I Miss My Michigan State Fair

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(By Glenn Peppers)

You ever make a complete mess in the kitchen, trying to recreate something edible that was once so dear to you that you just had to at least try recreating it? Well, that was me last year in my kitchen trying my hardest to make me one of those, carnival style, good ole fashion Elephant Ears. You know the ones, like at the Michigan State Fair! Well as you know, our Michigan State Fair was shut down after its run that year in 2009 by a decree from former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. The thing that bothered me most of all about this whole shut down process was the seeming lack of protest from the people. There was hardly any concerned news coverage of and for the people who supported and loved the Michigan State Fair. Petitions were signed, and there was a sea of concerned citizens I knew of who were all but ignored by local media concerning this issue. I felt that there was a media Blackout on the subject. So as if it had just faded into nothingness, the Michigan State Fair (America’s First official State Fair), well over 160 years old, slipped away with barely a whisper as it closed down Sept 2009. Many people, myself included, who love the fair are still torn up about it!

I’m sure there are a great many Michiganders who have fond memories of the Michigan State Fair. It’s been apart of my life here in Southeastern Michigan for basically all my life. Before I could speak and articulate my feelings as a child coming out of my toddler stage, I remember (in snippets) my mother and my father taking me to my first State Fair. I don’t remember much from that first day, but what I do remember has stuck and held fast in my brain for almost five decades. First off I remember it was overcast that day, and I remember an amazing Fire Eater, blowing great plumes of fire and black smoke out of his mouth, and consuming those same flames using these long burning sticks that looked like giant flaming Q-Tips. There was also this very odd little fellow. A sword swallower; this very limber cross legged Asian man wearing the official Hollywood stereotypical white turban upon his head was like nothing my childhood eyes had ever seen. This was my first exposure to Side Show Entertainment. I was dumbstruck in that I had no idea the human body could do such a thing as shallow a sword. At my age, I had trouble not wetting my pants and keeping down Gerber foods, let alone think about swallowing a sword.

But by far the most impressive thing I saw that day was not just the Pigs and the Goats, and the Baby Chicks; it was the man on the motorcycle inside this round caged black steel globe who rode round and round on the inside of it, top to bottom/side to side as another man stood in the middle of that cage unharmed by this motorcycle daredevil racing around it doing figure eights, chris-crosses and thrilling near misses, just inches from the fearless man standing inside that cage. I can still smell the burning oil, and the leaded gasoline from the motorcycle engine.  Fresh in my mind are the small spews of blue smoke, and the sound of the muffler from the tail pipe with each engine sputter. That my dear friends was my first experience ever hearing and seeing a motorcycle.

A year later, my eldest sister (a teenager) took me to the Fair with her boyfriend and a bunch of her girlfriends. This is where I got a look at what a real Radio DJ looked like. I was all of four years old, I think! WJLB AM had a booth set up near a concession stand that sold cotton candy and lemonade. I recognized the voice coming from the external speaker on top of the booth. It was Ernie D. (real name, Ernie Durham) He was an exciting DJ on WJLB am Soul Radio that I listened to throughout the early to mid 1960’s, and I finally got a chance to see what the voice on the radio really looked like. As always, he looked nothing like I imagined. His catch phrase was “WOOOOoooooo-WEEeeeeeeeeeee! its Ernie D on WJLB!” All the kids in the vicinity were gathered around his booth. This was also the day that I first heard Calypso music. There was a parade on one of the Fair avenues with folks all dressed in bright yellow, orange, and red attire, and playing steel drums. Believe it or not, that song (whatever its name) still resonates inside my brain to this day!

The first real concert I ever attended in my life, was at the Michigan State Fair. After my mother passed away in 1962, (I was 6 years old), that fall, my father took me to the fair, just he and I where we mainly walked around, ate and looked at the new model Ford and Chevy cars for that year; and to see Ray Charles who was appearing at the Band Shell that evening, around 8pm. Being only six years old, I was very small, so my father had to put me up on his shoulders in order for me to see once a crowd started to gather at the Band Shell. That cold autumn evening, I remember George Kirby (a popular African American television comedian, actor and impressionist) emceed and opened the show. All clad in his nice black tuxedo, Kirby told jokes and did impressions of Sammy Davis Jr. and James Cagney and Nat King Cole. Then of course, Ray Charles came onto the stage and set the night on fire. I could barely see, as there were other much taller people standing about, and Pop, well he was a short guy like me, but I saw enough. I sure heard enough to know that I too wanted to be an entertainer one day. I was hooked!

It was cold that night indeed! The crowd had weened, and our view improved significantly! That night I was sure and certain that in my life, nothing would ever sound as good as live music! Getting colder, and later, Pop and I left before Mr. Charles made his curtain call. On the way home, I remember the soap bubbles from my yellow bubble blowing toy saxophone chilling my fingers to the bone on our bus ride back to the east side. My memories are locked in tight, whereas the State Fair eventually became a yearly tradition that evolved with me, and I with it, every year! Sure there were gaps in my State Fair attendance times. From ages 10 through 12, I did not attend. There were gap attendances in my mid-twenties as well. Seems that work and grown up responsibilities takes precedence over elephant ears and corn dogs sometimes! Still I’d drive by the fair on the way to work when it was Fair time, and I’d smile when I saw all the colored lights and heard the sound people riding rides, carnival music playing, and the ferris wheel spinning round and round. Because I knew it was there, in my heart I knew it would always be there for me, if I just wanted or needed to go! Man was I wrong about that!

Ages 13 through 19 were very special times for me and the Michigan State Fair. Sept 9, 1971 was my first official teenage concert that I attendant on my own with friends. The concert was The Jackson Five, appearing at the Grandstand raceway area. Boy was I in for a shock that day! There would be close to 40.000 people there for the 4:30pm show. A young and then unknown band named The Commodores opened the show, all dressed in white jumpsuits and playing other artist’ material, as they didn’t have a record release at that time, although they were an entity affiliated with Motown. This was just a few short years before their instrumental release of “Machine Gun” Their first Motown record release.

I was blown away at the sea of people that day; most of which were girls! It seemed as if my entire neighborhood (of kids anyway) walked west on State Fair Street after school to see The Jackson Five that day at the State Fair. The screams, the music, and the atmosphere was electric! I hadn’t seen anything like it, and I was undone! By that time in my young life, father had (unintentionally) moved us closer to The State Fair area, so a walk from Dequindre and State Fair street to the Fairgrounds wasn’t a bad thing at all! I call that day, one of the most perfect days of my life. Nothing went wrong that day. After the concert, my friends and I rode thrill rides, ate state fair cuisine and clumsily tried to talk to still insanely excited girls who were hopelessly lost and starry eyed over The Jackson Five! Us guys played, ate and rode all the rides hanging around for the second show at 8pm, yet we eventually decided that we really didn’t need to see the the whole show again. Besides, it was a school night!

My State Fair had everything! Many a year, I bought fresh homemade Honey and Jam from Michigan growers. I loved to watch the wide eyed wonderment of children from the inner city as they touched the mane of a horse or a pony for the first time, or saw what a 300 lb. hog looks (and smells) like; and actually see a goat, a lamb and baby chicks being born into this world. There are kids in Detroit that if they are not taken by way of a school class trip to a Knots Berry type farm, a petting zoo or a Michigan State Fair, they will never see what farm animals and livestock looks, smells and feels like. This is such a shame indeed!

My early teen years were my mischievous years at the Michigan State Fair. The following two years subsequent (‘round about 1971-72) I have to admit, me and my friend Kenny, and few other of us were quite the hellions in that we would sneak into the State Fair simply because we could. We’d make fools out of those State Police Troopers on horseback every time. Except for once! This one day, me and my Buddy Kenny were sneaking into the State Fair during the week, when we saw a sight that so captured us, we actually got caught trying to witness it! How did we do it; sneak into the state Fair you ask? Why we’d come in off the railroad tracks from State Fair street, follow the train tracks behind the Pepsi Cola Bottlers plant, and with big brass bells (I’m being nice in my nervy description), we’d simply walk or run across that huge field behind the Grandstand, toward the fairgrounds. Then we’d just walk past the grandstand trailers, leading up to the entrance and exit gates near the horse stables. I mean, who would be dunce enough to just walk right out onto that speedway area like that? Why Me and Kenny of course!

Well this particular day, as we started across that field, a State Trooper on horseback spotted us and gave chase. Now by the time he had discovered us, it was really a bit too late to catch us, but we had to stop and see what was about to happen over at the Grandstand. All I heard on those loud PA system speakers at the raceway part of the grandstand was: “…And he will Blow Himself Up! Yes folks, He’ll blow himself up in that box, using real dynamite!” Now you know I had to see what the heck this was all about. As Kenny and I stopped running long enough to gawk, the trooper rode down us and firmly demanded we leave the grounds immediately! We turned to him (with such baby faces) and admitted that we were wrong and that we would go out and pay for our admission, we just needed to ask him one favor. Never leaving his horse, he looked at us with a look of total perplexity and said, “Com’on, you guys, lets go!” Then I said, “But sir, (I coyly said) this guys is gonna blow himself up. We just gotta see this!” I begged!

Maybe it’s a guy thing but, the Troopers curiosity was sparked as well.  That’s when he looked toward the Grandstand and said; “What? This guys gonna do what?” It was then that I knew I had’em! So I said it again. This time I was laughing. “This guys is really gonna blow himself up in that box!” The Trooper sat back on his horse and tipped his hat up and said, “Ok, now after this, you guys have to leave the grounds and either go home or pay to get in!” Kenny and I put on the angelic kid face real well and agreed to never do such a terrible thing again. So there we all three were, waiting as this stunt man was being readied and set up to actually blow himself into carnival heaven!

What was taking place just yards away from us was this stunt man (name unknown to me even unto this day) dressed in this red white and blue Evil Kenevil jumpsuit, complete with red white and blue helmet and cape. He was being put into a plywood red white and blue box that looked like a coffin taken from a Dracula movie right out of the old Hammer Film studios. Once he was inside, the one assist carefully placed what looked like three sticks of dynamite on either side of him as he lay faced down in this coffin that was immediately nailed shut after the dynamite was placed inside. From each dynamite bundle, a long trip wire or some sort of wick line was let out and connected to a detonation device some 300 ft. away, that looked all the world like he’d stolen it from Warner Bros’. Wile E. Coyote. The only thing missing was the words ACME written on the side of it, and a grinning Road Runner buzzing by us!

The three of us continued standing a good 300 ft. away from the action; and the stunt site itself was far enough away from the stands so that no one would get hurt. With charge lines in hand, the assist made a run for it toward the detonator where he connect two lines to the positive and negative charge poles on the detonator. Then the unseen  announcer started to countdown from 10. When he reached zero, the charge was set off, and the explosion was one I really and truly did not expect! That phrase “The earth moved under my feet” had true meaning that day, for it actually did move the earth under my feet. I almost fell over in fact. The charge was so strong and so loud; and the concussion was so strong, the troopers horse stood up on its hide legs like Trigger, the Lone Rangers horse!

When the smoked cleared, that stunt guy rolls out of the coffin, onto his back where a shower of confetti and charred ambers came powering down, onto his ragged body. His nice neat red white and blue jumpsuit was burned, tattered and fried, and looked like something out of a Three Stooges Bomb explosion gag.  Emergency rescue people and his assistance team ran onto the field to help him up and off the ground. As he walked towards his trailer, he gave the crowd a thumb’s up as if to say, “I’m alright!” It was then that we all three laughed out butts off. Needless to say, Kenny and I walked around to the south gate on State Fair Street, paid our fair and never snuck into the fair again.

Ok, I know what you’re thinkin’. Yes Kenny and I were a two man teenage nightmare. Well, not really. We were just kids! We never stole anything, and we weren’t malicious children in anyway. Let’s just say that as fas as boys go, we were just quite curious is all; about everything! Our Curiosity got us into trouble trying to sneak into the Can Can Review Show at the fair just days after the State Trooper incident. Well, at least we didn’t actually sneak into the fair! The Can Can Show feature not far from the Side Show tents was an event meant for men over the age of 18. Yes you heard me right. Can Can! It was a Girlie Show — at the Michigan State Fair! Now I can only imagine it was not a lewd, despicable display of nudity at a public place. I could imagine it was just some dignified old time strip teasing, whereas you’d barely see anything at all. Just feathers and bubbles! Either way, Kenny and I were going to get us a look see!

Held under this very closely guarded tent. The signs outside featured Fan Dancer type pictures of the girls or the acts themselves; most looked all the world like clones of Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke. Fascinated, you know we couldn’t pass up at least trying to sneak into this odd little skin circus. Did I say well guarded? Holy Cow, Fort Knox hadn’t seen this much manned security since its inception! And mainly by the grounds keepers and personal protection tough guys hired by the act itself. These brutes all looked as if they’d come up the ranks by bouncing at least a bar or two along the way to work. The worst of those guys was a small wiry fellow who looked like the old actor Red Buttons. He was fast and mean as a beaver with wooden dentures. Kenny and I pulled a David Copperfield Okie Doke on the guards and snook in behind the tent to gather a gander at what was behind door No. 1!

Just as we commando crawled under the stands on the inside of the tent. The Red Button’s guy caught us! This strong little guy yelled at us and dragged our butts out from under the stands and shook this little homemade blackjack billie club in our faces, and admonished us on how bad it is for us to see women in their bloomers or their exclusive lady-ware at our age! Mind you, I didn’t mind the lecture, considering the option. Lil‘ dude looked as if he’d used that worn out billie club on many occasions.  As he walked Kenny and I out of the tent, we got a look at the women standing on stage. They were beautiful, in their own Miss Kitty sort of way. The ladies begged the Red Button’s security guy to let us stay, and even called us cute and blew kisses. The last one on the end of the stage hugged me and said, “Maybe next year sugar!” Once we were far enough away from that tent, Kenny and I laughed our butts off. All the while I was just thankful that old dude didn’t have a good ole southern black jack tanning in mind for Kenny and me.

That same summer; not even a week later, I developed a crush on a sideshow girl. Yes, a side show girl! She was billed as, The Skeleton Girl. Believe me, I do not normally fall for carnival performers, but this woman was one of the most beautifully mystifying women I have ever seen… even to this day! Her skin was Carmel colored like mine, yet she was obviously from somewhere else outside my culture! Her long jet black hair was hypnotizing, as were her huge gentle eyes! She had the same effect on my friend Kenny. To say we were smitten would be grossly understating the matter! We came everyday for a week to see her. Apparently other men felt the same way; each day, there was a sea of men standing about her tent, waiting to buy a ticket to watch the somewhat hokey transformation of this beautiful young woman who can turn herself into a skeleton. Why a skeleton? I couldn’t tell ya! One thing I found out though is that this stunning girl had a very protective mother who (rightfully) hung about her daughter like a hawk protecting its young. No man was gonna spoil her precious baby girl!

This girl was so sweet! She spoke softly and was so polite to everyone. I’d tell her how beautiful she was (as if she’d never heard that line before), and she’d blush. This woman only stayed at this sideshow for that one particular summer. The following summer when the fair opened, I headed up to the fairgrounds to see her. And yes, I did actually paid to get in! When I reached the sideshow where the Skeleton Woman tent was, I discovered that she was gone, and that there was a new Skeleton Girl act. This beautiful woman and her mother were gone. My heart was broken.

Of course being a young teenager, my heart was broken, but being full of wonder and hormones, that lasted all of ten minutes. That is until I discovered and developed another sideshow crush (what was it with me and these sideshow crushes?). My buddy Kenny and I were walking the sideshow area where all the human oddities were. The Giant Bones of the Giant Creature, The 500 Pound Bearded Fat Lady, The Alligator Woman. I could go on, but I sense that you would rather I not! Well as fate would have it, we discovered a similar act. What act? Why “the Horrifying Ape Woman” of course!

Believe me I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried! It was the same act in essence as the Skeleton Girl thing, except this time the girl was an African American woman who had the ability to turn herself into (as the emcee said) a Horrifying Ape Woman. The act was a scream! This beautiful girl with this Pam Grier afro stood on this four ft. stage-like platform, dressed in this really bad cheetah bikini. The trick was simply this; as the lights dimmed and the music (drums) played, this girl would slowly transform into a gorilla! How hokey was this? Remember those old Lon Chaney movies where he’d turn into the Werewolf on the Full Moon? It was this same effect to the Tee! As African drums played over the loud speakers, the curator (who was a middle aged small black man, dressed in a “way too tight” white tee shirt and vest, complete with a lil’ cornbread hat that barely sat up on his head) would talk up the gag.

He announced the act with a feedback laced dynamic Shure mic in hand, sweating as he spoke. “Watch out, she’ll turn into a horrifying ape.”  Then suddenly you’d notice fur starting to appear on her face and then slowly covering her entire body, until she transformed into an ape… or to be exact, a woman in a really bad ape costume. Her announcer would continue talking up the act. “We found her in the wilds of the Jungle. Blah blah!” You get my drift!

Well then he’d up the tension a bit. “Be careful folks, she could get out… Oh there she goes! She opened the cage. She Loose! RUN! RUN! Run out of the tent!” After she changed, The woman would rattle the cage and then growl; and in doing so, the cage door would open. The only thing stopping it from opening all the way was this small chain! Well when she almost busted out of that cage, and everybody ran out, Kenny and I were on the ground cracking up in hysterics! Day after day, we’d come back just to see her, because she was cute, and to laugh at this really corny sideshow! There’s a follow up this portion of the story that includes the girl further in my State Fair story in part three.

Around that time (1972-1978), I’d taken a serious interest in Bands and music, my dad bought me a guitar, and I learned enough to end up joining and forming a neighborhood rock and disco/funk band.  Feeling it as an honor to play at the same venue as the Jackson Five, once we could play a couple of songs pretty well, we began to play at the state fair’s Teen Scene stage along with guys I grew up with who were much better than we were. This local promoter who called himself Salmar of “Salmar’s Stars of Tomorrow,” (a local talent show that was featured on WJBK channel two back in the day on some Saturday’s after Soul Train) had a talent showcase at the Teen Scene almost every year.

Salmar would feature mainly kid and teen acts at the State Fair Teen Scene Stage, whether you’ve been on his TV show or not. My band and some of my other neighborhood friends with bands played there for years. There was a swill of bands and dancers and singers from all over southeastern Michigan who played the teen scene and the Band Shell, if you were good enough. I had the honor of playing the Band Shell once. Nothing big! No gigantic crowds and big overhead speakers, and massive flood lights and such. It was a daytime show. It was just me and my little five man band and my Fender Twin Reverb amp. Just-a-singing and a Playin’!  No body was really blown away by us. It was just another gig to the guys in our band. But to me, all I knew was I was on the same stage Ray Charles once occupied. The Band Shell? That was my quiet fantasy come true!

I saw many a band, singing act, disco group, country singers, Motown acts and other entertainers over the years. My wife and I recently saw Little Richard and Chuck Berry, The Temptations (Otis Williams Temptations). The Dennis Edwards Temptation Revue, Tammy Wynette, The Jackson Five, Roberta Flack, Randy Travis, Rare Earth, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. The Isley Bros., Al Green, The Commodores, I could go on and on but I won’t. Let’s just say that I’ve seen more acts at The Michigan State Fair over the years than at venues like Cobo or even Joe Louis Arena.

Do you know, I remember seeing The Three Stooges live at the state fair in the very early 1960‘s? I was at the fair with my dad. It was cold that day, and the stooges were doing a comedy routine at the Gazebo dressed in clothing that resembled attire from the mountains of the Austrian Alps. Curly Joe was doing funny stunts and falls as Larry and  Moe played an accordion. I pegged them right away, as The Three Stooges were my favorite as a child.

1983, I visited an exhibit in a tent at the fair that featured the sounds of tomorrow. It was an electronics exhibition by Sony, introducing people to new technologies in sound. The Compact Disc and the new Compact Disc Player! I was blown away by its disc size, its clarity, its lack of hiss and machine noise! It was almost spooky that there was no Harmonic Distortion noises to make note of. What is Harmonic Distortion? Its that loud humming/hissing noise you get when you turn up your stereo volume to about 8. You get loud music of course, but you also get major hum and hiss. The new Compact Disc player and its revolutionary new Compact Disc seem to all but eliminate any noticeable harmonic distortion levels, leaving pure clean sound and/or music at unheard of volume levels.

I remember this older man at the exhibit saying, “That’s too clean. That don’t feel right!” A man of his age was so use to listening to records that crackle and tapes that hiss, and stereos with high levels of machine noise since he was a child, that it became apart of the sound for him. That day, I fell in love with sound and music all over again!

In the latter 1990‘s, me and my wife’s love for Karaoke transcended over to the State Fair. A good friend of ours would host Karaoke in the food court shelter area next to the exhibits and the field house. For many a year, it became a meeting place for friends and a base for those who came with us and wanted to go about on the rides while we sung karaoke. Sure I’d walk all over the fair and buy corn on the cob, corn dogs, fresh lemonade, and sausages; and of course my favorite… My Cherry and Apple Elephant Ears. Who doesn’t love the many games and rides,  and of course the side shows… Side shows? Hey wait a minute! Where were the Side Shows?

As I grew up with the Michigan State Fair, I’d go even if I had to go alone. It was apart of me. The sights and sounds and the smells! Sure I didn’t ride the rides like I did when I was a kid as I got older, but I surely did partake of the food, the games, and the concerts. In 1991, I hurt my back at work, and the doctor put me on pain killers, making it so I couldn’t drive to the fair that particular day. He said nothing to me about riding the bus. I wanted so badly to see Gloria Estefan and The Miami Sound Machine, and all my old friends had either moved away or just didn’t care to see Gloria Estefan. Well, shame on them!

I was there! I arrived at the fair just after 6pm, walked around, tracked down some serious french fries and malted vinegar and hand shaken (not stirred) Lemonade. Hey, I even won me a lil’ ole teddy red bear from playing a pool game with a badly bowed pool cue.  Before I’d kill time talking to folks at the Band Shell who were also waiting to see The Sound Machine around 7:30pm! I figured, just before the concert, I’d make my way over to the rear side of the fair where the haunted houses and creep show rides were. Just on the other side of those rides is where the Side Shows use to be. Notice I said, “use to be!” Much to my surprise, they were gone… All of them! No more Fat Lady, no Alligator Woman, No more Skeleton Woman, Sword Swallowers, The Strongman, the Miniature Horse! All of it gone! Hurt and dejected, I wandered about the fair in shock that these longtime entertainment features I loved so well were now gone.

I asked the gentleman operating the Ferris Wheel what happened to the side show acts and he said the side shows mainly stay in the southern circuit, as the northern audiences are just too sophisticated and no longer see the humor and the novelty of what side shows were all about. With corn dog and teddy bear in hand, I sat through the concert feeling kind of numb, yet I was somehow resigned to the fact that this part of the State Fair is no more.

The concert was amazing! For almost two hours, I drowned my sorrows in music from the Miami Sound Machine. My pain killer was starting to wear off and it was just about 10:20pm. The fair would soon be closing, and I beat. I took my last pain pill as I walked towards the fairgrounds DOT bus area on the Woodward side of the fair. Tired and in pain, I boarded my bus and sat on the bench seat across from the driver who happened to be someone I’d ride with while he drove the Woodward line for many a year, only this time, he was driving the Conant-Jefferson line.

The very bus I was taking home! As I sat there, we talked of old times and I mentioned how there were no more side shows at the Michigan State Fair. He was amazed to hear such a thing! Waiting for more passengers from other bus lines, we talked about how a lot of things have changed, not only at the fair but in Detroit in general. The subject changed and we switched over to current events and sports as other passengers climbed aboard. Only 6 people got on.

The last of these was a very beautiful woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform. She was gorgeous! This woman sported a full Jeri Curl afro and bore a great pair of legs which shone through her traditional white nurses attired stockings.  As she sat down on the bench seat behind the bus driver, She was now facing me! I mentioned again to the bus driver how things had changed at the State Fair; all the while sneaking a peek at this beautiful woman.

Then out of nowhere, as if she had been apart of our conversation all along, out of the blue, she blurted out: “I use to work at the fair, years ago!” Thinking she was talking about concessions or volunteer work, I asked her had she noticed how much different the fair had become over the years. “Not really, I haven’t been to the fair in years!” she said. Then I asked her.  What was it she did when she worked at the State Fair;  and what she said almost knocked me over on my bottom padding! Proudly she blurted that she was apart of the side show circuit, and that she was once billed as The Horrifying Ape Woman! I almost fainted! “No way!” I thought to myself!  I asked her to repeat herself. She laughed and said once more that she was the Horrifying Ape Woman!  Now the entire time I was talking to the bus driver, I never mentioned anything about any specific side show in particular, only that the entire crop of side shows had now become non-existence. She wasn’t even in the general vicinity when I was discussing my disheartened carnival issue with him.

The bus took off, and like old friends we began talking. I was so totally all in with this woman at this point after a while, I hadn’t noticed that I’d long missed my stop! I sat next to her and talked with her, and boy did I get an ear full! It seems that this woman had been playing the role of the ape lady since she was a young teenager. The little old man in the cornbread hat and too-tight tee-shirt and vest was her uncle. They toured around the south and up north come fall fair time in Michigan and Ohio in the early 1970’s (1972). And yes, she said that northern audiences had outgrown the old fashion side show stick, so they mainly stayed down south. Freely giving me the complete lowdown on the Side Show dilemma, this woman, said she quit being the horrifying ape woman as she started to grow up heading into her early twenties.

And by it being the early 1970‘s, this was a time when women were also heading onto bigger things than just being Suzy Homemaker/June Cleaver and Donna Reed! The equal rights amendment, and the ERA was in full swing. Women were burning their bras and even had their own cigarette fashioned just for them. Why subject oneself to being a mere side show act when a world of opportunities lay at your feet?  This entertainingly refreshing woman went on to say that she that she could not see herself being a 40 year old Horrifying Ape Woman in a bad Cheetah bikini (of which she said she made herself).  So she followed  her secret ambition to be a nurse and went to nursing school!

Well I was flabbergasted to say the least. How uncanny! To run into this woman almost twenty years later to the day. The odds of running into this woman twenty years after the disappointment and dejection I’d experienced at finding out my precious side shows were no more was pretty much supernatural to say the least! But oh the secrets she told me! The One True Michigan State Fair Side Show Secret that really shocked me was that the Bearded Fat Lady was really a 500 pound fat man in drag! She told me that the Alligator woman’s costume was made from shiny silk cloth materials that she and this alligator woman hand picked and bought themselves at Minnesota Fabrics. She knew who I was taking about when I mentioned the beautiful skeleton woman. All she told about her was that she just didn’t come back after a couple of seasons, and that she was indeed hypnotically beautiful!

The funniest thing she told me that night is that some of the Side Show People really knew how to party and whoop it up; and that after some shows, they’d go out on the town in full costume! Could you imagine walking into a Big Boy at 1am and seeing a table full of side show folk, in full side show regalia, partying like its 1999? She said they’d go all dressed in their costumes and order food and plenty wine. When she mentioned they had drinking parties in their trailers after the fairs would close down for the night, I shuttered to think about the possible goings on behind those curtains and trailers way late at night. Actually, the thought brought back memories of that very odd yet quite scary 1932 movie, “Freaks” by Tod Browning.

{If you ever get a chance to see this movie, it will chill you to the bone because of its real inside look, and honest depiction of Side Show People, played by real-life side show performers. A drama, yet played brilliantly by the so-called Freaks themselves. A movie such as this could never be made today because it would break all the rules of political correctness, and codes of conduct; let alone the whole issue of FCC and various censorship laws. To say that “Freaks” is a one of a kind movie experience is mildly stating the matter.} 

As I said moments ago, I had long missed my bus stop, sitting and chatting with this lovely lady, whose name by the way I never got. In all actuality, I intentionally didn’t want to know her name. Somehow, I felt knowing it seemed as if it would destroy the mystic for me. It was funny to know that she remembered Kenny and I making fun of the act itself, and that she too almost laughed as we would fall out on the saw dusted floor of the tent, belly laughing and mocking her uncle’s dialog on the microphone.

That night, she did a little teasing herself. The woman not only remembered us, but made fun of my unusually large goofy afro, and how skinny my friend Kenny was back in 1972. What a time I was having! It was late, and by this time, there was no other passengers left on that bus but her and me; and of course the driver. We talked and talked and seemed to get to a place where there was not much else to talk about, unless of course it was about things personal. Things intimate! Although she was beautiful, I knew deep inside this wasn’t the way this meeting was supposed to turn. Somehow knowing anything more personal than what we had just talked about, seemed sacrilegious, out of bounds and an intrusion on both our childhood memories of a day and time untainted by the reality of growing up.

It was just at that point, her bus stop was coming up. As she rang the bell for her stop, I thanked her for taking the time with me, and making my night, and settling in my mind a mystery and true fact that even though things change, life goes on!

We hugged each other as if we were old friends, and she looked longingly at me and smiled a most gentle smile. As she departed the rear of the coach, she waved and disappeared into the night, just as quickly as she come on board close to an hour before. I sat there in my seat frozen, yet satisfied.

My friend the bus driver kept looking at me through his rear view mirror as if to say, “are you alright?” The Conant Bus turns around at the foot of Jefferson, by the Belle Isle Bridge and makes its way north after a few minutes. All I could say to the driver after this strange impromptu meeting was, “Wow!” Me and my bus driver friend didn’t talk much on the way back up to my stop. This was his last trip for the night, so I rode north with him on Conant, and got off at my regular stop. Once off the bus, as I walked the two blocks home, I thought to myself. Maybe we don’t need the side shows anymore. At that day and time we had a new breed of side show among us. Geraldo, Sally Jesse Raphael, Phil Donahue, Morton Downy Jr., Oprah, and Jerry Springer, and whoever else could land a talk show contract at that time.

Then it occurred to me, this generation didn’t need side shows at the State Fair any longer.  The side shows were right where everybody could get to them, 5 days a week, on television. Talk shows were in fact the new side shows. I laughed the rest of the way home, and I slept the sleep of a man fulfilled that night; me and my lil’ red Teddy Bear. For God gave me something most people don’t get out of life; and that was restitution, and closure for my mourning of a time and era I loved so well that had quietly gone away.

August 29th 2009, A very good friend of mine who is apart of the Dennis Edwards Temptations Review played the Band Shell at Michigan State Fair that evening. I video taped it sitting right down front, and me and the wife kicked it with the guys before the show and had a wonderful time. But that time was bittersweet because this in fact would be the last concert I would see at my beloved Michigan State Fair. During the show, Dennis Edwards pleaded to the crowd to write your congressmen, State Representative and whoever it took to get the decision to close the fair overturned.

As we entered the gates to the fair that evening, it was cold, and not just from the night air. It was an eerie cold. I felt deep in my heart that my State Fair wouldn’t be long for this world. All through the park there were folks getting petitions signed and shouting “Save the fair!” Patronage was down that night, and looks were somber all about. Still, a great lot of us had hope. As I talked with my friend, Paul Williams Jr., and the other Temps, They were up, they were ready to sing to Detroiters and whomever else was out there at the Band Shell that night.

As we hung out with Paul before the show, Darlene and I shared a giant apple Elephant Ear. This was in fact, the biggest elephant I’d ever seen. It was loaded with chunks of apples and sprinkles of powered sugar and cinnamon. Truly it was as big as a pizza pie! It was almost as if God were saying, “Ok Glenn, this is the last one, I’ll make it a Good One!” As I video taped our Paul and the Temp’s. Dennis Edwards was still at the hotel. So we kidded around as I filmed, and held my elephant ear at the same time.

They (The Temptations) teased me about my steroid elephant ear. All the while, the opening act, “The Rock and Roll All Stars” played the hits from their rock history as individual hit makers, now as a band. They combined to form a power rock band with members like:  group leader, Jerry Corbette from the band Sugarloaf (Green Eyed Lady), Mike Pinera from Iron Buttery (Inna Gadda Da Vida), Dennis Noda from various studio session work throughout the rock era.  And finally, my drum and rock hero, Peter Rivera from Rare Earth (Hey Big Brother, Get Ready, I just wanna Celebrate). They sounded so good!  They were playing music from back in the day when I was kid, enjoying the Fair as if it would never go away! It was almost as if I had been catapulted back in time; back to 1972.

When the Temptations took the stage just after 8pm, they looked great. They danced, they sung, and I felt proud to know them and even sung with Paul on many occasions (of course not as a Temptation). My wife and I DJ’ed Paul’s wedding, and years ago, he sung at our wedding, now look at him, on stage before thousands, taking his dad’s place as Paul Williams Jr. Then Dennis Edward did it. Toward the end of the show, he mentioned how on that very stage (the Band Shell) 40 some odd years ago, August 29th, Paul Williams Sr. wife went into labor, while they were singing. They had to leave the stage and rush Paul over to the hospital where his son, Paul Williams Jr. came kicking and Temptation Walking into this world. And it happened on that very same night, August 29th!

There wasn’t a dry eye in the place! As Dennis Edwards said to the crowd, “Paul’s daddy brought me into the group, It was only fitting that his son should be right here, where his father stood, as a Temptation!” I could barely keep the video camera still. This was and is history! Then it struck me. This indeed was another one of those uncanny events intertwined together in life’s mysterious karma. I truly do believe that there are no coincidences! There is a grand design involved in our lives. Most times we’re just to stuck on ourselves, or too busy to notice it!

The rest of the concert was beautiful, and sure there’s a boatload of stories I (or you) could tell about our experiences at The Michigan State Fair; but the last two stories had a special meaning to me. Its proof that things always come full-circle! It is my hope that the closing of The Michigan State Fair isn’t just some ploy to move the fair out and away from the city of Detroit. Many folks from Traverse City to Akron, Ohio have called the fair the gateway to Detroit and the Suburbs. As tears come to my eyes, I will continue to hold dear my lifetime of memories and fun, and life experience.

I’ll value the simple things, such as God’s gentle touch through the Miracle of Birth Exhibitions. The romping sounds of horses and Big Time Wrestling in the State Coliseum. The look of wonderment on children’s faces as they see a side to life that urbanites rarely see. All of this will be gone, and according to a historical plaque that once stood on the grounds of the state fair, our Michigan State Fair was suppose to have a permanent home located at Woodward and 8 Mile. Honor history, and things historic? I find this taking place less and less here of late. Until then, I’ll be standing in front of my Microwave, waiting for my Corn Dogs to cook. I miss my Michigan State Fair. Thank God for memories!







Glenn Peppers

About Glenn Peppers

Glenn Peppers, is an author of a helpful hints book entitled, “The Home Husband Companion.” It is a collection of funny stories and true-life wisdom from a lifetime of experience and southern prudence. I’ve spent 25 years as a Project and Program Assistant within the Traumatically Brain Injured community. My travel experiences, and skills as an artist, writer, and musician and amateur historian has only added to my skills as an author and freelance writer.