Iowa State Fair revamping midway with 'super spectacular' rides
I doubt anybody has surveyed Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler on what he thinks of the Iowa State Fair’s plan to drastically revamp its midway starting with next year’s fair.
If you missed the news, the rocker walked his way over to the fair’s carnival Saturday night after he wrapped his concert in the Grandstand. He took a spin on the Ferris wheel, chomped a corn dog and mingled with fans.
Tyler shouldn’t worry much: The Ferris wheel is likely to remain a staple of the midway skyline even though the fair is switching to an a la carte approach.
Fair officials have decided to rent rides and other pieces to assemble their own carnival now that their contract with Belle City Amusements has expired.
The fair has been contemplating this carnival face-lift for months, with discussion in board meetings and advertisements published in industry trade magazines to lure new vendors. Fair CEO Gary Slater hopes to “upgrade the types of rides and the quality of the rides that we have” to include “super spectacular rides,” a class of twirling nausea machines “that we haven’t been able to have here because this carnival doesn’t have a lot of large rides.
“Each individual ride could be owned by a different company,” he said.
The fair signed up Genesis Marketing & Research in Urbandale to assemble focus groups earlier this year and to follow up with public surveys at the fair. The aim was to pinpoint what visitors both love and dislike about the midway. Results are pending.
Slater puts the fair’s shift in context of other states that have experimented for years with a similar model, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas and San Diego County (in Del Mar, Calif.). This gives the fair the same sort of comprehensive control over rides that they wield with food vendors.
Girlie shows and profane clowns
In the broad historical view, the midway arguably has seen some of the most sweeping evolution of any spot on our storied fairgrounds.
In part that's because what qualifies as amusement to the average fairgoer has been reshaped by technology. The midway has had to adjust from more of an emphasis on the vaudevillian tradition of stage shows to its contemporary focus on mega rides that nearly rival the offerings of Walt Disney World and other permanent theme parks.
Sure, many fair carnivals still make room for quaint nostalgia such as a ring toss game that was featured in the “State Fair” movie 70 years ago.
But some of the seedier or more ribald elements have been shed.
Bobo the clown was a dunk-tank star of our State Fair midway whose job was to taunt fairgoers into buying baseballs to throw at him, submerge him and shut him up. But his alleged racial slurs in 2009 convinced the fair to drop the increasingly controversial insult clown the following year — although Bobo, in one form or another, was at the fair this year.
It was 40 years ago that stage shows featuring scantily clad dancing women disappeared from the midway.
“The girlie show, as much a State Fair fixture as the bread and beef judging, is a thing of the past,” the Tribune, at the time the Register’s afternoon sister newspaper, reported in 1976. “Hootchy-kootchy is a victim of permissiveness, of all things.”
Al Kunz, then-president of Century 21 shows that ran our midway and a legendary magnate of the carnival circuit, was quoted as saying, “Television, X-rated movies and hot pants have knocked the girlie show out.”
Hot pants? The skin-tight shorts almost qualify as formal wear at our modern fair.
Kunz’s son, Wayne, started working at the Iowa State Fair with his father in 1947. At age 79, he remains a force in the business as a manager for North American Midway Entertainment. I spoke to him Tuesday while he was at home in Florida, due to return soon to yet another fair in Toronto, Canada.
His family has long since sold Century 21, with Belle City in some ways a vestige of the amusement empire that was built. (Belle City managers weren't immediately available Tuesday when I reached out for comment.) Wayne’s sons, meanwhile, now operate Galaxy Amusement Sales in Florida that supplies equipment to carnivals (including our State Fair that just ended).
Decades ago the dancing girls of the midway would stand in front of the tent to attract male farmers, Wayne said. The farmers would try to nonchalantly slip inside without being seen by their families, friends or acquaintances.
Typically there were two shows.
“They would pay a little bit extra and (the dancers) would do a little bit more risque stuff” in the second show, Wayne said.
He should know because the midway provided Wayne the love of his life: Patricia was 18 in 1963 when Wayne met her as a newly hired midway dancer from Chicago. They married Aug. 23, 1963, in a Lutheran church in downtown Des Moines.
“I knew her for three weeks,” he said. “She came out as a dancer. We hired a bunch of chorus girls.”
The marriage lasted for 45 years, until Patricia's death in 2008.
More stroller parking
Nobody expects a return of stage shows to the fair's re-imagined midway, let alone dancing girls.
The fair plans to cater even more to families. The midway revamp includes separating the kiddie rides from the main carnival, to a spot next door to Elwell Family Food Center. Slater said that will provide a better home for the slower-paced rides as well as ample parking space for strollers. (If you’re a faithful fairgoer you know that golf carts, power chairs and strollers consume approximately 95 percent of the traffic space on the fair's streets and sidewalks.)
Wayne, while admittedly having a dog in this fight, is skeptical that fairs will relish taking on the additional work of managing the infrastructure of a carnival on top of running the entire fair.
Slater and his concessions manager, Mike Nye, will head the new operation. But they’re also hiring specialty consultants Steve and Vicki Smith of Stratford, Ia., who run Smith Amusements and have decades of experience in the business.
If Steven Tyler ever returns to the State Fair to enjoy our midway and fried food, I don't yet know precisely what he will find.
But with fair officials all atwitter about bigger and faster attractions, he might want to save the corn dogs until after he spins himself crazy on the rides, so he doesn't lose his lunch.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson) and on Snapchat (@kylemunsoniowa).