News Column

What's new at the Allentown Fair?

August 23, 2014

By John J. Moser, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Aug. 23--Much of the appeal of the Allentown Fair is how much remains dependably the same.

Its carnival rides and attractions (which still cover the largest part of the fairgrounds).

Its Labor Day run.

And especially its agricultural heritage, with livestock and farm displays.

You might call those things the Heart of the Fair -- and in fact the fair is saying just that this year, and using the heart symbol in its social media campaigns.

"If you run into fair President Bill Albert, you won't get away without hearing that 'agriculture is the heart of the fair,'" says fair Marketing Director and Talent Buyer Bonnie Brosious.

"He reminds everyone to visit the west end of the fairgrounds where the farm animals and blue ribbon exhibits abound. And if they miss going, he politely chides them that they've missed the fair."

Truth is, each year brings subtle changes to the fair, from types of rides to new foods and attractions.

The fair has all of those this year, and even its dates represent a bit of a change: With Labor Day coming as early as it can on the calendar this year, the fair also has its earliest possible run: starting Tuesday and ending Sept. 1.

There also are bigger changes.

Gone is the fair's Music Tent, which for more than 30 years was the fairgrounds' largest free performance stage -- with shows by Bobby Mercer and polka leaders Walt Groller and Jimmy Sturr considered fair traditions.

Instead, the fair is collaborating with the Maingate Nightclub to offer more music on more stages at that venue.

The fair also has increased its admission price, though there are plenty of opportunities to get in free or for reduced price.

But as the fair starts its 162nd year, its heart is still beating strong.

Here is a look at returning favorites and what's new.

Admission cost is up

The fair is raising its admission price for the first time since 2007, from $6 to $8.

Brosious says the fair's costs of operation and maintaining its historic buildings has continued to rise, as have property taxes and other expenses. And last year's fair was hampered by bad weather.

"Our buildings are of a different era, and trying to maintain a facility as old as the farmer's market and grandstand is not easy," Brosious says. "There's no way I want to see that cupola ever disappear."

Other comparable fairs charge $10-$12. Bloomsburg Fair raised admission to $8 two years ago.

Admission to Tuesday's preview night also will no longer be free. The cost will be $3 or "a buck and a can" -- $1 plus a canned food donation that will go to Second Harvest Food Bank (a list of acceptable donations is available at http://www.allentownfairpa.com).

Kids are still free and the age has been raised from 11 to 12. And there are ways to get into the fair free or for a reduced rate.

Through Tuesday, admission tickets are $4 at the fair box office or online. People ages 65 and older get in for $4 after 2 p.m. Wednesday, the fair's Senior Day. And admission is free noon-2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.

Opening ceremonies

Because the opening ceremonies in recent years have been at the Music Tent, they'll shift to the Farmarama Tent and be held earlier, at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

New fair queen Rachel Bennicoff will be introduced, there will be a performance by Allen High School a cappella group AllenCappella. And the fair's big new free attraction -- the Fired Up High Dive Show -- will give a show.

Music tent/Maingate merge

The Music Tent was know as the International Music Festival tent when it was started in the early 1980s and featured mostly German and Polish polka bands and a few other genres. It moved to its last location near the "MainGate Bier Garten" in 1993. Eventually it became known simply as the Music Tent and featured rock, pop, country and polka.

Brosious says officials felt it was time to marry the Music Tent entertainment with the increased offerings at the Maingate. She says people like to have drinks with their music, and the set up next to the Music Tent didn't make it simple.

"We felt it was a good time to start something," she says. "It makes sense."

Maingate removed the gated entrance and reconfigured its layout to two outdoor stages and one indoor. Benches and seating have been added, and shows can be moved indoors if it rains.

Maingate's overhead viewing platform makes it "a really cool place to see a show," Brosious says.

More than a dozen performances are scheduled and there is no admission charge.

Perhaps the biggest show will be an after-party following the fair's Motley Crue grandstand concert Wednesday that will feature lead singer Vince Neil. Classic rock band Cherry Bomb will play 6 p.m.-midnight.

The series kicks off with party-rock cover band UUU playing before and after grandstand headliner Pitbull, 7-11 p.m. Cover band Trick Stacey will play 6-11 p.m. Thursday. Area country singer Billy Patrick will play before Tim McGraw's show, 5-8 p.m. Friday, and pop-and-rock band M80 will close the night 9 p.m.-midnight.

Saturday will have Sinatra singer Michael Sherer2-5 p.m., Jimmy Sturr Orchestra5-8 p.m. and popular local '60s cover band The Large Flowerheads 8:30 p.m.-1 a.m.

Rock band Social Call will play 6-9 p.m. Aug, 31, and Latin/salsa performer Hector Rosado on a separate stage 6-8 p.m., with internationally known bachata singer Luis Miguel del Amargue taking the stage at 9:30 p.m. The Latin-flavored shows represent "another musical genre on the fairgrounds," Brosious says.

Lehigh Valley favorite James Supra Blues Band will close out the fair 4-8 p.m .Sept. 1.

Maingate also will incorporate late-night offerings such as DJs and acoustic performers.

Grandstand headliners

County music again holds its position as the genre of choice at Allentown Fair, with the third year in a row that half of the six headliners in the grandstand are country artists.

But there is diversity. Opening night features suave Latin rapper Pitbull, who recently topped the charts with his song "Timber" with Kesha and reportedly has a new album coming out in October.

On Wednesday is rowdy veteran rock band Motley Crue, playing its Final Tour after nearly 35 years of hits such as "Girls, Girls Girls" and "Dr. Feelgood." Opening the show is shock-rocker Alice Cooper.

The final grandstand concert Aug. 31 is for preschoolers: Emmy Award-winning Nickelodeon TV stars Fresh Beat Band.

The three heavy-hitting country shows start Thursday with Lady Antebellum, the seven-time-Grammy-Award-winning trio that topped the charts with hits such as "Need You Now," "Just a Kiss" and "American Honey." In just seven years, the group has had 11 Top 10 country hits. Joe Nichols will open.

On Friday, country royalty Tim McGraw returns to the fair in the midst of a career upswing, with two No. 1 hits in the past two years. His latest single, "Meanwhile Back at Mama's," with wife Faith Hill is the first single off the disc "Sundown Heaven Town," to be released Sept. 16. Former "One Tree Hill" star Jana Kramer will open.

And Saturday country music up-and-comer Hunter Hayes takes the stage. In May Hayes released "Storytime," his chart-topping follow-up to his chart-topping, platinum debut album. He recently set the world record for most concerts (10) in one day, finishing at Philadelphia'sTrocadero Theatre.

With diversity of acts comes diversity of seating, as well. Tthe grandstand's track-seating arrangement will have more different configurations than ever before in a single year.

Lady Antebellum will have a stage area that thrusts into the crowd and will be surrounded by room for 450 people who have paid for standing tickets. Pitbull and Hayes both will have standing "pit" areas with 1,000 capacities. Tickets for both are selling well, Brosious says.

Tim McGraw will have half of the entire track area as a standing pit, with a 2,000 capacity. Nearly all those tickets are sold, Brosious says.

The track is all seated for Motley Crue and children's show The Fresh Beat Band.

As of last week, McGraw and Motley Crue were the fair's best-selling shows.

The grandstand will close with the traditional J&J Demolition Derby on Sept. 1.

Tickets remain for all shows and are available at the fair box office, through http://www.ticketmaster.com or http://www.allentownfairpa.org, or by calling 610-433-7541. A grandstand ticket purchased in advance of the show includes admission to the fair.

Beer sales back

Beer sales at the grandstand, offered for the first time two years ago and expanded to let patrons take cups to their seats, are back this year, except for the Fresh Beat Band show.

The only other place at the fair where alcohol will be available is at the Maingate.

Rides and games and food

Powers Great American Midways is operating the midway for the seventh year, and it, too, offers new rides as well as the best of the classics.

Powers spokesman Marc Janas says there are two new rides on the midway. The new adult ride is The Stampede, a double Ferris Wheel (one wheel atop the other) on which the seats of the 16 cars face forward "so you can see the whole fair."

Also new ise the Spin Zone, a family ride with 360-degree, spinning bumper cars that Brosious says has a Rod Serling-type announcers voice as if you were entering the "Twilight Zone."

"It has a ton of action to it, but it's also pretty safe for all ages," Janus says.

Both rides have "spectacular LED light package that are great for taking pictures for memories," Janus says. He says Powers' midways are almost 95 percent LED-lit, the standard on new rides and virtually every concession.

"The lights themselves are a show," he says.

Back will be Vortex, a 100-foot-tall thrill ride with a spinning arm that seats eight and accelerates to 60 mph with 3.8-G force. But it's not included in the purchase of an all-ride wristband.

The advance charge for one-day ride wristbands remains $15 through Monday at the box office or online and $22 during the fair -- the same as last year. Individual ride tickets are four for $5 or 22 for $20. Most kids rides are three or four tickets, spectacular rides five and specialty rides up to eight.

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In all, there will be about 40 rides and attractions and about 60 games and food stands.

A new game on the midway will be Prissy's Fishing Hole, in which the player tosses a line to capture toy fish of different sizes that are "weighed" on a scale to determine the prize. It's largely a kid's game, but anyone can play it, Janus says.

There will be about the same number of food concessions as in previous years, with all the standard fair foods: cheesesteaks, sausage sandwiches, lemonade, pizza, cotton candy, funnel cakes and fried dough.

"Pretty much standard staples, everything people seem to enjoy from year to year," Janus says.

Free feature attractions

The headline attraction at Farmerama Theater is the Fired Up High Dive Show, featuring Dana Kunze, an eight-time world champion and seven-time world record-holding high diver who once plunged 172 feet.

The show has Kunze and his fellow divers plunging from 70 feet into a small pool. One diver even goes down in flames -- literally. Showtimes are 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday; 3, 5 and 8 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 4 p.m. Thursday; and 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m. Friday through Sept. 1.

Moving into the space formerly held by the Music Tent will be Matt's Family Jam of Branson, Mo. -- a musical mother, father and three children who play a wide range of tunes. They were just inside the fair's main entrance last year. Shows are 4:30, 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and Friday; 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, through Friday, and 1:30, 3:30, 6:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30, 3:30,7:30 and 8:30 p.m.Aug. 31 and 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 8 p.m.Sept. 1.

"We want to make sure every area of the fairgrounds has attractions," Brosious says.

Back after a year away is The Elephant Encounter, a close-up educational experience with African and Asian elephants. Set up at the Machinery Avenue court at the north end of the Agri-plex building, it will have performances at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. the rest of the week.

Other returning favorites are Robinson's Pig Paddling Porkers -- little pigs that race around a track and through the water and pack the attraction's bleachers, also at the Machinery Avenue court. Shows are at 6, 7:30 and 9 p.m. Tuesday; and 2:30, 4:30, 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sept. 1.

With the move of Matt's Family Jam, there won't be a "bleacher-type" attraction inside the fair's main entrance off 17th Street. But you won't be able to miss Melody Farm Follies, a new attraction sponsored by Grim's Greenhouse that has animatronic characters of fruits and vegetables -- plus a hen, cow and the sun -- that break into song. Brosious calls it "Chuck E. Cheese's on farm steroids."

Another new all-day attraction will be the Food Safety Discovery Zone, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's traveling educational exhibit about food handling and safety that will set up near the Agri-Plex.

Strolling performers include fair mascot Moodonna with one-man-band Glenn Miller singing the Allentown Fair theme and other songs. Dapper Dan the Clown also will be back.

Farmerama Theater favorites

The RCN "Sports Talk News" show, with hosts Chris Michael and Joe Craig, will broadcast live from Farmerama at 7 p.m. Tuesday (with race cars and drivers and high school cheerleaders); and 6 p.m. Wednesday (when it will feature rope-jumping team Bucks County Bungee Jumpers and an interview with high diver Dana Kunze) and Thursday (when it will feature a high school football preview).

Senior Day on Wednesday will kick off at noon with a performance by Glenn Miller'sBig One Man Band, followed by the Lehigh Valley Senior Spelling Bee for ages 55 and older, organized by the Whitehall AARP Chapter 3115, at 1:30 p.m. The winner heads to the state competition.

There's no Backyard Battle of the Bands this year for the first time in 24 years. Instead Lehigh Valley radio station WZZO will have a local band showcase at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

There also won't be a talent or dance contest this year from radio station WAEB or B104.

Inside Agri-plex: Chefs, music and more

Shows inside the Agri-Plex have been big draws at the fair, and they'll be back in force this year.

One of the most popular is the Iron Chef Competition, which will return at 3 p.m. Saturday with Peter Felton of Pearly Baker's Ale House facing six-time fair Iron Chef winner Susan Roth, an assistant professor at Northampton Community College and owner of Mitzi's Table.

"They're gunning for her," Brosious says. "This is a real competition."

Also popular are cooking and baking contests on the Culinary Stage and demonstrations by local chefs in the Farm to Table Cooking Series. "I don't know anywhere in the Lehigh Valley that has this many chefs," Brosious says.

Also back is the popular celebrity grape stomp contest at 3:15 p.m.Aug. 31, with local media facing a team of politicians on the Centennial Stage, and the Cupcake WarFair at 3 p.m.Aug. 31, with 10-12 people competing and the audience voting for the winner.

There will be interactive exhibits and contests at 5:15 p.m. daily, with holiday wreath decorating Wednesday, Play-Doh sculpting Thursday, pumpkin-carving Friday, and mother/daughter and father/son look-alike contests Saturday. Knitting demonstrations by people from Cedarbrook, Country Meadows and Phoebe and the Knitter's Edge store will be Tuesday through Friday.

Entertainment on the Centennial Stage includes children's and folk singer Dave Fry, the comical music of Matt Abell Trio, and singers Cheyenne Lee, Brian Xander and Jason Hahn; acoustic music duos Spoon Pirates and Gestures Without Motion; Kan Do K9 Dog Training Club, Miss Lorita's Vintage fashion Show, and magician Mark Mysterrio.

Back for a second year is Folk's Butterfly Farm, a walk-in "flight house" in which hundreds of live butterflies flutter about. You will be able to feed the butterflies, take pictures and see all stages of the butterfly life cycle. Caterpillar kits and other butterfly items will be for sale. This is the only attraction that has a separate admission fee; it's $2.

Just for kids

The Lil' Farm Hands tent near the Agri-Plex lets little ones roll up their sleeves and do fun chores, farm activities and games. New this year will be a life-sized cow that kids (and adults) can "milk."

Also back is the 4-H Petting Zoo, with a host of baby and family-friendly animals.

And the fair again will have the children's Passport to the World of Agriculture, in which kids pick up a passport book at the Agri-Plex and get stamps at 14 sites throughout the fairgrounds and enter completed passports at the Agri-Plex to win prizes.

Agriculture

Agriculture is why the fair was begun 162 years ago. And it's still the reason it's held today.

"The glitz of the midway, the glamour of the concert stage, the gooey goodness of funnel cakes and elephant ears -- who would want to miss all that?" Brosious says. But she says Albert, the fair president, has it right.

"Don't miss visiting with the people who toil in the soil to feed us. They keep the fair's heart beating."

Animal entries for judging this year are up slightly -- there are 362 livestock (swine, cows, sheep, goats and more). Entries in the poultry building also are up, with 534 pigeons, rabbits and cavies and more, Assistant Marketing Director Terri Schwenk says.

Back are the fun agricultural activities such as an animal Mardi Gras at 6 p.m. Thursday and the agricultural contests -- hay bale throwing at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Barnyard Olympics at 1 p.m.Aug. 31, pedal tractor pull at 2 p.m.Aug. 31.

Don't miss the Bolting Bunnies, in which rabbits race over hurdles and through an obstacle course at 4 p.m.Aug. 30 and 31.

In all, 8,216 items were submitted for display and for blue-ribbon judging in the Agri-Plex -- everything from cake to peaches to quilts and paintings. That number is slightly down from 2013, but the number of exhibitors -- 1,452 -- is an increase of 12 percent over last year, according to fair Agricultural Manager Beverly Gruber.

john.moser@mcall.com

Twitter @johnjmoser

610-820-6722

-- When: Tuesday through Sept. 1

-- Where: Allentown Fairgrounds, 17th and Liberty streets

-- Hours: 4-11 p.m. Tuesday, noon-11 p.m. Wednesday through Aug. 31, noon-10 p.m.Sept. 1. Weather permitting, rides and games open at 5 p.m. Tuesday, 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.

-- How much: Admission is $8; $4 when purchased at fair box office throughTuesday and after 2 p.m. Wednesday for seniors, 65 and older with ID; free, 12 and younger. Tuesday $3 or $1 and a can of food donation to Second Harvest Food Bank. Free noon-2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.

-- Ride tickets: One-day ride wristbands are $15 through Monday at box office or online; $22 during fair. Wristbands do not include the specialty ride Vortex. Individual ride tickets are four for $5 or 22 for $20; most rides are 3 or 4 tickets, spectacular rides 5 and specialty rides up to 8

-- Parking: On-site through Tunnel Gate 7 off of Liberty Street (one-way west 4-8 p.m. Tuesday through Sept. 1); $8 per vehicle. Free street parking and paid parking in lots surrounding fairgrounds

-- Grandstand shows: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday: Pitbull ($39-$80); 7 p.m. Wednesday: Motley Crue: The Final Tour, with Alice Cooper ($45, $90); 7 p.m. Thursday: Lady Antebellum with Joe Nichols ($39-$75); 7 p.m. Friday: Tim McGraw with Jana Kramer ($58-$88); 7 p.m. Saturday: Hunter Hayes with The Swon Brothers ($29-$59); 6:30 p.m.Aug. 31: Fresh Beat Band ($26, $36); 5 p.m.Sept. 1: J&J Demolition Derby ($15)

-- Tickets for grandstand shows: At the fair box office (no service charge) or ticketmaster.com. Tickets purchased in advance of show date include fair admission.

-- Alcohol: Beer served inside grandstand for all shows except Sunday. Alcohol also available inside the Maingate Nightclub.

-- Info: 610-433-7541, http://www.allentownfairpa.org

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