Creatures of the night: Among the afterdark scenes at the State Fair are a decidedly different feel on the midway, including elevated platforms for the State Police to check out the action; Bob Hanley, who happily sells roses to evening visitors from his Chevrolet Court stand.
As skies darken, more and more food vendors and outdoor merchandise hawkers gradually shutter their stands as the crowds congregate where the nightlife persists from the Chevrolet Court/Colonnade to the Pan African Village to the midway to the campgrounds. When shoppers and art enthusiasts emerge from the major buildings near their 10 p.m. closing times, they find that without sunshine the Empire Expo Center is a different city, spinning a tad more Las Vegas.
The demographics of Fair patrons are turned upside down as cranky, overtired kids are dragged off by their parents and child-free adults and teens swarm the grounds seeking a more grown-up good time. It’s after dark that the Empire Expo Center morphs from Disneyland to Coney Island, a little more mysterious, a touch rougher and occasionally a bit rowdier.
In recent years, Fair administration has sought to clamp down on the party atmosphere, especially when it’s fueled by alcohol consumption. There’s been an identity crisis as Fair brass has shifted the line between what’s acceptable adult behavior and what’s too much of a good time. The most visible method for holding that line has been closing down beer and wine sales earlier and earlier. At this year’s State Fair, which runs Thursday, Aug. 21, through Monday, Sept. 1, you can’t buy a drink at the various food stands after 9:30 p.m.
The administration of second-year director Dan O’Hara in particular has sought to make the Fair a tamer, more family-friendly, smoke-free, Disney-like event. What seems to be a grand scheme to skew the Fair toward the mundane, predictable and tightly controlled has left kids chafing under the scrutiny of State Troopers on the midway, campers smuggling beer into the infield, wine drinkers expressing outrage over the demolition of a Fair institution, free-speech advocates howling at the removal of an award-winning art competition photo that offended the director, smokers feeling pinched by the ban on tobacco sales and restrictions on its use, and merchants saying they’re negatively affected by early last call and entertainment limitations.
This is, after all, not Disneyland and that’s not a bad thing. The Fair should reflect the values and personality of its patrons and a little spirited, adult-style fun fits the character that’s made it our sophisticated state’s family gathering. Any significant change in how the Fair does business is always an especially hot topic among Central New Yorkers, whose proximity to the Geddes playground leads them to feel somewhat proprietary about the annual fest. After all, Fair patrons will have the final word through turnstile counts and profit tallies.
The strict, straight-laced conservatism of Disney, even if it bears the ambiguous label “family-friendly,” is clearly overkill. But despite complaints that the O’Hara regime has gone too far in creating a sanitized fair that unnecessarily dampens the fun of adult patrons while cutting into the profits of vendors and the economic viability of the fair, not much has changed.
“The whole idea for everything we do,” explains Fair public relations director Frederic Pierce, “is we’re a family-friendly venue. When you’ve got a 375-acre facility with almost a million people coming through a 12-day event, you’ve got a lot of different interests and a lot of different people and it’s all about finding balances.”
Eat, Drink and Be Wary
The most recent controversy over the relocation of New York’s wine vendors from the Colonnade area (across from Chevy Court) resulted from what Fair brass says are concerns about the crush of pedestrian traffic between the columns. “We received numerous complaints,” Pierce says. “It wasn’t anything we decided arbitrarily. It was in response to people complaining to us.”
The former wine court area will now hold more picnic tables. Wine court regulars may also be pacified with the late addition of a third wine venue to be located near Chevrolet Court and the change in a state law that will permit fairgoers to carry vino throughout the grounds.
While the traffic jam near the wine court was a likely contributing factor in its move from the established location, O’Hara’s reluctance to acknowledge the influence of his courtship with promoter Live Nation lends credence to speculation that he also agreed to move wine vendors to meet contractual obligations. Now wineries with long-established followings will see their patrons buying at the new Chevy Court stand in order to enjoy New York vintners’ products while they enjoy a show. A disturbing pattern thus emerges that suggest the director has a divided loyalty that too often has Live Nation dictating terms at the expense of fairgoers.
A sight not soon to be seen again—adults enjoying adult enjoyments under the tent at the now-since-moved Wine Court; a lone equestrian who works out her horse near the Coliseum; and Speach’s 24-hour food stand.
Until this year, every night turned into date night at the court, where Woodstock-generation acts, Motown stars or 1980s arena rockers played memories and fans, often baby boomers, gathered to sway and sing along. Fans of the open-air concerts were often enhanced by a glow warmed by periodic dashes to the wine court. For as many years as most Fair patrons remember, it was easy to quaff a glass of wine or the popular wine slushy and enjoy the band playing the court that evening.
Up to this year, Chevrolet Court has been the only place to which you could legitimately carry wine out of the Colonnade, so throngs strolled down the ramps to catch the show, secure in the knowledge they were never far from a refill. A state law has been changed to allow drinkers to carry their beverage around the grounds, although the size of the slush drinks is now limited to no more than 10 ounces.
Pierce sees the change of location of the wineries as a win-win situation. “It’s actually going to be a very good year, I think, for wine lovers at the New York State Fair,” Pierce asserts. “We’re going to have two venues where they can buy New York state wine, gather with their friends, sample and enjoy. We’re going to have one venue behind the Horticulture Building near the DEC Building. That’s a midway point where they can have some drinks before a show at the Grandstand or Chevy Court. Then down by the Coliseum and Restaurant Row, we’re going to have a wine village. With all the food stands, there’s a natural tie-in.”
A third stand, near Chevy Court, will be a general concession stand with New York state wine and beer sales. That stand will be run by Live Nation, and the State Fair will receive a cut of alcohol-sale profits. Some wine vendors banished from the wine court naturally feel put out that they were moved in lieu of a national conglomerate getting profits from wine sales.
“That’s one reason we’re not charging those vendors rent this year,” says Pierce. “We feel that their sales will increase overall, especially when you consider that wine drinkers can move around and not be a captive audience.”
Between bands, with the spotlights off, the Chevrolet Court shadows deepen as many of the neighboring stands have gone dark for the night. The canopy formed by the spreading branches of the deciduous grove shrouds the picnic grounds at the rear of the court, where patrons still line up beneath the billowing wood-fire smoke at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Nearby, veteran vendor Bob Hamley peddled roses for sweethearts, the sweet scent perfuming the night air for passers-by.
All day long, Hamley had been popping corn and handing out bottles of water. Every sunset brings a change in his best sellers. Some of his roses become gifts for the evening’s performers, while others are fragrant souvenirs or gifts. “Nighttime is time for romance,” he said with a smile. “That’s when they buy the roses. People have proposed right in front of my rose booth. It’s about romance. We were the first ones to bring the flowers to the New York State Fair. And the rose is the state flower.”
But not every business flourishes after nightfall. The Colonnade area had already faced restrictions on the live entertainment that some nights made it Party In The Plaza, Fair-style. Although Pierce says that bands will be welcomed back to the Colonnade, vendors may now be wondering how the absence of the wine court will affect food sales.
“We’ve lost a ton of business because of the bands,” grumbled Mike Steves, a worker at Anthony’s, at last year’s fair. “They’ve taken away tables from us and we just can’t have bands up here anymore. I don’t own the place, but we’d be crowded and at the end of the night we’d put out 40, 50 cases of beer. This morning I put out 15. Every day it goes down, down, down.”
Steves looked askance at assertions that the area has been too crowded or too rowdy. “There’s plenty of room on the other side of the DEC building,” he argued. “The people from the Dairy Building were complaining, but there’s five other exits. You don’t have to come out this way if you don’t want to. And we’ve never had any trouble in all the years that I’ve been working here or in the 20 years I spent on the other side of the bar. There’ve never been fights. We didn’t need security that they made us hire this year. I was coming around here when there were beer sales until midnight. There was a little trouble then. But it was down there,” he said, pointing to the midway.
But rules to keep drinking under control have been very popular with one highly visible fair participant: the State Police. “Last year was one of their safest fairs they’ve ever had,” Pierce states. “They had fewer incidents. They attribute that directly to the alcohol policy. There was less irresponsible drinking going on.”
A Little Night Music
In other locales on the grounds, music still fuels the party atmosphere. Stands like Davoli’s, The Shamrock and the West End Tavern keep things lively into the evening with musical entertainment. Savvy patrons have been known to stock up as last call approaches, assuring that their throats don’t dry out when the taps dry up.
Midway islands: The Top Spin and Ferris Wheel are prime attractions after dark, especially for teens letting loose before school starts again.
Many alcohol vendors say they’ve played a role in increasing safety on the grounds. “We haven’t seen any problems at all,” pointed out Bill Martin of the Montezuma Winery of Seneca Falls, purveyor of the hot-selling Cranberry Bog wine. “For the most part people are responsible and it’s our job to make sure they’re responsible. The reason we’re here is more about promoting our business. We try to recoup our cost, but we’re here to promote our product.”
Martin noted that business at the Wine Court was brisk evenings, especially when there was a band playing nearby. “Yesterday, being Senior Day, it was an older crowd and they were buying more glasses of wine,” he said. “Then as the concert crowd and the night crowd comes in, more of a 30s crowd, they’re buying more wine slushies. People get out of work and they start to come over. It’s a totally different crowd.”
As pedestrian traffic slows down in the barns, livestock owners settle down with families, while some of the youngsters head out to try their luck at midway games or get a thrill on the dizzying rides. Out on the midway, teens, cutting loose with the first day of school looming, gather in clusters near wilder rides. The Top Spin and the Fireball become focal points with lights and music to set young hearts pounding, while kiddie rides shut down early. State Police vigilance increases with some Troopers climbing onto elevated platforms to keep an eye on the proceedings.
Just across the racetrack, on the infield campgrounds, lawn chairs become concert seats as many temporary residents gather to listen to the somewhat distorted sounds from the Grandstand concert. Although campers can’t see the performers because they’re behind the stage, the stands and crowd are clearly visible, providing an early audience count when the house lights come up. Under cover of darkness, rumor has it that some campers actually defy the Fair’s 2-year-old ban on alcohol brought in by patrons.
“We drink soda pop,” winks Roger Perry of Penn Yan. “It’s like being at any campsite. You pay to come in here. You bring your own stuff. It’s like being at home. It’s our home away from home.”
On a beautiful, starlit 2007 evening, the crowd in the stands roared in response to Counting Crows as Perry and next-campsite neighbors Don and Janice DeLong of Groton and their English bulldog puppy, Artasia, socialized. “We’re here for 12 or 14 days, because we come in Saturday before the Fair starts, Don DeLong said. “So we bring our own food, our own beer, our own soda pop. We’ve never seen anything happen in here. Everybody gets along. Everybody knows everybody.”
After 28 years of friendship, Perry and the DeLongs are like many RV enthusiasts, renewing friendships every August they spend in the infield. The camper community could be considered a big family, raising the question of what actually constitutes the family-friendly environment touted by the O’Hara regime. The State Fair has always been a fun place for kids, but it’s also an annual ritual for many adults. If New Yorkers are to get the most from their Fair, it needs to be both.
End-of-summer camp: When the sun goes down the nightlife lights up in the Infield as well, where regular Fair campers, among them Artasia the Bulldog and youngster Mike Rose, enjoy each others’ company.