Knight: Time for HOI Fair to plan a better Grandstand lineup

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Next summer's 65th annual Heart of Illinois Fair is scheduled for July 11-19, so now is the time that good planners should be hard at work booking talent so the fair's declining attendance doesn't result in a shutdown.

Besides amusements such as Woody's Menagerie's barnyard races and the Rainbo Cloggers, this year's performers included Matt Barber, Blackjack Billy, Dopestylez, Ariel Eilts, Chris Krause, Otherwise, Cathy Reynolds, Sevendust and Southern Cross. A few have recordings, but most are little-known acts you can see at taverns, churches or other area venues.

Why go?

There were reasons to go 35 years ago. The Grandstand entertainment in 1978 – when they all performed two shows – included, in alphabetical order, Jim Ed Brown, Freddy Cannon, Helen Cornelius, Bill Cosby, Billy "Crash" Craddock, Bo Diddley, Yvonne Elliman, Crystal Gayle, Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Pure Prairie League, Eddie Rabbit, Leo Sayer and the Spinners.

Again, why fret in the Fall? Because that's when booking occurs.

"We're already working on our festivals for next summer," says Jay Goldberg, the successful long-time downstate promoter behind the recent Illinois Blues Festival, Summer Campus Music Fest and countless shows at civic centers, concert halls and campus arenas, as well as special events such as the Women's Lifestyle Show in Peoria and the International Beer Tasting & Food Truck Showcase in Urbana.

The Heart of Illinois Fair (HOI Fair) traces its history to 1945, when the District Fair Association was established and soon after bought a 160-acre parcel of land on Northmoor Road. A couple of years later it changed its name to Exposition Gardens, and two years later the Grandstand was built, so the first fair was held Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 1950.

"High level entertainment has remained a major attraction at the Heart of Illinois Fair," the 1978 program said. "The Fair has gained some of its biggest and most appreciative crowds with its Grandstand entertainment."

Indeed, after 1960 the HOI Fair really invested in talent – the Supremes and Merle Haggard, Three Dog Night and Marty Robbins, Mac Davis and Aerosmith, Brenda Lee and Kenny Rogers – annually spending some $150,000 (decades ago, when that was real money) to draw more than 300,000 people through the gates.

The crowds aren't there anymore. Although officials routinely claim attendance topping 200,000 and as recently as 10 years ago (when a young Blake Shelton and RCA's LA rockers The Calling were about its best-known acts), the fair said 250,000 had come in. But by five years ago the numbers were obviously, dramatically lower. In fact, according to the fair's own federal tax forms, admission revenues in 2008 translate to about 60,000 paid admissions people over the fair's nine days.

"Better acts in the Grandstand would help a lot," Goldberg says. "It would bring enthusiasm and excitement. It could give the market something to talk about other than rides, 4-H stuff and tractor pulls. Entertainment generates the buzz.

"Attendance would go up," he adds.

It happens elsewhere. This year's Illinois State Fair featured The Band Perry, the cast from "Million Dollar Quartet," and a Midwest classic-rock all-star lineup of Head East, Styx and REO Speedwagon.

And in southern Illinois, the DuQuoin State Fair featured the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Kansas, Sawyer Brown, Theory of a Deadman, Uncle Kracker and Daryl Worley.

Goldberg concedes that entertainers' fees are higher, but that's no excuse for giving up on the Grandstand attraction. "The cost of talent or fairs and festivals can be very expensive," he says. "It is a different arrangement than concerts; there are different revenue streams. But that doesn't necessarily mean there aren't acts out there that don't make sense.

"That [demand for premium prices] is for bands that can get away with it," Goldberg continues. "With the right talent budget, good acts could be had. There are a lot of acts that could be brought in for a $15 or $20 ticket price."

Goldberg is hopeful for the Fair, if it would make a commitment and an investment.

"There is a lot to be done," he says. "A serious talent buyer is needed, and I don't know if any volunteer can do it. [But] I think you could bring it back. There are so many acts out there."

About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.