When Eastern States Exposition (The Big E), West Springfield, Massachusetts, announced a record attendance of 1,629,527 for this year's Sept. 13-29 extravaganza, it brought back wonderful memories of me visiting the event.
On one occasion, my late brother, Bob, who was living in Hyannis, Massachusetts, 152.2 miles away, decided it would be a great opportunity for him to drive down and visit with me. I told him to go by the food trailer of Rene and Judy Piche and if I weren't there, they would know how to get in touch with me.
When he arrived, the Piches, being the pranksters they are, told Bob he would have to tell them the nickname I had while growing up in Scranton, Pa., in order to verify his authenticity. Bob knew I hated that name but told them anyway.
They got in touch with me and the four of us, plus a woman I didn't know, sat around for a while, had drinks, and told stories and jokes, some of which were slightly off color. It wasn't until Bob and I were ready to leave that the Piches told us the woman was a Catholic nun.
Anyway, for Rene Piche, a man I call the Frenchman, who was born in Ware, Massachusetts, this was his 59th Big E, having first played the fair with his Jack's French Fries stand in1961. This year, the Piches had three stands booked and their son Mark, and his wife, Susan, four, for a total of seven. The Piches had two Tootsie's Fried Doughs and one Jack's Fries. Mark and Susan had Piche's Beignets, which Judy had operated in the past; two fried doughs and a Fries.
“I had seven corners, too,” said Rene, proudly, emphasizing that because of seniority and the quality of their operation, they were awarded what were considered to be seven of the best locations.
When I asked Rene where the name Jack's came from, he said that was the name it had when he bought the trailer from Sylvio St. Orange of Ware, Mass., “and we decided to keep it. As for Tootsie's, that's what we called my first wife, now deceased, whose real name was Elsie.” Rene, who was born May 14, 1936, and Judy have been together for 41 years. I reminded her of when she was hanging out at the Gibtown bar with friends Tony and Monica Baress, and Rene quipped, “She put her fishing pole on the bar and reeled me in.”
“This was a great year. The weather was perfect, and it was a superb fair. The people love us. They love our product, and many of them come specifically for the fried dough,” said Rene. “We were up 20 per cent over last year, which was also a record for us, and the fair.”
Having tasted them on many occasions, I always told Rene his French Fries were the best I ever tasted. My late buddy, John A. Hobbs, who ran The Nashville Palace and John A's Restaurants and Bars in Nashville, agreed with me on that, and tried several times to talk Rene and Judy into setting up a stand in Music Valley. They never got around to doing that but visited with Christine and me at one of John's places whenever they got close to Nashville. They were usually in the company of Jim and Janice Swain, Swain's Pizza on a Stick. Full disclosure, Rene was one of Paul (Duke) Smith's (founder and owner of Allied Specialty Insurance) best friends. Along with Bud and Jeanette Gilmore of Smokey's Greater Shows, the six of us took trips together, one for six weeks that included The Great Wall of China (no kidding), and another to Jamaica.
Looking back, when Rene first played The Big E, Bill Wynne, who had been president of the Mid-South Fair, Memphis, Tenn., was in charge. Then came George Jones, Wayne McCary and Eugene J. Cassidy, who is the current President and CEO of The Big E.
Danny Huston, chairman of the board and chief executive officer (in other words, the head guy) with North American Midway Entertainment, which has provided the midway at The Big E for the last 15 years, said it was a record run for the carnival as well.
Rich Wyatt was in charge of the NAME Unit there. Huston said, “Weather was almost perfect, and Gene Cassidy and his team are unbelievable to work with. We have three years left on our current contract. You could never find people nicer to work with.”
NAME had 70 rides set up on the carnival midway. Booked in were John and Tina Doolan, Walter Gould, with a Frisbee, Tim Coleman, Mark Fanelli, and Bob DeStefano of Dreamland Amusements, with his Roller Coaster. We got him through the recommendation of Tommy Coffing, Used Rides.com.,” said Huston.
While getting ready for the show to open at the Mississippi State Fair, Jackson, Huston said NAME is also coming off record runs at the Mid-South Fair, Southhaven, Mississippi, where Mark Cockerham was in charge; the Kansas State Fair, Hutchinson, and East Texas State Fair, Tyler, where Pat Repp and Tom Thebault headed up the unit. “We're hoping for more of the same now at Tulsa, the South Carolina State Fair, Columbia; Jackson, and Evansville, Indiana, for the West Side Nut Club Festival. You should come to that one. It is a real good community event that raises over $1 million for over 200 different organizations.”
I told Danny I wouldn't be able to make it, but remembered visiting the headquarters of Anchor Industries in Evansville when I was with AB. I asked if he remembered Paul Black, Jerry Peach, Jimmy Mortellaro, and Dan Silbur of Anchor, and, of course, he did.
I told Huston that Black was the installing officer at the Gibtown Club and when he relinquished his duties, I took them over. I immediately discovered there was no formal ceremony, so I created one. As each officer came to the podium, I had them swear on a copy of Amusement Business, which was always referred to as the “Bible for Show People,” a tradition that lasted for years.
Another legend, who has spent almost as much time working at The Big E as Rene Piche, is a great friend to both of us, Bob Commerford. He estimated he has had his Petting Zoos there for 50 years, saying “Billy Wynne, from your part of the country where you now live, was in charge at that time. Even though he is banned from having elephant rides in the state of New York (because of PETA), he can still do it at The Big E, but did not, stating that the elephants are now retired. He did have camel and pony rides, and a six-pony hitch pulling a calliope in the daily parades. “Even though I wasn't there, it was a record year,” said Commerford. He said he went the Sunday before it opened to attend an outdoor Mass conducted by the local Catholic Bishop. “It was so hot I decided not to go back.” Commerford is now 87. He said his sons, Billy and Timmy, were on their way to Columbia, S. C., and before West Springfield, had big runs at Chatham, N. Y., Goshen, Connecticut, and Bethlehem, Connecticut. “We've been very busy, and I know they have dates booked all the way up to Christmas,” said Bob.
If you're curious enough to want that nickname that I kept secret from my four children and Nashville friends for over 40 years, you're going to have to get it from the kids, which is doubtful, Rene, Judy, or even Commerford. Hobbs would have told you in a minute.
The Major League Baseball playoffs start tonight, and I have decided, after much careful thought, it would have been the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series, as it was during most of my childhood, if it were not for the Houston Astros. As Gary McNeal of L&G Concessions, who is also at the Mississippi State Fair, said, “Pick the team with the former Tigers,” he being a huge Detroit fan. He's talking about Justin Verlander, so I'm going with Houston over the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. I'm hoping Gabe Kapler gets fired as manager of the Phillies. They've either quit or folded on him in two consecutive years. Enough is enough.
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