I first met Nick Strates of Strates Fine Food about 20 years ago when I was introduced to him by Ronnie Netterfield, of Netterfield's Popcorn and Lemonade Concessions, at the Exchange Club Fair in Ladson, South Carolina.
Ladson is to Charleston what Antioch, where Christine and I live, is to Nashville. Both are just areas of the same more well-known towns. I'm writing this on Monday, the fourth day of the Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul where record attendance has been reached on two of the first three days, including a record 133,326 people on opening day. My son, Tommy, Paul Hill, and Audie Howe, who live in Minneapolis, are at the fair and taking pictures that I can use in Showtime, since as the song says, I don't get around much anymore.
As they did for me during all the years I covered this extravaganza that has food grosses in excess of $30 million every year, Ronnie and Kim Netterfield provided a motorized vehicle so Hill and Howe could navigate more freely. Tommy chooses to walk and is healthy enough that he can. As luck would have it, one of the pictures this dynamic trio took today was of none other than Nick Strates.
This is the 21st year for Strates to work the Jerry Hammer-managed event. He said every year gets better and so far, business this year has been terrific despite two days of rain. The whole season has been good. “Weather has been better than usual. People are spending, and the economy is good,” said Strates.
Asked if he used foreign labor through the H-2B Visa program, Strates said he was one of the first to be involved in the program and has been using it for 20 years. “We get half of our help in January, and the other half in July. We've had most of our workers return for the last 20 years, and the rest for at least 10. I don't know how we'd be able to operate without them. They're hard working and loyal.”
With that being said, Strates said the biggest problem he faces each season is the uncertainty involving whether that help will be back,
Strates now resides in Mt. Airy, Md., with Dee, his wife of eight years, and their daughter Anna Lee, who is four and a half. They have eight stands and Dee stays closer to home, taking care of the dates in Maryland and Virginia. He hits the ones further away.
The route is extremely solid, beginning in January with Florida fairs in West Palm Beach, Tampa, Fort Myers, and Miami, followed by festivals around Atlanta and Maryland. “We then play The Meadlowlands Fair in East Rutherford, N. J., the Delaware State Fair, West Virginia and Maryland State Fair.”
After the Minnesota State Fair, Strates goes to The Big E (Eastern States Exposition) in West Springfield, Massachusetts; the Georgia National Fair, Perry, North Carolina State Fair, Raleigh, and Ladson.
The Aug. 9-18 Iowa State Fair, Des Moines, had a record attendance of 1,170,375, that topped the previous mark of 1,130,260 that was set in 2018, according to Gary Slater, who finished his 19th year as chief executive officer and manager. “It was wonderful, wonderful. We had a super grandstand lineup, and perfect weather didn't hurt.”
Mike Nye put together the independent midway, with help from Rick Frenette, who took care of the Magic Money and games, and Steve Smith, who used to own Smith Amusements.
Grandstand entertainment included The Chainsmokers, Slipknot, with Gojira, which registered a sellout; Zac Brown Band, with Caroline Jones; Toby Keith, with Jimmie Allen; Dan + Shay, with Carly Pierce; Gabriel (Fluffy) Iglesias, with Alfred Robles; Foreigner, with Night Ranger; Luke Bryan, with Jon Langston; Pentatonix, with 4th Ave, and Hootie & The Blowfish, with Barenecked Ladies.
The highest grossing rides were Steve Vander Vorste's Crazy Mouse Roller Coaster; the Grande Wheel, from Guy and Charlene Leavitt's Ray Cammack Shows, and the Centrifuge from Luehrs Ideal Rides, owned by Andy and Lorelei Schoendienst, and Joe and Jean Clair.
In the Thrill Town department, the top three were Kiddie Bumper Boats from Del Rio Cristiani; Flying Elephant from Jeremy and Kate Floyd's Top Scan, and Fire House from Mid-American Carnival. The top three games were Stand Up Bottle from Joey Fowler; Break A Dish, and Skeeball, both from Dave and Monica Potopas. I'll have more on Slater and the Hawkeye State Fair in future columns.
When I contacted Jean Clair of Luehrs Ideal Rides on Wednesday, the show had just been able to set up at a City Park for the Aug. 29-Sept. 2 Bothalto, Illinois, Homecoming Days Celebration.
“We've had equipment scattered all over town since Saturday while we waited for the park to dry out from flood waters. It's what we do. We don't milk cows. We don't drive race cars. We're professional and accept the fact some days are better than others. The sun is shining now and it's 75 degrees. We're very lucky, and ready to go.”
Clair, who was OABA chairman in 1996, owns the carnival with her husband, Joe; sister Lorelei Schoendienst, who is an OABA director, and Andy Schoendienst, OABA president in 2008, who is also currently president of the Showmen's League of America.
Luehrs has been playing Bothalto, which is 29.9 miles from St. Louis, for 60 straight years. “Before here, we came from some record dates in Northern Illinois,” said Clair. “Most of our spots are for five days and we've had trouble all year putting more than four good days in a row together. When we've had good weather, business is great. The public wants to be entertained. They're sick of work and politics. Our season went from a cold and rainy opening to hot.”
Andy Schoendienst booked seven rides on the independent midway at the record-breaking Iowa State Fair, including the Centrifuge, which was the third highest grosser. The other rides were the Extreme, Hang Glider, Toon Town, Dizzy Dragon, Baja Buggy, and Jungle Twist. Joe Clair and their son-in-law, Chris Atkins, who is married to their daughter, Kristin, are booking rides with Pat Repp and Tom Thebault of North American Midway Entertainment at the Kansas State Fair, Hutchinson. Rides going there are Beach Party Funhouse, Helicopter, and Storm, plus four food stands.
Joe Clair has also been booking late in each season since 1985 with John Hanschen of Mighty Thomas Shows at Fort Smith, Arkansas; Jennings, Alexandria, and Franklinton, Louisiana. Rides going there include the Magic Maze, Beach Party, Storm, and Raiders.
“We can't say enough about what a great guy John Hanschen is. Chris and Kristin play with him early in the season at Leonard Martin dates in Laaredo and Brownsville, Texas. Lorelei plays festivals in Southern Indiana, and we're all home by October 15.”
Clair said the show uses Midway Match, a company which Cathy Murphy is involved in, to help obtain American workers at the early dates. “By June, we have our 60 foreign workers through the H-2B Visa program. We use Jim Judkins for Mexicans, and Kim Langford of New Horizons for South Africans. Without them we wouldn't be in very good shape. They're great workers.”
Clair added, “I get to go home to Florida on Monday. I hope that Hurricane Dorian stays away.” So do a lot of other people.
The Indiana State Fair drew attendance of 878,857, despite a closing weekend that included severe weather...The Illinois State Fair set records in grandstand tickets sold and ticket revenue, with acts such as Dan + Shay, Snoop Dogg, Shinedown and Reba McEntire drawing the largest crowds. The grandstand brought in $2.275 million from 63,513 who attended nine shows...I'll have more on those, plus a lot more fairs in upcoming Xtra issues. Read all about it!
NAME, which was also at Indiana and Illinois, had a strong run at the 115th annual Kentucky State Fair, where The Oak Ridge Boys performed for the 44th straight year, and the beat goes on.
When Jean Clair said the show has not posted four winning days in a row I was tempted to tell her that neither have the Philadelphia Phillies, who lost to Pittsburgh last night when their “slugging” first baseman, who for some inexplicable reason is batting leadoff, dropped a throw at first base to allow the winning run to score. He isn't hitting either, unless .230 is acceptable these days.
Gary McNeal of L&G Concessions, who is in Memphis with Talley Amusements for Gary Lovell's Dixie Fair and Music Festival, Aug. 30-Sept.8, thinks his best bet is to sell merchandise at the World Series is Houston. He was right a couple years ago about the Chicago Cubs, but the Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves are tough. Washington could be a force, with its three big name pitchers. We'll just wait and see.
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Have all great days, and God Bless!