The Eastern States Exposition
September 21, 2006

Friday, Karen, I and the girls headed over to the neighboring town of West Springfield MA for our annual trip to the Eastern States Exposition, one of the largest fairs on the east coast. It began as many local fairs did, an agricultural display. Many of the smaller area fairs still maintain that heritage. The Big E has evolved into something more resembling a gigantic flea market. Rather than historical, agricultural and cultural displays, it's wall-to-wall vendors hawking every item conceivable, from car squeegees to moccasins to maple candy.

I still go primarily to absorb that enticing smell of roasting peppers and onions and to check out huge midway. Karen loves checking out the State buildings (one for each of the six New England states) and the "Better Living Center," which is basically like a live Home Shopping Network. This year the girls wanted to see the Royal Hanneford Circus, a perennial Big E attraction. The circus was featuring a quick-change act that was seen on TV, David and Dania.

We parked in the neighboring town of Agawam. An abandoned strip mall was offering parking for $4, which certainly beat the fair's price of $10. It was a five minute walk to the gate. Admission to the Big E went up this year to $15 for an all-day pass (not including rides). We decided to go after 5 pm, when it was supposed to be $5. Unfortunately, that price wasn't good on Fridays. So we each paid $12, which really wasn't much of a discount.

We looked for the circus tent in its usual spot near Gate 1, but it had been moved. So instead we wandered through a couple of the State buildings. Normally, we walked shoulder to shoulder through those aisles; it was usually a mob scene. But this time there was plenty of breathing room. The crowds seemed much lighter than usual. That struck me as odd for a Friday night with beautifully clear weather.

The girls wanted to be sure we caught the circus act; there was only one performance left at 7 pm. So we went in search of the tent. It was located at the other end of the extensive fairgrounds. On the way we passed by the Big E's specially commissioned giant Stinson Band Organ. It was silent. As we arrived at the big top, there was an identical Stinson organ there, this one labeled "Larry's," playing merrily. There were several attendants at the entrance efficiently guiding people to either end of the tent. Admission, happily, was free.

We sat high up near the tent's nine-o'clock position. To our left (at the "back" of the tent) was a big screen projection continuously running television advertisements. A couple of barkers roamed through the packed audience chanting, "Get yer popcorn!" and "Snoooooow cooooones!" (which was almost sung out like a doorbell).

Within a few minutes the screen disappeared and spotlights traced colors around the canvas ceiling. We were welcomed to "the Big E circus." The man's voice was exactly how you'd expect a circus M.C. to sound. He had that wonderfully artificial cadence: "Ladies-ah and-ah gentle-ah-men, children of-ah all-ah ages!" The M.C., a middle-aged tuxedoed man, emerged from a curtain where the screen was. Our girls instantly recognized him as David, one of the quick change artists.

The first act he announced was a pair of acrobats from Romania. They expertly performed various high-wire routines. The man would hold on to a strap twenty feet in the air by his teeth while the woman hung upside-down with only their feet locked together and spun around. They were enthusiastically received.

The next act was really peculiar. The M.C. set it up to be a really dangerous animal act. Stagehands brought out various small round platforms that I'd expect to see lions stand on. Then a woman emerged with a whip and cracked it. Out came four...things. We didn't quite know what to make of them. They were dogs wearing bizarre full-head masks that looked a bit like Mickey Mouse, but had large manes of shaggy orange foam strips. Each dog also had strapped to its butt a long wiry lion's tail. There was also a big black labrador that had prosthetic attachments to make it look like a panther. The woman put the dogs through their paces as if they were vicious lions, cracking her whip and making them perform routine tricks. The grand finale was when she inserted her head into the "panther's" mouth.

The M.C. returned to the center ring as the stagehands prepped for the next act. As he spoke, a clown with a grey wig, large glasses and a baggy yellow shirt stepped to the inside edge of the ring, walking obliviously with a bag of popcorn, attempting to catch pieces in her mouth but continually missing. The M.C. referred to the clown as Grandma, and attempted unsuccessfully to get her out of the ring. Finally the M.C. left in mock exasperation. The stagehands had put a treadmill in the ring and Grandma did various comic bits around that exercise device. She concluded her bit by lip-synching to various pop and hip-hop songs. It was a big hit with the audience.

Next was the moment the girls waited for. A woman introduced David and Dania. As various genres of dance music played, David would walk over to Dania, hold a shimmering screen in front of her for a second or two, remove the screen and then show her to be standing there in a completely different costume. They did this repeatedly and rapidly, defying all common sense and logic. There seemed to be no physical way for her to change that quickly (especially since there was audience on all sides). His tux changed as well, from black to white. They interspersed their routine with some stock magic tricks (like pulling a bouquet of flowers from a handkerchief). One neat trick was when she held a top hat and he dipped his gloved hand in and pulled it out -- wearing a strikingly different colored glove. He did that over and over with each hand, going through about six different colors. The finale was pretty spectacular: David took a bag of shredded silver mylar and dumped it over Dania's head -- and her costume changed yet again. That act was worth the Big E's admission price.

The now-white-clad M.C. introduced the next act as a famous foreign clown. A little man in the requisite bright baggy clothes and painted face emerged with three small stuffed elephants. He produced a giant fake wind-up key and one by one attempted to wind up each elephant. They would simply fall over. One of the elephants finally did start to move after he gave it a shove. It would waddle slowly and robotically and then keel over. This went on for a long long time, and it wasn't very funny. The children in the audience were giggling, though. Finally he got one of the elephants to waddle halfway around the ring. He grabbed it in his arms and with one movement tugged at its skin and pulled it off, revealing it to be a fluffy little white dog in a full-body costume. So the other elephants really were stuffed toys, but it was impossible to tell them apart.

The final act was actually a bit sad. It was the obligatory elephant act. Three giant pachyderms lumbered into the ring and the trainer made them perform the usual assortment of tricks: standing on their hind legs, twirling around, kneeling. I can understand how all of this would have been amazing to an audience in the 1800s who had only heard tales of the giant animals but had never seen one. In this day and age when TV channels feature all sorts of wildlife specials, the creatures certainly don't leave the impression they once did. Plus, right next to the circus was a concession giving rides on an elephant. The animals in the ring looked so weary. Instead of inspiring awe, their predicament seemed almost cruel.

Then David called all the acts back out for a final bow. Stagehands placed a long box at the center of the ring and hooked a cable to it. David thanked us all for coming, and wanted to give a special thanks to this great country of ours. Out of the box rose a giant American flag. Two of those air-powered floppy fabric tubes shot up on either side, with stars and stripes on them. It was a bit excessive and seemed to pander to a sort of mock patriotism. But the audience dutifully rose to its feet as the National Anthem blared.

We left the circus and headed back for the State buildings. On the way Liz got a hand-rolled giant pretzel (and it really was huge!) and I got a waffle cone. We sped through from building to building, rarely stopping because there really wasn't all that much to see. How many lighthouse paintings do we really need to look at?

After exiting the Rhode Island building, we could see the bright lights of the midway. Conklin Shows for many years ran the midway. But I just discovered that Conklin Shows no longer exists. It's now run by the North American Midway Entertainment. We rarely had been to the Big E after dark, so we walked toward the colorful displays. The stock roller coaster on the midway used to be a Pinfari Looping Star roller coaster. It wasn't much of a ride, more like a Galaxi with a small loop. This year there was a brand new coaster, a stock Zamperla spinning wild mouse. It seemed to be popular with the guests. But we had already ridden an identical one at Mt. Olympus. So we passed on that. Instead we just casually strolled between the dazzling rides. The Fireball was especially spectacular. We watched the Larson Ring of Fire, a sort of poor man's looping coaster, spin around for a while. The Orbitor was running insanely fast. A single small boy had the giant Rainbow all to himself and was having a blast. Naturally, there was a large assortment of dark rides and walk-thru fun houses. Unfortunately, most of them I tried in the past had been really lame. There were two colorful mirror mazes. The big portable flume ride had a good crowd. And there were two giant Ferris wheels. Conspicuous by its absence was the Moser Drop Tower that had been at the fair for several years.

Leaving the midway, we passed by the big Mallory building with its giant butter sculpture and dairy displays. We walked through the 4-H building, which had various garden landscape displays. Then we passed through the International Building, which contained vendors that loosely qualified as "international," such as Irish or Egyptian themed gifts.

It was about 9:30 by that point. The State buildings had closed up for the night, as had many other displays. Karen said she had enough, so we walked toward the exit. If it weren't for the circus, I would have felt that our $12 was wasted. The bulk of the musical acts this year were country and western, and several of them for the first time entailed an extra charge ($35!). The night we were there the act happened to be free, but we're not into country and western.

As always, I enjoy a carnival atmosphere. But the Big E seems to offer less and less of that as the years go on. It more and more resembles a shopping mall. There are plenty of those near us, and they don't charge for admission or parking. The circus was a surprising treat. But I'm not sure it would pull us back next year. Neither would a butter sculpture -- not for $15 plus parking. There are plenty of other rural agricultural fairs in this area every year and they're a lot cheaper. The Big E probably continues on because it's simply the biggest around. But it seems to be losing its personality, becoming more and more generic and less about what makes New England special. It's no longer a celebration of our heritage, it's an orgy of commercialism. But maybe that's what the public wants now. Maybe my waxing nostalgic for a bygone era is pointlessly naive. But at least there''s always that smell of peppers and onions...

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