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At Del Mar Fair, History to (Almost) Beat the Bands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What can you say about an annual fest where Wyatt Earp once was a horse race judge, Raquel Welch the royalty and Pat O’Brien and Bing Crosby the patron saints?

You can say it’s the Del Mar Fair, or the Southern California Exposition put on by the 22nd Agricultural Assn., or, if you really want to be old-fashioned, the Agricultural and Horticultural Fair of San Diego County. You can say it draws more than a million folks annually, and that its 20-day run starts Tuesday.

Except for a few years during World War I, the Depression and World War II (when the fairgrounds were used to bivouac paratroopers and Marines), the fair has been a summer event since 1880. After using venues in Escondido and Oceanside, it settled into Del Mar in 1936 and never left.

In the ‘30s, Pat and Bing provided the money to finish a racetrack and grandstand; a thoroughbred racing season has followed the fair ever since, giving rise to the fair’s self-description as located “where the turf meets the surf.”

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From small beginnings, the Del Mar Fair has grown into the 11th largest fair in the United States and the second largest in California.

If nothing else, residents of San Diego County have proved determined fair-goers. In 1936, the second day of the fair was met with a five-hour downpour, but fair-goers, according to legend, arrived in rowboats--a story that is true whether it happened or not.

Maybe it was because the main attraction that year was Bunny Dryden, who walked a wire 110 feet above the ground with his wife on his shoulders and no net beneath them--the kind of event you don’t see in this liability-conscious era.

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Also in the ‘30s, a Hollywood stuntman rode his motorcycle through a 40-foot-long burning building, twice a day. He quit on the second day. Burned out, you might say.

Alas, the days of Bunny and burning buildings are gone. But in their place this year is a long list of performers, including Grammy-winner Alison Krauss & Union Station (on opening night), the Village People, Alanis Morissette (sorry, it’s sold out), country stars John Anderson (see story, F1) and Merle Haggard, Dia De Fiesta Latina, R&B; band Silk and more. The San Diego Navy Band takes the stage at 7:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July, with a fireworks display to follow.

For unreconstructed music lovers from the ‘60s, a concert at 1 p.m. on the Fourth will feature Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Terry Reid and Spirit (whose drummer, Ed Cassidy, was a disciple of Jimi Hendrix).

For those whose music taste precedes the ‘60s, Senior Day programs on Thursdays will feature the Four Freshmen (June 20), the Inkspots (June 27) and the Kingston Trio (July 4).

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One change this year: The fair extends into the weekend beyond the Fourth of July, closing July 7.

And need it be mentioned that the fair has two carnival midways (one with rides for kids, one for grown-ups), several automated teller machines, an art show, a wood design show, the esteemed Flower & Garden Show (check out the bromeliads, proteas and persimmons), a senior rodeo, a canine carnival, a gospel Mass choir, livestock exhibitions, a petting zoo, a tractor pull contest (what else?), Monster Trucks, Polish sausage, cinnamon rolls, cotton candy, the Footsie Wootsie massage, the gem and mineral show (look for Meteor Man) and much more spread out over its 400 acres?

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It’s all 20 miles north of San Diego, just off Interstate 5. Exit west on Via de la Valle and take Jimmy Durante Boulevard south.

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Here’s the bite: $8 for adults, $5 for ages 62 and older, $3 for ages 6 to 13, and free for children under 6. Parking is $4 ($7 for recreational vehicles). Free off-site shuttles are provided on weekends and July 4 and 5.

For daily listings, the fair has a 24-hour information line, (619) 793-5555. This being the ‘90s, the fair also has a web site:

https://www.delmarfair.com/dmfinfo.

The bigger-than-life statue you’ll see as you enter the fairgrounds is of Tommy Hernandez, a.k.a. Don Diego, the Spanish actor and heartthrob who served as the fair’s greeter and escort to the Fairest of the Fair for 40 years (in 1958, the Fairest was one Raquel Tejada, later Raquel Welch). Tommy died on the eve of the fair’s opening in 1984.

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Replacing him remains an unthinkable proposition. Such is the grip of the Del Mar Fair on its constituency.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE DEL MAR FAIR

Entertainment at the Del Mar Grandstand:

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* Tuesday: Alison Krauss & Union Station.

* Wednesday: the Village People.

* Thursday: Neal McCoy.

* Friday: Monica.

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* June 22: Alanis Morissette (sold out).

* June 23: George Benson.

* June 24: John Anderson.

* June 25: Al Green.

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* June 26: Merle Haggard.

* June 27: Sophie B. Hawkins.

* June 28: Sawyer Brown.

* June 29: Jewel.

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* June 30: Dia de Fiesta Latina.

* July 1: Silk.

* July 2: the Rembrandts.

* July 3: the Mavericks.

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* July 4: “Fairstock” (Moby Grape, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Spirit, Terry Reid).

* July 5: Peabo Bryson.

* July 6: Jars of Clay.

* July 7: Nickelodeon presents “the Wild & Crazy Kids Live Tour.”

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Gates open at 6 p.m., and concerts start at 7:30 p.m. (except for Fairstock, which starts at 1 p.m., and the “Wild & Crazy Kids” at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Performances are free; some reserved seats, at $10 each, are available at the fairgrounds or through Ticketmaster. (619) 793-5555, (619) 755-1161.

--T.P.


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