The Minnesota State Fair proper has always been a humongous, homogenous happy place, while the Midway is its louder and raunchier flipside and where all the action is — rides, roller coasters, fun houses, the double Ferris wheel, and an irresistible element of grit that at least one experienced fair-goer characterizes as “sleaze.” As the 2017 edition of the fair gets under way, MinnPost tapped a panel of Midway vets — writers, musicians, politicians and poets — to write or chat about their favorite (and not-so-favorite) Midway memories:
Dan Wilson, songwriter/musician/artist:
In my teenage and early college years, my friends all made sure to go to the fair together. Even during early college years, we who returned to Minnesota would bittersweetly reconvene at the end of the summer, to visit the fair before flying back to our new college towns. We’d eat the much-maligned food and make fun of other fair-goers, the ones who weren’t maligning the food — the ones who were enjoying the event without the layering of irony which we considered proper. This mockery probably soothed our sense that somehow we didn’t quite belong there.
In those days, I had crushes on each of my two best friends’ sisters, and sometimes one or the other would roam the fair with our group. Once I ended up on the Ferris wheel with one of them. We were remaindered together on a chair and rode to the top, at which point the wheel stopped entirely. Gently rocking, alone with my crush, I quietly thought about how cool it would be if we kissed. It seemed like forever. We were suspended in the stillness. Maybe I imagined I had more time to try something decisive. But I didn’t. The wheel started up again. I wasn’t much of a player.
Ten or 15 years later, while writing songs for my band Semisonic’s first album, I found myself thinking back to those late-summer days when we’d all go to the fair, and I wrote the song “Falling.”
High above the Midway lights
High above the rides
You, me, and the sky
The whole world looks small tonight
And you said we could never really fly
In the song, I tried to capture that late-summer sadness, the dizziness of teenage love, and the dizziness of swaying at the top of the fair’s great sky wheel.
And who would have known that many years later I would be on the stage at the Grandstand, playing the fair with Semisonic?
From the stage you can see a few of the rides, great wheels lazily whirling the tiny people around and around. Night slowly fell on the stage. In the darkness we played “Falling,” and the whole crowd knew what the song was about.
Michael Bland, musician:
Not sure why, but I was always partial to the Scrambler. I just dug it, that’s all. Now, the Tilt-A-Whirl? Made me puke. Twice. Needless to say, I’ve avoided it ever since.
Molly Maher, songwriter/musician:
The second week of August, it starts with a faint melody that gets louder as opening day approaches. It begins with Frank Randall and the Sycamores’ “We’re going to the State Fair, the State Fair …”
It is my anthem for weeks. Just as gracefully as it crescendos, it peaks for two weeks and begins its decrescendo until early August of the next year.
The Midway of my youth was just a promenade. Gaggles of gals moving in the lights. The Midway, now as an aunt and wife, is made up of fun houses, swings, the Ferris wheel and the big dog prize. [My husband] Ryan and I have added to our State Fair traditions an afternoon of taking my beloved niece Maggie to the Midway. We explore each fun house. In 2015, Ryan won the big dog prize for her, and in 2010 he won that guy for me. Nothing better than marching out of the Midway with the biggest stuffed trophy riding on your shoulders.
In 2016 my sister-in-law, Melinda, came along. Although we were still strung out from our past year of loss, we were gearing up for our next adventures. One of which was Ryan’s and my wedding, three weeks from this photo. Maggie really wanted to ride the “Crazy Mouse Spinning Roller Coaster,” and who can say no to that? (Besides every part of my adult self. I can barely ride in a car that goes 12 mph over the speed limit!) With a head full of trust and a healthy amount of fear, we locked in and rode it. This photo says everything. I had just clipped Ry against his mouth. I closed my eyes, with one hand hung clinging to the safety bar, Ryan held the other.
Melinda? Well, she white-knuckled it and let herself fall. The sweet spot here is Maggie. She raised her arms up, and with no fear rode the “Crazy Mouse Spinning Roller Coaster” with her eyes wide open.
Paul Thissen, state representative/gubernatorial candidate:
I’ve missed but one State Fair in my 50 years (for my honeymoon) and I’ve watched the Midway (and me) change a lot. The excitement of nights on your own at 12 and 13 with the lights and sound and crowds. The unnerving guilt and sadness after visiting the old “freak shows.” But my favorite ride was (and when I can find it at county fairs is) the Zipper. Barely squeezing into the tight metal cage, three directions of movement at once, and the rattle and metallic scrapes that suggested that there really is a risk to life and limb as you spin around. Nothing says Midway to me more than that.
Dylan Hicks, author/writer/musician/songwriter:
I learned the hard way not to make the Midway games your first stop. Maybe 10 years ago my son sunk a streak of free throws, and I spent the next seven hours encumbered by a stuffed polar bear that might have been close to the actual size of a juvenile (polar bear, that is; it was much larger than a juvenile human). I looked for a bear check but couldn’t find one on the map.
Jillia Pessenda, candidate for Minneapolis City Council:
One of my favorite memories is with my brother. We had a competition to see who could eat the most fried food on a stick. He won, but definitely didn’t feel so great afterwards. I think we all know who the real winner was. More recently, I met one of my best friends while at the State Fair. We were organizers for the Occupy Homes movement and met volunteering together at the AFL-CIO booth. Every year we return to the State Fair together to celebrate our friend-anniversary and ride my favorite ride, the giant swing. No matter how old I get, the swing always makes me feel like a kid again.
Brad Zellar, writer/author:
I once paid to see the Lobster Boy on the Midway, and the experience is still appalling and unforgettable. The Lobster Boy was in fact a man in late-middle age, thick as a wrestler, a chain smoker with a foul mouth (I know because he cursed me). The man’s name was Grady Stiles, and he had a genetic condition called ectrodactyly, which gave his hands and feet a claw-like appearance. He was a sixth-generation ectrodactylic, and his father had been The Lobster Boy before him. The family apparently bred to keep the sideshow alive, as Stiles also had two children with the mutation who occasionally toured with him, billed as The Lobster Family. By the time I saw him, though, The Lobster Family was estranged — an estrangement that likely had something to do with the fact that Stiles had murdered his daughter’s fiance on the eve of her wedding.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but my encounter with Grady Stiles cemented my belief that there was something weird and rotten in America. Several years later I tried to visit him at his winter home in Gibsonton, Florida, an off-season trailer community of circus and carnival folk. Here’s a fascinating little tidbit from the Wikipedia entry on Gibsonton.
“It was home to Percilla the Monkey Girl, the Anatomical Wonder, and the Lobster Boy. Siamese twin sisters ran a fruit stand here. At one time, it was the only post office with a counter for dwarfs. Aside from the agreeable winter climate, Gibsonton offered unique circus zoning laws that allowed residents to keep elephants and circus trailers on their front lawns.” At any rate, Stiles was incapacitated on the day of my visit, and made it very clear he didn’t want my company. A few years later his wife and son hired another carny to kill him.
Td Mischke, writer/musician/podcaster:
I was 12 years old when I handed the man my ticket and stepped up to peek over the lip of the 4-foot high, 36-square-foot wooden corral containing “Big Foot.” There, my bright young eyes met a stranger’s weary stare, and just like that the jig was up. This wasn’t Sasquatch. This was no supernatural creation. This was a human being with a bad case of elephantiasis; a 50-year-old with a disease that swelled his lower extremities. The magic, mystery and majesty of the fair vanished with one glance at those tired, bloodshot eyes. A man, dealt a bad hand, was just trying to make a living. I felt tainted and lesser. I shuffled past the others and stepped back out into the hot dusty Midway air, where my friends stood waiting to hear all about it. “It’s just some sad guy,” I said. “This is stupid. Let’s get out of here.” In my mind, I can still see the man’s foot, some four decades later. But it’s those eyes that haunt me.
Alix Kendall, news anchor/talk show host:
My first job ever was at the handwriting analysis booth, which was near the Midway at the time, 1979. I wanted so much to actually see the freak show people — “The Tatooed Lady” (scandalous!) or “The Man with Two Heads,” and I never had the money to catch one of the shows, or they closed up by the time I was done working my shift at the fair. Then one day “Crocodile Man” came by the booth to have his handwriting “analyzed” and the “computer” printout (it was the ‘70s) showed that he had the same personality as the guys with screaming kids ahead of him. All I remember was his expression. He looked pleased. I didn’t have the heart to tell him they were a crock of s—!
The Handwriting Analysis booth is still there, by the way. I have always been a fan of the State Fair, even after working there year after year. When I was a deejay At KLKK-FM, we would do live remotes from all over the fairgrounds, including live remotes at the Midway. I worked the 7 p.m. to midnight shift, and interviewed many inebriated and highly enthusiastic roller coaster enthusiasts who would later regret getting on that ride. My favorite? The Scrambler. Translation: I’m a wienie.
Rick Shefchik, author/musician/journalist:
The first thing that comes to mind is a moment years ago when my daughter was maybe 4 years old. I might have been reviewing a Grandstand show on the closing night of the fair, but I know it was the only time I’ve ever been there when the whole operation was shutting down. My daughter and I took a final ride on the carousel in the darkness as the carnies and concessionaires were closing their stands. It was one of those moments you wish could last forever, amid reminders all around us that nothing lasts forever.
Charles Baxter, author:
My earliest memory of the Midway was that I couldn’t go there in the 1950s because my mother was afraid that polio was spread in such places. Even after the polio epidemic subsided, she didn’t like the Midway and frowned on any attempts by my brother and me to get there. As a result, I have no Midway stories, unfortunately.
John Munson, musician:
I grew up blocks from the fair. I have too many Midway memories to count. Some are a bit frayed around the edges, but this one is fresh. Here’s the thing I always do in the Midway now: baseballs and plates. It’s the purest game. I love it. The plates explode when you hit ‘em right. Chan Poling hipped me to this bit of stress relief and I will be forever grateful. Just goes to show you that there’s always something new to find on the Midway, even if it’s the oldest game out there.
Colleen Kruse, writer/comic/actress:
When I was 8 years old in 1976, my super cool 21-year-old sister took me to the fair. It was the first time I didn’t have to go with my mom. (My dad did not like crowds, and was not a fan of the fair). We went to the Midway, which was a place my mother never dared to take me. Too much sin! Meg and I watched the freak show barker for a very long time. I kept asking to go back and see the barker talk about the strange mysteries inside the tent behind him.
“Lobster Boy” — the boy born with claws! “The Bearded Lady” — her name was Harriet! (Because she was so hairy!) And … the one that I had to see, “Gorilla Girl.” Apparently this beautiful girl in a sparkly leotard and high heels (the barker was parading her around on the platform in front of us) had something happen to her while on safari in Africa. All of that made complete sense to me, by the way. I never questioned once how a 22-year-old-stoner-looking-girl might have ended up on a safari on the other side of the earth. Anyhow, something happened to her, she got on the wrong side of a medicine man, yadda yadda, and when nighttime drew near and it got dark, this sexy girl turned into a gorilla.
Meg was so cool. She didn’t laugh or anything. She went along with me — and I believed every bit of the story. We discussed it at length and paid for our tickets. We saw Lobster Boy, and Harriet, and then at the end of the show, the sexy girl came out, and the barker put her in a cage for our safety.
Weird trippy music played, and the lights went down, almost dark inside the tent. I kept my eyes on the girl the whole time. She was sitting on a folding chair inside the cage, and she started to pant. Her chest was heaving, and she looked like she was in agony.
All of a sudden she started to change. The shadows inside the cage became murkier (mirrors, theater scrim?), her figure seemed to thicken up and as the shadows cleared, my eyes could plainly see that she was dark and covered in thick black fur!
Everyone inside the tent was silent. That alone had a tremendous impact on me. I had never been with a group of people in an enclosed space who were all quiet like that. Not even church at Christmas.
The moment the shadows inside the cage cleared, and everyone could see that the girl had indeed turned into a gorilla [the gorilla guy in a gorilla suit] leapt up out of her chair and shook the bars of the cage and growled so ferociously that I was rooted to the spot and a sickening thrill of mortality shot through my spine.
The gorilla kept shaking the front bars of the cage, and they were coming loose! It all was happening so fast! The crowd was still silent! I was [bleeping] panicking at this point! I dropped Meg’s hand just when the barker threw his body in front of the broken cage and the charging gorilla! I snapped out of my reverie and emitted a high-pitched scream — I turned on my heels and bolted out of the tent at full speed!
Except … I ran headlong, and full speed, into the tent support post. That’s when the crowd uttered an “Ooh!” I knocked myself so hard I fell flat on my back and saw stars. Meg lifted me up, I was sobbing for pain and shame, two guys were laughing at me. The lights were on in the tent, and the crowd was dispersing once they saw I wasn’t dead, and only bleeding a little.
The barker himself jumped down from the stage and helped to calm me. He never dropped character. I was babbling about how I thought we were all gonna die, Meg was freaked out but also shakily laughing, and the guy said that he gave the gorilla a shot of medicine that helped turn her back into a girl again, and would I like to see?
And the girl came out. Still beautiful, and smiling.
She gave me a hug and told me not to worry about her.
And the barker gave Meg and me a mess of ride tickets. Like, a whole sheet. To make my head feel better. I started school with a massive goose egg on my forehead that year. My own bit of freakishness for display. The Goose Egg Girl!
Billy Dankert: songwriter/musician/artist and songwriter behind the new “Mighty Minnesota State Fair” tune:
It’s hard for me and the fam to do less that three State Fair visits a season, since we live right next door. I admit I’m not a big Midway participator, but I love to take it in every year. I love to walk the Midway at night. It feels like I’m strolling through some early-period Springsteen song, a glitzy alley of dazzling lights, fleeting hopes, and desperation at the bittersweet knowledge that this tawdry and magnificent event marks the dead end of summer. It is a visual feast of the beautiful and the unbecoming. I guess my favorite ride on the Midway would have to be the Ferris wheel, because it’s such an icon, the lift of the ride has a grace to it that I enjoy, and it probably won’t make you throw up.
Chris Osgood, teacher/musician/godfather of Minnesota punk rock:
I saw the New York Dolls at the Teen Tent [Sept. 1, 1974]. [Dolls guitarist] Johnny Thunders had a slingshot in his back pocket. They were on Mercury Records, which was my favorite label at the time, and I was determined to get backstage after the show and ask them how they did it. When I got back there I visited with all the Dolls and got each of them to autograph my white jean jacket. I already had Hubert Humphrey’s autograph on there, so I thought that would be a nice contrast.
David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain were the most talkative and I eventually developed a friendship with Sylvain and would often bump into him down on the Lower East Side when the Commandos were playing New York and he would remember how we met at the fair. Sure enough, I asked them how they got their contract and they shared with me that Rolling Stone critic (and part-time Mercury A&R man) Paul Nelson had been very influential in making that happen.
I was impressed that the Dolls were such poor players. I had never seen a band that had a major label deal that was so sloppy and instrumentally at the 7th grade level. It was revelatory to me that they were so bad musically and so great philosophically. I said to myself, “Hmm …”
Ernie Batson, musician:
I saw the New York Dolls on the Teen Tent stage. I left band practice early and I went alone. I didn’t see anybody I knew there, but I didn’t care. I got as close to the stage as I could. Things like the Dolls and the Ramones were always an undercurrent in how I thought music should be presented. They were always there bubbling in the back of the mind. It was really fun, really roughshod. They sounded rougher than the studio versions, but you could tell where everything was. No big intellectual thing, it was just a real good time.
Paul Metsa, musician/author/songwriter/radio host:
The State Fair was an annual trip my family took where we picked up Grandma and Grandpa Paul in Mora, Minnesota (mom’s folks) and spent at day at the fair. In 1971, Grandpa and I were traipsing around the Midway and saw an exhibit that said something to the effect of, “Experience An LSD Trip.” Game on. Grandpa and I entered what I remember to be a railroad car with a hippie gal taking tickets replete with Granny Glasses and a tie-dyed dress.
Once inside we were welcomed by “White Rabbit” by the Jefferson Airplane on [volume] 11. There was a headache-inducing strobe light, incense (no peppermints), and a display behind glass of what looked like two poorly rolled joints and a hypodermic needle. That is about all I remember and felt comfortable enough when we left to know Grandpa Paul was not inspired enough to buy a van, move to the coast, and follow the Grateful Dead.
In 1974 I found myself on my own at the Teen Tent. I caught a short set by the American Breed and heard them play their current hit “Bend Me, Shape Me.” Later that afternoon we awaited the New York Dolls, who I knew nothing about. The tent was full, half of which were bikers of one sort or another. The band was late (the emcee said they don’t take limos, just cabs — which were caught in traffic). The crowd was restless when the Dolls finally took the stage. They were met with empty beer cans flying and for some reason, paper airplanes that were lit on fire. To say Minnesota was not quite ready for the Dolls would be an understatement.
David Johansen had on bright red lipstick, Johnny Thunders prowled the stage, and Arthur Kane was in a pink tu-tu and I guess in a show of solidarity for us from this northern clime, a pair of big white bunny boots. The music seemed both ramshackle and rocking. I didn’t know quite what to make of it musically, but I dug the spectacle and had a tale to tell for my buddies back up on the Iron Range.
Lizz Winstead, activist/comic/author:
My favorite thing on the Midway is this one ride I can’t remember the name of, but I’d be on it with a boy I had a crush on, and the deejay goes, “Do you wanna go faster??!!!” And you would go faster and they’d play Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care Of Business.” That was one of my favorite things: BTO, going backwards really fun, and being smashed up against a boy you really liked in 7th grade. More recently, I taught Keith Ellison the wonders of spaghetti and meatballs on a stick, and I think that’s my duty — to keep our congresspeople well-fed.
Fancy Ray McCloney, comedian:
The Midway, wow! I love it! Nothing like the Mighty Mouse roller coaster. Fact: There should be a “Fancy Ray Kissing Booth” at the Midway. Tickets would sell out in 35 minutes, because I’d buy every damn one of them!
Bobby “Z” Rivkin, musician:
Back in the late ‘60s when things started to hop, there used to be “teen square,” and B-Sharp Music [sponsored] the stage, and the Chancellors — my brother David’s band — and Owen Husney’s band, the High Spirits, all the Soma Records bands were playing and drawing great crowds. I had a band with my brother Steve called the Jaguars, and we imitated the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five and Beach Boys.
I was 8, and they were all four or five years older, which is a pretty big age difference at that time. They were interested in girls, and I … was 8. I liked playing drums and watching cartoons. So we had a two- or three-hour break, and the other guys in the band ditched me during this matinee, they definitely didn’t want to hang out with me. I was sad. So [legendary local promoter] Dick Shapiro, who was managing all these bands and us, said, “C’mon!” And he took me to the Midway!
He took me on the roller coaster, and rides, and I had the time of my life —just him and me. He was babysitting the drummer, but more importantly, he took me on all these crazy rides. He took care of me. It’s an incredible memory, and I’ll never forget it. He was a great guy for doing that, and it was my first time on the Midway without mommy and daddy. It was a real eye-opener.
Willie Murphy, musician:
I remember playing out on the Midway, it must have been ’63, with some band I didn’t know but they needed a bass player. We played several days, eight hours a day, one set. The main song we played over and over again was, “Stick Out Your Can, Here Comes The Garbage Man.” I remember I signed a lot of autographs. These kids from the country thought we were hot — that’s pretty funny. Then I remember the “Harlem in Havana” show — all black people, with a band and singers and dancers and they did Top 40 R&B hits, and that was great. The band was really good, and as a budding musician, I was really interested in that.
I really liked the freak show, too, but then they outlawed it. I liked the guy who put great big fish hooks through his tongue and cheeks. I think the same guy ate glass. Then there was the gorilla woman, who was all covered in hair, and then of course there was the fat person, and they’d put the biggest person next to the smallest person, and they’d have a really tall giant, too. And I remember they had these monkeys that raced in little cars on a track, and did tricks on the loop-de-loop in outfits and everything, poor things. I love the fair, I always go. It’s blue collar, man, that’s why I like it. Not like this yuppie crap you see everywhere you go now.
Matt Mauch, teacher/poet:
When I think Midway at the State Fair, I think a beer and a Scotch egg (or fries or mini-donuts or a pork chop on a stick). I think my best friend Mike. I think catalyst. Our active Midway years (read: when we would blow all the money we had on rides or trying to win a dyed rabbit’s foot or a Hamm’s goblet) behind us, a particular game of chance or smell or they way somebody screamed or acted or dressed could make me or Mike say, “Do you remember when?” and the whole stroll would continue that way, taking turns, the stories queueing up.
The vital thing about old friends and memories is that each of you have different recollections about different times, and when you get together and start telling stories you are helping one another connect lost dots in the constellations that each of us is made of.
I have a ticket stub from the State Fair stuck in between the glass and metal of a framed picture in my house. The stub says 2013 OUTSIDE GATE • ADULT. It was the second Friday of the fair. I don’t intentionally keep ticket stubs from the fair, but somehow this one stuck around, probably as a bookmark. The December after that second Friday of the fair, Mike died unexpectedly, way too young, from a heart attack. Some people plant trees as living memorials for their loved ones who’ve died. I continue to go the fair on the second Friday, and stroll the Midway with a beer and Scotch egg (et cetera), as my annual living memorial to the last weekend I ever saw Mike, my friend of friends, to the blanks we can no longer help each other fill in, to the end of any new quilt squares featuring both of us, an annual walking wake, wondering if anybody else is doing what I am for somebody gone too soon from their lives, toasting so many things, probably looking mad.
Ward Sutton, cartoonist:
My core memories of the Midway are from the 1970s, and I guess those memories line up with a particular characteristic of that decade: sleaze.
The State Fair, from my view, always seemed like a wholesome affair — with the butter sculptures, the 4H exhibits, the Pronto-pups. But to my pre-teen eyes and ears, something changed when you crossed over into the Midway area. Suddenly the rattling rides blared loud rock & roll. My mom would cover her ears. I felt uncomfortable being with my parents. Everything seemed greasy. It wasn’t like Valleyfair — it felt somehow much seedier.
And even as a kid I could realize it was a racket. I would evaluate each ride or game to see if it was a rip-off (i.e. the lame mechanical “Haunted House” that lasted two minutes) or actually worth the time and (my parents’) money. The safety of the rides looked questionable, and the burn-outs pulling the levers didn’t exactly exude the typical “Minnesota Nice.”
My brother and I would be given a certain amount of money we could decide to spend however we chose. I would tend to look for the carnival games where you could win stuff. Most of these kiosks were, again, a racket: You pay more money to play the game than it would cost to simply buy the prize you might win. Nevertheless, my brother and I would inevitably play the fishbowl toss, where you tried to win a fish. Each year, after multiple attempts, we’d eventually win a goldfish, which we’d then have to figure out how to haul around the rest of the day at the fair.
What stands out to me as my favorite game was the poster game. It was simple: You threw a dart at a poster, then you won a copy of the poster. Pretty stupid, actually, but there were, back then, some great posters of “Star Wars,” “Starsky and Hutch,” etc. So I would always insist we not leave the Midway until we found that game, and I always went home with a poster.
Each year there would be different posters, and I would always be excited to see what the new offerings would be. In addition to the latest movies and music stars, there were also posters of beautiful women in bathing suits: “Charlie’s Angels,” Linda Carter, Cheryl Tiegs, etc. Although I was secretly most drawn to these options, standing next to my parents with that dart in my hand, I was too self-conscious to aim at anything other than Chewbacca or The Fonz.
Then sometime in the early ’80s, I showed up at the poster game to see … “Haulin’ Ass”: a poster of big-haired women in rainbow-colored thongs on motorcycles, pictured from behind (pun intended). The Internet was still decades away and I certainly had to double-take as I looked around thinking, “Uh, is everyone here seeing this?”
If I was too embarrassed to throw a dart at Farrah Fawcett-Majors in front of my parents, “Haulin’ Ass” – despite its potent allure to my adolescent senses – was enough to have me exiting the Midway and pretending I hadn’t even noticed the poster game.
For me, I’ll always associate the Midway with that era, and, I’m afraid, that poster. No ifs, ands or butts about it: It was an image you can’t unsee.
Jack El-Hai, author and journalist:
I have a magical memory of riding a Ferris wheel with my two daughters, who were then both under 12 years old. Our gondola rose high over the fairground and the noise, smells, and heat faded away, replaced by a gentle breeze. We sat together facing each other, rocking gently, in silence. It’s one of the times I felt closest to them. I now try to avoid the Midway, but I’d like to repeat that experience.