Grandstanding at the state fairby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — This year, the Minnesota State Fair grandstand will showcase everyone from Weird Al Yankovic to the rock group Styx.
For many, it just isn't the fair without classic ditties like "Eat It" and "Mr. Roboto" bouncing off the bleachers.
But, really, when it comes to infield entertainment, musical acts are a relatively recent offering.
In the early days of the fair, the grandstand was a place for horse races and demolition derbies and a popular little show called "Duel to the Death."
"They'd put tracks, railroad tracks, at the far end of the field heading towards each other," explains author Kathryn Koutsky. "And the railroad engines, they would race towards each other. The engineers would jump out right before and then this thunderous crash. They would crash together."
Kathryn and her daughter Linda are authors of the new book "Minnesota State Fair: An Illustrated History."
They can tell you about nearly everything that's ever gone on behind the gates of the grandstand -- from the high-wire stunts to the stagecoach robbery reenactments.
The way Kathryn puts it, the grandstand has been a centerpiece of the Great Minnesota Get-Together since the late 1800s. "The first really grand spectacle that they put on was a Civil War sham battle. They rounded up all Civil War soldiers in the state. They brought in cannons and muskets and they recreated this incredible, big battle on the infield," recounts Koutsky. "There were so many people that came to watch it that they packed the grandstand, way overpopulated the grandstand. And people had to run around with megaphones and say, 'Don't stamp your feet. Don't sit down hard. Don't clap. Don't do anything.' They were so afraid the grandstand would collapse."
Luckily, the stands stood.
Fair officials followed this ceremonial Civil War with an international extravaganza of sorts. Each year, the staff would build a life-like replica of some foreign city -- Madrid one year, Pompeii the next. The 1928 mock-up of Baghdad was topped off with Arab sheiks and Nubian guards.
"And they would have dancers and parades in front of this scenic splendor that they had built out of wood," says Koutsky. "And then, at the end of the show, they would blow it to bits."
Each set was wired with lots and lots of explosives.
"And they did this year after year after year," Koutsky adds.
Audiences loved seeing the mock metropolises reduced to ash. In fact, these types of programs packed the stands for nearly 30 years. Fairgoers just couldn't get enough of shows like "The Burning of Rome" and "Tokyo through Quake and Fire."
Author Linda Koutsky says back then fairgoers were enamored with disaster. In addition to taking in the fiery cityscapes, spectators watched cars bust through burning fences and airplanes blow through wooden houses. Every year, houses were built on the grandstand infield -- their only purpose to have stunt pilots fly into them. Then there were what the advertisements called "the thrills that out-thrill all other thrillers." "There were airplane stunts. Women, wing walkers they called 'em," says Linda Koutsky. "And they'd be standing up in the back of an automobile racing along the grandstand tracks and an airplane would fly over them with a ladder hanging down and they'd climb up onto the airplane and go out onto the wings. It was crazy."
These days, the grandstand is void of such death-defying feats.
Some assume that's because today's Minnesotans are more refined, that they're no longer interested in, say, watching men climb an eight-story ladder, light themselves on fire, and then dive into a tiny tub of water.
But, really, it wasn't a lack of interest that brought the dangerous displays to a halt. It was the death of a number of the performers.
For example, in 1950 a wing walker and a pilot were killed when their plane went down during a show. As a result, the state fair immediately banned stunt flying at the grandstand.
Not long after that, government safety codes put an end to the somersaulting cars and the human cannon balls and the "Whirling Maze of Death."
This year, the closest thing you'll get to a treacherous trick will be when the members of Def Leppard attempt to belt out their 1987 hit "Pour Some Sugar on Me."