It has been visited by musical stars and a then-unknown star. It has been located at malls and an old airport. It has overcome a hurricane and financial stress.
But, like old man river, the Greater Baton Rouge State Fair just keeps rolling along. For 50 years, to be precise.
The 2015 fair, which opened Thursday night at BREC’s Airline Highway Park, got its start in 1965 when the Baton Rouge Jaycees expanded a trade show at the Bon Marche Mall (now Bon Carre Town Center) and added a carnival midway at the corner of Airline Highway and Evangeline Street. J.H. Martin was the first fair chairman.
“I’m 78 years old,” Martin said. “My first 28 years, I didn’t know what a fair was.”
He knows now. He was chairman for the fairs from 1986-2010, and he saw the fair as it moved to what was then the Downtown Airport (now BREC’s Independence Park) from 1966-69 and to property that later became Cortana Mall from 1970-72. The Jaycees bought the current location and moved the fair there in 1973.
More changed than location. The entertainment expanded from such oddities as the human cannonball, a diver who belly-flopped from a 40-foot platform into 17 inches of water and frog-jumping contests to well-known musicians. Roy Clark, Bobby Vinton, The Captain and Tennille, Kool and the Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band, Natalie Cole, Kenny Rogers and Larry Gatlin were some of the headliners in the 1970s. Reba McIntyre, New Kids on the Block, and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith) brought their sounds to Baton Rouge in the 1980s.
The list of stars might have included Tina Turner, said Cliff Barton, who handled entertainment for many years before taking over as chairman when Martin stepped down. However, her demands for amenities for herself, her dancers and band would have doubled the cost of her appearance, Barton said. That, however, was a rarity among the musicians.
“Most of those people are so easy and nice to work with,” Barton said.
Not all of the stars were paid to perform. One day, a young LSU student found a booth that gave away prizes for basketball shooting accuracy.
“We didn’t know who Pete Maravich was at the time, but he came out to the fair with some folks from LSU and proceeded to shoot hoops until the guy asked him to quit,” Martin said. “Whether (the rims) were bent or regulation or not, he could drop them in. He impressed a bunch of folks.”
By 1984, the work that went into the fair impressed the Jaycees enough that they wanted someone else to take over. Martin headed a group of residents who considered whether the fair had a future. The 1985 fair — which was hit twice by Hurricane Juan — would be the Jaycees’ last.
“My goal at the time as chairman of that group was to shut the fair down, sell the property for $1.2 million, pay off $800,000 worth of debt and have some money to give away,” Martin said. “That obviously didn’t happen.”
Instead, BREC bought the property and leased it to a non-profit organization that has kept the fair going. It has been profitable enough that the fair has now donated $3.5 million to charitable causes, most recently donating $500,000 to create scholarship endowments for seven local schools.
The fair has changed some things. By the late 1980s, Martin started noticing that the bigger-name musicians didn’t seem to bring more people. So, the emphasis has been on local and regional talent, of which there is much to choose from, Martin said.
It seems, Martin said, that people come to the fair for things that are unique to fairs — the midway rides, the petting zoos, the clowns, magicians and unusual entertainers like chainsaw artists and racing pigs.
This year’s lineup includes daredevil Brian Miser, a.k.a. The Human Fuse, who entertains as a human cannonball and, on occasion, as a human crossbow arrow. Magician Tim Spinosa and one-man band Washboard Willy will also make an appearance.
Plus, there is the array of culinary delicacies not commonly found in grocery stores or restaurants such as chocolate-dipped bananas and Twinkies. Patrons can also enjoy the usual fair food like turkey legs, jambalaya, chicken wings and funnel cakes. “We have had some strange food items through the years,” Martin said. “We’ll have some this year.”
And, it appears, for years to come.