Irene Hower's excellence--40 first prizes, 22 second prizes, 7 thirds, 10 fourths, a fifth and a seventh, plus the sweepstakes award for overall excellence.

But Chappelle, a West Covina resident who'd brought her grandchildren, Jennifer Weaver, 10, and Michelle Weaver, 7, along to have a look, said she wasn't all that impressed.

"I used to beat her all the time," Chappelle said. "I used to wipe her out. . . .

"I don't do it anymore, but I won the sweepstakes in '72, and in '73, too," Chappelle said. "Must have won about 60 blue ribbons over a three-year period. The best thing I made was my dill pickles, but my English toffee was pretty good, too."

After checking out the options--and there are more than 200--Tina Katnich, 26, of Santa Monica and Dan McClure, 39, of Los Angeles finally settled on barbecued beef sandwiches.

"Good," Katnich said between mouthfuls. "Tender."

"It's my day off," McClure said. "So we decided, what the hell, let's go to the fair. . . . I like to look at all the stuff, the exhibits, arts and crafts, things like that. It's good to see people making things."

"I like the house stuff. All the stuff for sale," she said.

"Anything you can spend money on," he said.

"The back massager was only $179," she said. "It does it for a long, long time."

"I'd do it for a lot less," he said. "The trouble is, I'd wear out before it did."

Over at the livestock barns, Rebecca Stelig, who'll be 2 years old next month, solemnly eyed a Dutch Belted milk cow that outweighed her by 1,000 pounds or so.

"What's that?" her 42-year-old father, Greg Stelig of Riverside, asked in one of those questions fathers always seem to ask little children looking at animals.

"It's a cow," Rebecca answered promptly. "It says, 'Moo.' "

Her father beamed.

Down a couple of stalls, Maria Sandoval, 31, of East Los Angeles decided to keep things a little simpler.

"See the nice doggie?" Sandoval asked her 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Alicia, pointing the child at a large, uninterested sheep.

Alicia mumbled something unintelligible in response.

"She knows about doggies, not about sheep," Sandoval said.

You can buy almost anything at the fair.

Some things are pretty cheap, like the plastic bird whistles that Tim Card, 47, was selling for 75 cents.

"It's the easiest job in the world," Card said between chirps. "I just sit here, blowing on these things and looking at all the pretty girls. I've sold 3,500 gross of 'em over the last 15 years."

Some things are pretty expensive, like the big, steel safes that Michael Leuck, 47, of Reno is peddling at up to $2,400 apiece.

Most visitors don't seem prepared to part with that much on impulse, but Leuck says that he expects to sell up to 300 safes before the fair closes.

"People put jewelry, guns, computer equipment, stuff like that in them," Leuck said. "One guy said he was going to put his triple-X-rated videotapes in there."

The big item this year is hot tubs, some of which sell for more than $5,000.

"The 'Coronado' is the top of the line," said Jim Enger, whose firm sells a variety of tubs. "It's got swim jets, double pumps--all the toys."

Alan Garbanzos is selling one of those gadgets to cut up vegetables. As the slivered zucchini piled up in neat little rows, he told an amused crowd that his item "slices . . . dices . . . is easy to clean . . . and comes with a free storage rack, all for just $34.95." Garbanzos said he gives all the chopped vegetables left over from his spiel to "a friend who has rabbits."

Sherman Childs, 74, and his wife, Clara, 66, both sported pink ribbons proclaiming them senior citizen "Honored Guests" as they nestled down on a pair of mechanical foot-massaging machines to give their lower extremities a break.

"Oh boy, that's beautiful," Clara Childs said.

"As a little boy, I was too poor to go to the fair," Sherman Childs said. "Now I'm making up for it.

"I get some cotton candy in one hand, some ice cream in the other, and I'm happy."

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