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A Fair Deal

Old and new attractions, plus an opening-day price of 75 cents, mark a diamond anniversary of fun at the fairgrounds.

September 11, 1997|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To some, the county fair is synonymous with pie-baking contests, kids' crafts and 4-H'ers showing off their prized porkers. To others, it's seeing the newest high-tech gadget or taking a spin on the latest thrill ride.

As the Los Angeles County Fair opens on its 75th anniversary today, the challenge is to maintain a balance of the traditional and the modern.

There will still be plenty of animals and crafts and games. But among the new entries for 1997 is UFO Encounters, an interactive attraction with a futuristic twist. The $8-million exhibit was created by Renaissance Entertainment of Orlando, which elected to debut its latest work at the Los Angeles fair. Fair-goers will be able to walk through a live-action enactment that includes a close encounter with an extraterrestrial and an alien autopsy.

The L.A. County Fair is no stranger to such introductions. It has a history, after all, of embracing cutting-edge fads, fashion and high-tech innovations. Frisbees (called Pluto Platters in 1955), for instance, made their world debut here, as did Belgian waffles, not to mention assorted newfangled household products.

UFO Encounters isn't all that's new in '97. To attract computer-savvy youngsters, the fair has Cosmic Carnival, packed with 40 computers, large-projection screens, TV monitors and video walls. Among its highlights are the Goo Galaxy, a kind of modern-day hall of mirrors in which visitors can manipulate images of their faces, and Virtual World, which allows participants to set off sensors to begin an audio and visual symphony.

Over in Fairplex Building 4, GTE's Communications at Light Sound showcases a video conferencing adventure, in which fair-goers can view themselves and talk to one another via video monitors. There's also GTE's Amazing Yellow Adventure Bus, a mobile computer classroom for students but open to all ages.

Just a short distance from all the high-tech hoopla are some attractions that have been fair favorites for decades. The Wines of the Americas, celebrating its 58th year as a fair attraction, is the longest-running county fair wine competition, pitting wines, mostly from California, against one another in tasting contests. The Citrus Empire Model Railroad, in the Education Center under the grandstand, has appeared at every fair since 1949.

The fair's headline entertainment begins with the Doobie Brothers at 8 tonight; others include the Temptations, Dishwalla, Huey Lewis, Pat Benatar and the Neville Brothers. The big-name bill was discontinued in the early '80s because "we determined entertainment wasn't driving the gate," said Sid Robinson, public relations director at the fair. But it was brought back in 1993 because, he said, "one of the first things people always wanted to know was who's performing?"

Horse racing is another long-running tradition that returns this year. It began as an exhibition sport during the first fair, then in 1933 the track became the first in Southern California to offer pari-mutuel wagering.

In 1922, the entire fair covered 43 acres, and fit in three big tents, a 4,000-seat grandstand, a couple barns and two other buildings. Today, the fair covers 487 acres, the grandstand seats 10,000, and there are 35,158 entries competing in everything from hog calling to photography. The attendance the first year was 49,461. In 48 out of the last 49 years, attendance has been more than 1 million.

As always, since 1922, the fair includes a carnival midway. New to the mix this year is the Skyscraper, a two-seat, 160-foot propeller-type ride that takes four riders at a time at speeds of up to 70 mph. Several county fairs in Southern California along with the California State Fair cooperated with Los Angeles to persuade the promoters to bring the ride to the California fair circuit this year.

For a more participatory experience, fair-goers can scale another new attraction, the Rock, a 30-foot-high simulated rock wall.

Pomona resident Happi Moore is used to seeing new things at the Los Angeles County Fair. Her earliest fair memory, in fact, is of riding on a float with a brand-new electric washing machine. It was the latest appliance for the modern kitchen--of 1922.

Moore's father, Cy Jones, owned the Pomona Fixture and Wire Co., and was among the dozen businessmen who organized the parade and inaugural fair to promote their livelihoods.

Moore doesn't remember if any washers sold, but she does know that the fair was a success. And she's been to every fair since.

"A lot of things we'd never seen before," Moore said, "everything you can imagine they've done at the fair."

Now 77, Moore has also worked 45 fairs. When the fair was closed and the fairgrounds were taken over for military use during World War II, she still went to the complex--to dance with the soldiers.

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