The State Fair

The Arkansas State Fair was not called that in the 1950s. It was officially called the “Arkansas Livestock Show, Exposition, and Rodeo”. It was not to be missed.

The Royal American Shows midway rides, which eclipsed anything in Fair Park, included the Scrambler (the Tilt-A-Whirl's big brother), the Wild Mouse, the Himalaya, the Caterpillar (a Himalaya with a canvas canopy), the Silver Streak (a Himalaya that elevated the platform), the Meteorite (also known as the Roundup) and its awesome big brother, the Rotor, the Octopus, and the three planes, the Roll-o-plane, Loop-o-plane, and Fly-o-plane. (When Walt Disney build Disneyland, Eyerly Aircraft Company designed a Dumbo ride based on the Octopus frame but with features of the Fly-o-plane, substituting Dumbo's ears for the wings. But the contract ultimately went to Arrow Development, a Roller Coaster Company.)

We crowded around midway games like the live mouse roulette (we preceded PETA), ten cent plate toss, Coke bottle ring toss, and the sledge hammer smash.

There was the politically incorrect freak show which exhibited "the snake-skinned lady" (in reality horribly burned as a child) and Grace McDaniels, the mule-faced woman (whose face was covered with a large benign tumor). And there was the girlie show, which these days would be merely "PG" rated, if that.

The food included unique and fabulous things that in those days could only be experienced at the stock show. Things such as pineapple whip ice cream, salt water taffy, curly-q French fries, blue coconut-flavored snow cones, red candy apples, cotton candy (standard pink and also multi-colored), foot long chili dogs (much bigger, though more expensive and not as tasty as Perciful's, which was right outside the gate), corn dogs (AKA Pronto Pups), ice cream bars speared on a stick then dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts as you watched, Bananas done the same way, corn on the cob smothered in butter and speared on a stick, sausage on a stick filled with mustard from a big hypodermic syringe, and Italian sausage pizza in the days before the first pizza restaurants arrived.

Diggers (AKA cranes, AKA draglines). They were mesmerizing. Forerunner of the electronic "plush toy" cranes now found at the entrance to every Walmart, you turned a crank and dropped the bucket over a prize and gently maneuvered it to the door. Some models were invented and manufactured by Lee Moss of Hot Springs, Arkansas, who, in 1946, bought the principal digger maker, Erie Manufacturing Co. (Did you know that Hot Springs was, and still is, a major wintering area for carnival workers? They even have their own private club, The Showman's Club.) In the fifties, diggers weren't coin operated. You had to give your dime to the operator and he flipped a switch on the back to reset your digger. That's because in 1951 the Johnson Interstate Transportation Act declared all diggers to be gambling devices, putting Lee Moss out of business. He and some other concessionaires spent two years lobbying lawmakers and finally got diggers reclassified from gambling devices to amusement devices, but they couldn't be coin operated and they couldn't offer cash prizes. Didn't matter, most of us didn't want cash prizes anyway. We wanted cheap trinkets like jeweled rings, yoyos, miniature cameras (which took pictures nobody could develop), or, the prize of all prizes, pistol-shaped cigarette lighters.

Playing a digger was an art. When the crane swung around on the machines we played, there were about ten stopping points, in sequence, and the prizes under a stopping point went quickly. So you stood behind some amateur (the mark) and watched where the crane stopped, and you knew where it would stop the next time, and if the next stop was near a good prize and the mark left, you jumped on the crane and paid your dime. When you swung the crane around you did it hard so that the bucket kept swinging when the crane stopped. Then you quickly lowered the bucket and tried to time it so that the bucket dropped over your prize. I took home many pistol-shaped cigarette lighters.

In the early 1970s, regulations were relaxed and coin slots went back onto the diggers, but in exchange for that the government mandated that each digger had to have a stop button so that the customer, not the machine, determined where the crane stopped. I have it in my mind that the government worker who came up with that regulation was one of the amateurs who never won anything and that I used to stand behind. Just recently, an old-time carnival operator in Hot Springs told me when that regulation went into effect, the carnies merely glued the good prizes down.

This same carny told me that if you saw a couple walking around the midway carrying one of the big prizes, they were employees. The vendors hired them to just walk around and be seen. Someone always stopped and asked them, "Where did you win that?" They would tell them different vendors. When I heard this, I felt like a sap, because I have stopped them and asked them that very question, and they gave me directions to a particular vendor. With visions of the big prize in my eyes, I went straight there and stood in line with all the other saps and blew a quick dollar. Damn.

A parade in downtown Little Rock announced the arrival of the Livestock Show. Schools got out for it. In the tenth grade, as a Sousaphone player at Hall High, I marched in it. In those days they didn't have people walking behind the animals cleaning up their droppings. Instead, they let the marching bands spread the stuff out so the next rain could wash it away. Fortunately, all us Sousaphonists were in the rear with with the drummers so we didn't have it too bad because the piccoloists and floutists and clarinettists up front got the first wave. Everybody stayed away from them after a parade, and you didn't dare give one of them a ride home in your car.

We never paid to get into the "stock show". On the west side of the fairgrounds, next to the railroad tracks where the mile-long Royal American Shows train stood, there were holes in the fence large enough to crawl through. Certainly large enough for my friends and me. The holes, by the way, put us into the show grounds right behind the girlie show tent. Once when we were all about fourteen, my friends and I appeared out of nowhere and surprised a girlie show girl sitting outside the tent smoking a cigarette. She was young, very good-looking, scantily clad, and friendly and we struck up a conversation and talked with her until she finished her smoke and had to go back inside. She said goodbye, but just before she disappeared behind a tent flap she treated us to a show that lasted only a fleeting moment but the likes of which none of the paying customers inside would ever see.

I always won a prize at the arcade dart throw. I knew that the dart was too dull to burst the underinflated balloons, even if it hit one, but just sharp enough to stick into the cork board. However, I waited until the booth was crowded and lit a cigarette lighter behind my back when the carney wasn't looking and got the dart tip hot, and it popped a balloon if it came anywhere near it. And I never threw the dart at the center of the board, because that's where all the cheap prizes are. The best prizes are on the lower left corner, because that's the hardest area for right-handers to hit.

I never played the basketball shoot. I figured out very early on that the hoops weren't round. They were oval and just barely big enough for a basketball to go through. You could get one in, but it had to be an absolutely perfect shot, something that was beyond my teenage capabilities.

When you went through the front gate at the livestock show, the first promenade on the left, where all the car dealers and the big food vendor tents were, dead-ended at the exposition building. About mid-way, off to the right, behind the car dealer tents, was the pole sitter. He did acrobatics atop a pole that was a million feet high, and he didn't have a safety rope or a net below him. He would get that pole bending back and forth till I thought it surely would break. But it never did. I haven't seen another one since.

At the end of the promenade was the exposition building. Just outside the exposition building was the penny arcade. All kinds of ancient machines. Old kinetoscopes, mutoscopes, test-your-strength grip machines, fortune telling machines, baseball game machines, bear shooters and other shooting gallery machines, press-a-penny-into-a-badge machines, and horse-racing machines.

Then, when the penny arcade had taken your last cent, you went into the exposition building. All year long, you saved up the names and addresses of all the people who did you dirty, and at the exposition building you signed them all up for aluminum siding, bibles, free vacations in Hot Springs, cheap acreage in New Mexico and Alaska, life insurance policies, drawings for free deep freezes and sets of encyclopedias, and hundreds of other fabulous things. If they lived down the street from you, you sat back and watched the steady stream of salesmen that went to their front door. If they didn't, you knew it happened anyway. Siding and encyclopedia salesmen would not be denied.

At the southeast corner of the first promenade was the Motordrome, or "The Wall Of Death", where motorcycle daredevils rode the walls of a huge wooden barrel. Their speed kept them up on the wall until they were ready to come slowly down.

Sadly, Royal American Shows, the victim of an apathetic public, folded its tents for the last time in 1997.

Royal American Shows Rail Car