by Cheyenne Vargas
photography by Shira O’Neal-Abend
Think fun. Think tradition. Think pageantry, games and entertainment. The 2020 pandemic may have halted all that, but it is time to think again. The L.A. County Fair, where birthdays are celebrated, anniversaries are honored, vacations are taken, date nights are held, where great family memories are made—for no reason at all—is back After two years of forced closure, bowing to COVID-19 health protocols, the Fair will welcome back all who love to be entertained with a special “Back to Our Roots” theme that celebrates its 100th calendar anniversary. “We decided to keep the theme simple and to feel the nostalgia of the first fair,” says Renee Hernandez, director of Communications at Fairplex, who is keenly involved in Fair planning and implementation, serving as lead of the planning committee.
The Fair may be returning to its roots, but in many ways, the Fair is reinventing itself. For starters, the Fair is moving its run dates from fall to spring—May 5 to May 30—to be precise. The move perfectly lets the Fair bolster its agricultural heritage. For 99 years, it was a harvest festival. Now, it will be a spring planting festival. Missing will be the torrid September heat that on opening day 2019 hit 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
After 100 years of this Southern California tradition, fair goers can expect to be welcomed back to one of the largest county fairs in America with special “back to our roots” attractions. Experiencing the fair of the past, present, and future, the L.A. County Fair will bring back many of its own past traditions, which will be presented throughout the fairgrounds. Carnival operators will strive to have classic fair rides like traditional Ferris wheels and bumper cars. The Future Farmers of America (FFA) youth will return to prominence. “We wanted to take a nostalgic look back at the past 100 years and really go back to our roots with this upcoming anniversary,” says Hernandez. Posters and photos will be placed around the grounds showing previous fairs dating back to the 1920s. Fair goers can also expect to see more farm animals in the barn to tie in the Fair’s agricultural influence. The display garden in that area will be enlarged. Horticulturist Don Delano heads “Farm at Fairplex” and grows an impressive garden in the fairgrounds each year. The produce is utilized in the McKinley’s Grille Restaurant, in addition to being a showcase garden of what grows in La Verne. The on-site five-acre “Farm at Fairplex” features California specialty crops including fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Bringing back FFA pays homage to the Fair’s farming influence by having breeder shows for students to show their animals—goats, cows, pigs, sheep, llamas—in a competition setting to gain experience for future auction shows. “There hasn’t been much work with FFA in recent years, but we saw that it was such a big part of our history so it’s important to bring them back,” says Hernandez.
The theme “Back to Our Roots” came to be from wanting to celebrate the 100th anniversary and instead of looking at the modern era, organizers took a step back to really capture the nostalgia of the L.A. County Fair.
Then the pandemic came as a surprise. The Fairgrounds were re-purposed as a temporary shelter for nearly 10,000 migrant children. While the 2020 Fair was canceled, after 719 days a down-sized “Bite Sized Fair” was held Sept 10 to Sept. 26, Friday to Sunday in the Fair’s west parking lot, which Hernandez calls the “Last hurrah for the 99th year.” Fair administrators then regrouped and planned a new grand gala affair, set to launch this May 5. Hernandez says that of the 100-year time period of the Fair, it has been closed for a total of seven years, two years because of large crowd gathering COVID restrictions and five years during World War II
With the new May 5 to May 30 dates come new and old celebrations. Fair organizers are planning to have four special weekends during the duration of the fair beginning with the celebration of Cinco de Mayo with a Latin Heritage weekend. The following weekends will celebrate CEEM (an economic cooperative committed to supporting African-American professionals and the African-American entrepreneurs), AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) and ending with a Pride weekend.
High level competitions are taking place for wine and spirits, olive oil and dairy products. Children and youth competitions are running. So, too are favorite adult competitions. The Millard Sheets Art Center will feature archival findings from fairgoers as well as artists’ interpretations of the centennial. The flower and garden pavilion will celebrate the centennial through floral displays and vignettes. And the Haunt Show exhibit is returning and will feature its “100 Years of Monsters” museum.
Fair days will feature, for all to enjoy, new foods, retro foods and special performances throughout the fair grounds. These events, however, will not take away from the special celebrations. The concert series will feature 14 separate bands and artists, with headliners including War, KC and the Sunshine Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Brett Young, Ramon Ayala, Cole Swindell, Juanes, The Brothers Johnson, Lady A, Kansas, Blue Oyster Cult, The Beach Boys, The Spinners and ZZ Top. A special collectible pin will also be distributed to fair goers to commemorate 100 years of the L.A. County Fair. A special Fair logo was designed by Marissa Merida of Pomona that captures the centennial. “This fair offers an experience that you can’t get at any other amusement park because it’s a different type of entertainment,” says Hernandez.
Hernandez says Fair officials are keeping a careful eye on Los Angeles County COVID safety precautions. “The Fair will definitely be a safe space to come to with more open spaces so people won’t be so crowded. With a big campus, we want to utilize all the space,” she says. Full advertisement of the fair begins in earnest in April with commercials being shown, billboards going up, and display ads being placed. Organizers will also continue to promote the 2022 Fair across their social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. “This Fair offers an experience that you can’t get at any other amusement park because it’s a different type of entertainment,” says Hernandez. She notes that the fair is a visual event, with vibrant colors, flower gardens, petting zoos and musical performances. There is pageantry that comes to you from every angle, including mobile performers who suddenly pop into view.
At 487 acres, it is the largest county fair in America. And while a fair in Houston holds top billing for attendance, the LA County Fair at 1.6 million guests in the 1990s, was one of the top three in attendance. Before COVID closure, the attendance dropped to No. 11 in the nation. Hernandez says that hot Southern California days contributed to that decline; she is confident that the cooler May weather will prompt people to return.
The Fair bridges generations, and attending the L.A. County Fair is a family tradition for so many Southern California people who steadfastly have made it an annual can’t miss pilgrimage to come to the Pomona/La Verne based event. “The spirit of the Fair is tradition,” says Hernandez, “whether it is a first kiss, first date or a child petting a goat for the first time. The Fair puts smiles on everyone’s faces.”
Not just guests but vendors are also looking forward to the Fair’s start, she says. “People are so excited to come back because we are, for so many people, their tradition with individuals getting proposed to or simply attending every year,” she says. “It is going to be an amazing fair.” ■