Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Sclerotic Tex?

In the 24 years I’ve lived in Texas, I have not been to the State Fair. I remedied this yesterday, having seen an article in the Houston Chronicle about low attendance at this year’s event. I imagined, “Here’s an opportunity to show support for a long-time institution.”

No. I really thought, “Great! Small crowd, Monday visit: Terrific time to visit Dallas and see Big Tex without a huge crowd of pesky people.”

Today, the State Fair of Texas® is more myth than reality. Its marketing has outrun its appeal. (Great graphics, in fact.)

After so many, many years of attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, I found our State Fair shopworn; not at all the marquee event our state deserves.

The reviews have been good. Example? Mary G, writing on
Judy’s Book, said: Wow what a venue! This state fair is unlike no other state fair in the world, why you ask??? Because it’s TEXAS! Put your best pair of walking shoes and come with an empty stomach! So much to see at this fair, from freak like shows, the midway, animals, shows, people, retailers and so much more.

The State Fair
blogger of The Dallas Morning News, Eric Aasen, praises the food to high heaven. And so he should. While eating at the State Fair is the fastest way to a coronary, it’s difficult to resist the overtly sinful temptations you only get once annually when you attend the Fair (or twice if you also include the Rodeo). Sadly, I’m alive in the Age of Angioplasty.

I ’fess up to sausage-on-a-stick and fudge; I shared these with Barbara. We drew the line early, though. We did NOT sample…candied apples, caramel apples, “All-American” fried grilled cheese sandwiches, fried banana splits or fried chocolate truffles. Neither did our lips touch the deep-friend s’mores, funnel cakes or chicken-fried bacon (named “Best of the Best,” for God’s sake!).

No. In the end, I judge our State Fair to be…less…than the hype. Even undeserving of its marketing.

The iconic Big Tex doesn’t feel right – and frankly appears to have severe orthopedic challenges. Corporate names endorse everything that isn’t nailed down and many things that are, from the Coca Cola Food Court to the Chevrolet Main Stage. Although I’ve seen this coming for years, it still seems subtly wrong.

Want a challenge? The State Fair makes it really, really hard to avoid the
Kitchen Craft hucksters. I admire them for raising the art of the pitch to undreamed-of levels of wonder – but there must have been three dozen or more of these scattered throughout the Fair grounds. Really, $1,400 for a six-piece set of pots and pans? And those quite small? On top of all this, the company sponsors the Fair’s “Starlight Parade.” (TXU underwrites the “Energy Arena.”)

There were plenty of blue-ribbon arts and crafts and canned goods but most of the animals seem to have come and gone the first week of the Fair. Possibly there’s something I don’t quite understand about how a State Fair ought to work. But the sense of closeness to the agricultural side of Texas life is so diminished there on the old Dallas fairgrounds.

The commercial hype now overwhelms the idea, the mission of a State Fair founded in 1886. Since the Fair is a private, non-profit organization, it has to generate its own funding, after all.

Still, it’s the people in Dallas who make the State Fair of Texas worthwhile – we always got a big smile from every worker, every volunteer. So I repeat what Pat Kochan wrote on the Dallas Historical Society
blog about it:

Loved the bird show. Fascinating. Just walking the fair on a fall evening with lights and sounds and smells of good fun, was so much excitement for me growing up. My son and his wife had their first date to the fair and go every year after.

There is hope for this event. It’s buried somewhere in the hearts and minds of Texans, though – not necessarily to be found at the Fair itself.

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