Monday, September 15, 2008

Fair to Midway

by A.J. Fucile
Flynn Box Office Manager

The arrival of Labor Day marks many things: the end of summer, the start of school, and the culmination of another Champlain Valley Fair. Each year, the fair offers a choice of six different concerts plus three or four motorsport events which are staffed by the FlynnTix Box Office. Some years, the shows seem to blend into each other, and other years certain shows stand out. This year was a little different, in that just about every event seemed to have something that made it special.

Day one of the fair is always exciting, partially due to the natural nervousness from taking on a big event (never mind 10 of them!). The 10,000-plus seats at the exposition are certainly a change from our approximately 1,500 seat theater. This year started with Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, which brought a crowd that is probably more familiar with events held at the Shelburne Museum. One telling sign was the traffic pattern. For a typical fair event, people will arrive a few hours early to walk the grounds, eat some fried dough (or other fair food), and generally just take in the sights. On this Saturday night, folks arrived closer to show time, which slowed the entry onto the grounds and into the event as things start to back up. Once the show started, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet the grandstand was. Normally, when there are about 3,000 sitting up there, it’s hard to miss them. But as I walked out of the box office that night, I had to turn around and look up to confirm that people actually had taken their seats. I think it was the quietest crowd I have noticed in years.

Sunday and Monday featured two more concerts: American Idol’s Daughtry and Danity Kane. Both were fairly low key, bringing out loyal fans on two beautiful days. The whole week was blessed with good weather, a relief after such a rainy summer. After that, the next couple of evenings featured two motor sport events, starting with the Extreme Motorcycles show. I first caught a glimpse of this a year ago while riding the Ferris wheel as the act warmed up during the day. I wasn’t really sure what the event was like, but seeing these riders jump off ramps a couple of stories high, doing flips in the air, and then landing as if they had never left the ground was amazing. If you haven’t seen this event, it’s well worth checking out.

But I must admit that my favorite event of the week was Wednesday’s “Demolition Derby.” I also must confess that when I first heard of it, I couldn’t understand what it was that drew thousands of people to witness it. And then I attended one. The rules are fairly simple—avoid the driver’s side door, and make contact with another vehicle at least every 60 seconds. There are approximately four different rounds where eight to twelve cars line up on the track, and then proceed to ram into each other until only one car is left that can move of its own accord. There is then a runner-up round consisting of any non-winning car that can still move, and then a final championship round consisting of each winner. One of the contestants, car number 77, just refused to stop moving. It was smaller than most of the other cars, and quickly became a crowd favorite. It looked like a pancake, with its back trunk and back seat directly behind the driver. It then lost its front left wheel, and then it’s back right wheel. Its right front wheel lay in the wheel well horizontally. And it kept running, and smashing into other cars. The back left door fell off. Then the back bumper. And this car kept delivering hits! The car we had picked as the winner at the start of the match looked like a sturdy Lincoln, and even it couldn’t seem to stop this car’s momentum. Each time car 77 either gave or took a hit, and then continued to drive, the howls of laughter and approval just roared from the stands. It was the little engine that could—but shouldn’t. In the end it didn't win the match, but it was by far one of the highlights of the evening.

On Thursday night there was a free event with the Marine Corps Marching Band, which gave the box office a bit of a breather. I didn’t hear much about the event, other than the next morning when I went to the bank and the teller told me how much she had enjoyed watching “those cute Marines.” The feedback was very good, and kept the positive energy at the fair in motion.

The final weekend of the fair started with a shot. On Friday, I had walked up to the will call booth at the Red Gate to check on someone’s tickets, when another customer slammed his arms down at the window and barked at us, “I ordered four tickets, and there are only three here, and I ordered these a LONG time ago!” The man’s arms were larger than my legs, and he wore a white tank top that showed his strength. I looked at him and asked, “If you ordered these a long time ago, why didn’t you check the order when it arrived?” His response caught me off guard for a moment, “Check them? I threw them in my gun safe as soon as they got here!” Right. We were, after all, dealing with a show that featured a very outspoken NRA supporter, Ted Nugent. I assured the man that I would rectify any error that had been made (luckily, I had four seats returned from the act that came in very handy at that moment). Once he realized that things would work out, he was very appreciative, and gave me a thank you-handshake that almost took me off my feet. I think we both left smiling though, and I certainly understood where he was coming from. This event meant a lot to him, and he had planned for it for months. Sometimes, we just get lucky; others, there isn’t much that you can do other than to accept the situation and to make the most of it. I was glad that I didn’t have to try to convince this gentleman of the latter!

Toby Keith brought the usual crowd and excitement that I have come to expect from country stars. This is perhaps his fourth time performing at the fair since I have been here, and he and his group seem right at home from the moment they arrive. I appreciate a good performer who can (literally and figuratively) rally the troops. I didn’t see the show, but I read in the Burlington Free Press review that Toby brought three members of the armed services up on stage at the end of his encore, and then left them there in front of nearly ten thousand people who erupted in applause. THAT was something that I wish I had seen.

And then what seemed to be the show of the fair arrived: The Jonas Brothers. I knew when the show went on sale that this would be big, as we had lines around the building that morning. The show featured a stage extension that reached into the seating on the track, allowing the Brothers to walk deep among the fans. We had done our best to guesstimate which seats might be affected by the extension, but of course we were conservative in our estimate, which meant that once the extension was actually set up, we had a few choice seats to sell. I arrived at the venue early to sort out which locations might be released, figuring that after that I might be able to run an errand or two before returning for the event that evening. I had greatly underestimated the size of the crowd. By a little after 11 am the parking on the grounds was already close to full, and at 2 pm we started to shift to off-site parking. I cannot remember a time when this has happened this early—often it does not occur until one or two hours before the show, and the Jonas Brothers were not due on stage for another five hours! Needless to say I didn’t go anywhere during the day, as we worked through sales, “meet and greet” passes, and other show details. Finally, show time arrived. When the show started, I walked into the venue to see what it was all about. The stage was fantastic. It had hydraulic lifts raising certain parts of the stage, ramps around the stage and into the crowd, dazzling lights and a section of background singers in risers that were also leading cheers, holding up signs, and generally just looking like they were having a ball. The three brothers were pros, striking rock poses and running around creating all kinds of excitement. And then I turned around and looked up at the grandstand. I felt this wave of excitement nearly knock me over; the energy was contagious. You couldn’t avoid it.

And then finally, Labor Day, which to those of us that work the fair means only one thing—the Tractor/Truck Pull. We open at 10 am that day and for the most part sell tickets right until around 3 pm or so. It’s another event that has a devoted following, and consists of vehicles trying to see who can pull a tractor the furthest distance without blowing an engine. It’s quite amazing if you have never seen it.

To top it all off, on Monday, the Flynn’s Assistant Box Office Manager, Leeeza Robbins, was presented with the "Star of the Day" award. This award is given each day to a person involved with the Fair for service above and beyond the call of duty. A Champlain Valley Expo department superintendent nominates someone that they see doing something exceptional. The winner is announced on one of the stages and they are presented with a prize pack and certificate of appreciation. In Leeeza's case, she was nominated for her exceptional patience and courtesy in dealing with several unhappy customers at one of the shows. Not only was this witnessed by the nominating person, but they also apparently witnessed her being complimented by another customer further down the line. Thank you Leeeza!

Thanks to all of you that came out during the week plus of the Champlain Valley Fair. I enjoy it more and more each year, and look forward to seeing you next year!