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The Region

Oddball Exhibits, Step Right Up

Entertainment: Orange County Fair prizes offbeat vendors. Competition is stiff.

July 28, 2002|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marc Stamper's life as a sideshow performer began with a newspaper ad.

"It said 'adventurous couple needed,' " recalls the 29-year-old resident of Eugene, Ore., who had just left a job in corporate marketing and was looking for something to do. "When they said it was pig racing, I laughed for three hours."

Today, Stamper and his 23-year-old fiancee, Holly Standiford, spend eight months a year touring the West Coast with a trailer full of pigs. "It's the fastest show on four hoofs and a snout," says Stamper, whose charges bear such names as Mona Lisow and Hog Hogan.

Jim Harvey was a successful real estate agent in Honolulu when he hit on the idea for Fantasy Flight Studios, a traveling movie set that transforms children into stars of their own two-minute video productions.

"It's a reasonable living," says Harvey, 49, who lives in Westchester when not on the road. "But the real payoff for me is that I have the school year off [to spend with] my kids."

And John Little, 45, was a struggling commercial fisherman six years ago when, on a whim, he spent $6,000 for a wax-warming machine. The result: Wax Hand Jive, a booth that makes wax sculptures of people's hands.

The three are among hundreds of exhibitors hawking their wares in Costa Mesa on this final weekend of the Orange County Fair's 17-day run. What makes them different, fair officials say, is that they are entrepreneurs offering unusual amusements found only at fairs.

"I don't think we'd have a fair without folks like that," concessions supervisor Keli Villegas said of the people who spend several months a year traveling the fair circuit. Of the Orange County event's 300-plus concessions, she said, these "oddball" exhibitors number 30 to 50. "It's great being able to get a new-fangled mop," Villegas said.

Competition is fierce among the 400 or so applicants vying for the 10 to 20 spaces that open at the Orange County Fair each year. Concessionaires pay flat fees ranging from $1,250 to $10,000, depending on the size and location of their displays.

The winners become part of a community that generally spends three to seven months a year traveling from fair to fair throughout the Western United States. While on site, most live in trailers or motor homes on the fairgrounds. During the off-season, they return to homes that are often far away.

"It's like being part of an extended family," said Cliff Elder, 76, proprietor of the Televac Personality Handwriting Analysis machine, which he takes to fairs in Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield, Tulare and sometimes Albuquerque--as well as Costa Mesa. Elder, who lives in Temecula, has been working the fair circuit since retiring from the Marine Corps in 1969.

"It's like having a whole bunch of brothers and sisters traveling with you," he said. "They treat you like a person, not a number."

Often that attitude extends to customers, some of whom return year after year to see their favorite concessionaires. "My son had this done last year," said Kathy Ashworth of San Clemente, standing in line at Wax Hand Jive with $6 for a wax likeness of her 6-year-old daughter's hand.

Proprietor Little gently guides the girl's hand into the warm vat of liquid wax. Alternating between the wax and a container of ice water, he dips her hand several times before the material hardens around it like a glove. Then he slides the stuff off, revealing a wax replica of the girl's hand.

"I have lots of returning customers," he says, "especially little kids whose parents do their hands every year to see them grow. I have an 8-year-old set of twins at the L.A. County Fair who I've been doing since they were 3."

He pauses to dip the wax hand into another vat of dyed wax. "As far as I know," Little says, "I'm the only one doing this anymore--[and] they can only see me at the fair."

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