THE MICHIGAN STATE FAIR
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
The Michigan State Fair appeared for 11 days, in late August, every year. Like a Phoenix, rising from the ashes of other Fairs before it, it rematerialized on an inconspicuous tract of land located along Woodward Avenue, between Seven and Eight Mile Roads, half a mile from my home. The Fair was, to me, a place of Wonderment, where heavy-duty farm equipment and the joys of bovine beauty, were put on display, alongside elements of pure Fantasy.
Farm animals and livestock dominated many areas of the Fair, and the sounds and odors they emitted filled the air. Having grown up in the city, this evidence of agriculture seemed unreal and incongruous to me. And I found it quite disconcerting that the ever-present odor of manure intermingled with the aroma of the culinary treats I chose to eat. In spite of that, I managed to eat plenty, everything from corn on the cob to cotton candy.
The Michigan State Fair was a complex concoction of rural country simplicity, served up alongside exotic sights and rides that promised untold thrills. It was a place where one could feast their eyes on uncommon sights, while satisfying their appetite for indigestible delights, throughout the day and well into the night. After dark, the Fairgrounds came alive with a million lights. A battery of sweeping searchlights chased the clouds across the sky. And to end the day’s festivities there was a spectacular display of fireworks, each night. And this cornucopia of wonders that stretched the borders of Reality, all took place within the city limits of the Motor City.
Now 63 years later, my memories of the Fair have faded. Nonetheless, I can still vividly recall the “Midway”. In the eyes of an eleven year old kid, like me, it was definitely the best thing there. All the standard carnival rides were present, as well as some I never saw or rode before, and I was determined to try then all. All, that is, except those that turned you upside down. That was where I drew the line.
The “Side Show” was located beside the Midway. It showcased exhibits that both disappointed, and boggled the mind at the same time. Some of these attractions crossed the boundary line of acceptable “good taste” and ascended to new heights of Vulgarity. My friend Bucky and I were keenly aware that there were Human and Inhuman Oddities there that exceeded the standards of society, and transcended into the Realms of Nightmare. And we were game to see them all.
We could walk there, or take a short trip north on the Woodward Avenue streetcar. But in 1948 we almost always got a ride, for my Father had a booth that year, and always drove his car there. That was the year, as my mother used to say, “He lost his shirt;” investing in a crazy scheme called “Radiant Heat”.
Radiant Heat was sort of the Emperor’s New Clothes of Home Heating. You couldn’t see it! You couldn’t hear it! You couldn’t FEEL it! And yet, in theory, it was supposed to keep your body warm. It seems that while the room, itself, remained ice cold, the magic radiation passed through the air, and warmed your bones. They, in turn, heated your body from the inside out. The main element of Radiant Heat was a glass panel made of special tempered glass that was unbreakable. The glass itself was sort of rippled, like water with a gentle breeze blowing across it. One sometimes saw glass that looked just like it on office doors and restroom windows. The two by three foot panels were actually two sheets of glass with strips of tin foil sandwiched in the middle, and fused together. These panels were mounted in a frame that was intended to be permanently installed against a wall. When electricity was run through the foil, the panels got a little warm, but, essentially, nobody noticed, but your bones. One still sees similar looking items, today, in smaller versions, called hot plates or heated serving trays.
My Father, not only, invested in the company, but to prove the product’s superiority, he installed a battery of the glass panels in our home on Seven Mile Road. These he mounted all around the outer walls, below the windows, as the sole source of heat in his newly created “rumpus room”. Thus, in the warm August of 1948, my Father, not only, believed in Radiant Heat, he also still believed that it would successfully heat our home, throughout the coming winter.
So, being both a true believer in the wonders of Radiant Heat, and part owner of the Company, he rented a Booth at the Michigan State Fair to proudly demonstrate it! And, I was not only his assistant; I was, or so it seemed to me, the main attraction. And every element of the booth, itself, was intuitively designed to showcase ME.
The Exhibit Hall was very large with at least 500 booths, lined up in many aisles of double rows. Crowds could walk along the concrete avenues between the opposing displays. Behind each booth, there was a curtain that hid the back of the booth, the next aisle over. This equipment was rented from a display company, located right there, at the Fair. “Pop” as I chose to call my father, chose a navy blue curtain, and hung from it a sign he made himself that read, “RADIANT HEAT.” The rest of the booth consisted of a single rather large raised wooden platform that stood before the curtain. It measured 8 feet long by 4 feet deep and three feet high with a blue draped skirting, thumb tacked, all around the sides. On the outer edges of the platform, he placed two standing panels of Radiant Heat. And in the middle, towering above them and everything else in the hall, for that matter, he placed ME! When your son is a 260 pound, 6’4”, eleven year old hippo, you might as well put him on display. That’s called “making lemonade”! One could easily spot me from afar, and passing crowds gathered around, just out of curiosity,
The very act of climbing up there was a struggle, but I managed it somehow, and stood between the two upright panels. On the platform, before me, was a single bare glass panel of Radiant Heat, just the glass, without the frame. This was laid flat, across two short lengths of 2”x4”. Thus, the center of the panel was suspended two inches above the platform floor. I stood behind it, waiting patiently, while ….
My Father stood on the concrete, in front of the platform, and delivered his spiel. In his hand, he held a “pointer”, which was actually a billiard cue. And he was pretty good; he never failed to draw a crowd. I remember standing there, waiting for my “cue” and looking down. The people looked like little tiny ants! Ha! Well who didn’t, compared to me? And I realized that a BIG part of what attracted them was curiosity, waiting to see what Baby Huey was going to do, up there. One didn’t often see an 11 year old my size, unless it was in the livestock section of the Fair
Furthermore, I was to be the Grand Finale, the final act that closed the show! Thus, when Pop’s pitch was over, with much bravado, he directed me to demonstrate the fact that the glass was unbreakable! To perform this feat, I gingerly stepped onto the bare glass panel, positioned my feet above the space between the two by fours, and gently jiggled up and down.
As I did this, I could feel the panel flex beneath my weight. But to my amazement, and that of the crowd as well, it didn’t break! Then, while the audience applauded, and I, no doubt, blushed bright ruby red, Pop passed out business cards and printed pamphlets to anyone who appeared vaguely interested. Meanwhile, I would step down, and rearrange the 2x4s, in preparation for my next performance.
Standing there, throughout the day, while Pop pontificated, and I waited to perform again, I had plenty of time to take inventory of my mixed emotions, trying to decide if I found my new found “fame’ invigorating, or acutely embarrassing! I also got to thinking about the way that piece of glass was flexing, and I wondered if it was really unbreakable, and what it might take to make it break.
I also got to fantasizing about all the great things that must be happening elsewhere at the Fair. Was Bucky there? Is this what I would be doing, throughout the next 10 days? Would I ever get a BREAK? But, most of all, I asked myself what would happen if I separated those two pieces of 2”X4”, just a little more.
I felt like Pluto, in one of those Disney cartoons, in which an Angelic Pup with wings and halo sits on one of Pluto’s shoulders, encouraging him to do the right thing, while a pitchfork wielding Devil Dog is on the other, seducing Pluto into being naughty. In my case, the Devil Dog was clearly winning, whispering in my ear to move the 2”X4”s apart a little wider.
And, so, each time, I rearranged the 2”X4’s, after my jumping act was over, I moved them out a little farther. And, each time, I jiggled on the glass, I jumped a little harder. And, every time, it seemed to flex a little more. By this time, you can bet your ass, I was determined to Crack that Glass! The Devil Dog had possessed me fully! And, so, I moved the, pair of 2”X4”s as far apart as the farthest reaches the three foot piece of tempered glass would allow. Pop didn’t even notice. And the next time, I jumped upon the glass; I did so with a vengeance, as inconspicuously as I was able. And thus, at last, while Pop stood by, bursting with pride that his fat son had finally found his calling, the Radiant Heat panel flexed its last!
It didn’t crack, as I expected. Instead, it burst into a thousand pieces, and literally EXPLODED! What’s more, it did this with a deafening “POP!” that resounded throughout the Hall, as the Radiant Heat Panel radiated a barrage of popcorn sized kernels of broken glass on everyone and everything, within a 10 foot radius. Pop nearly popped one of those veins that stood out on his forehead! And I could see that the billiard cue was radiating towards me. Naturally, I took that to be my cue to Flee. And I disappeared into the agitated crowd of people, who were still picking bits of broken glass from their hair and apparel, and quickly worked my way out into the sunlight, where I melted into the melee of the Michigan State Fair.
As I had no money in my pocket, I spent the remainder of the day wandering through the Free exhibits. One enormous canopy, or open sided tent, sheltered a complex labyrinth of stalls, where horses, sheep, goats, pigs, cows and bulls, and other animals were on display. Some of them had won blue ribbons. The stench of them was overwhelming!
The Highlight of this exhibit was Elsie the Borden Cow, in person. I managed to convince myself it was a highlight; actually it was a disappointment. Elsie looked suspiciously like any old red orange cow to me. Apart from a garland of artificial flowers and a dress covering her udder, she looked utterly ordinary.
But, not far from Elsie, was one of the most amazing sights I’d ever seen. It consisted of an enormous box that looked as substantial as Fort Knox. This imposing object was actually a huge refrigeration chamber. Closed on all sides but one, where there was a massive food locker door, with a serious chrome plated latch and heavily bolted hinges. At the top of the door was a relatively small window. A line of spectators waited to climb a substantial looking step ladder and gaze, one at a time, into the slightly frosty double layered glass. I took my place at the end of the line and waited; and while I did, I contemplated the piece of tempered glass I busted, and wondered if my father had found his lost temper, and, whether or not, he was sweeping up the shattered pieces, at that very minute. With my mind so preoccupied, my turn came, sooner than I realized, and I stepped up the steps to the window.
A sign had, more or less, tipped me off as to what was supposed to be inside, but the reality of it peeled my eyes, and although, the glass was fairly foggy, I saw the contents with a clarity that burned the vision of it into my memory, forever. I swear I could recreate it, today, 63 years later, exactly as I saw it then, provided that I had a ton of butter.
Inside, was a perfect vision, as excellent a rendition of Elsie the Borden Cow in person, as the real live animal, not far away, had been a poor one. Inside this massive freezer chest was Elsie the Cow’s Living Room, complete in every detail, and sculpted with an accuracy and fidelity that redefined perfection. The scene was dominated by an enormous easy chair, on which sat Elmer the Bull, with one leg crossed over the other, relaxing with his evening paper. All this was fabricated with such perfection that one could even read the headlines in the paper, ”ELSIE WINS BLUE RIBBON” and see the photos on the page. Sitting on the floor before his father, baby Beauregard was playing with a well sculpted assortment of toys. And Elsie, herself, was entering the room, wearing her garland of yellow flowers, and her starched apron and perky pinafore, carrying a tray of Borden goodies, ice cream, milk and cookies. And everything in the entire scene from the chandelier, suspended from the ceiling, past the pictures on the wall above the fireplace, to the hooked rug on the floor, as well as the entire Borden Family was all carved out of pure fresh creamery butter.
Childhood visions of Fantasy simply don’t get any better than Elsie the Cow's Living Room, carved out of butter
But there were other sights at the Fair that I remember with equal clarity, nightmare visions that haunt my dreams, and accompanied by blood curdling screams of agony, followed me from the Fair, each day, to enter through my bedroom window and echo through the darkness that filled my room at night.
The Michigan State Fair at night was an entirely different place. All the animals were sleeping, and Radiant Heat was no longer radiating. My father, by the way, excused me for the broken glass. He was never quite aware that I had encouraged the glass panel to break. Actually, he took it as an early sign that Radiant Heat was not all it was cracked up to be! He also excused me form helping him to demonstrate the un-breakability of the glass panels for the remainder of the week. So, I was set free to explore every nuance of the Fair, which I did almost every day, usually with my buddy Bucky. And our favorite attraction was…
There was an aura of ambivalence that colored every aspect of the Michigan State Fair Midway. It manifested itself in a sense of terror and danger, and a feeling of decadence that was both frightening and alluring. The rides were “Fun” or supposed to be, but there was always an awareness, in the back of my mind, that these things were portable, taken apart and put together, and moved from place to place. And all it would take is one loose bolt, or a part not properly assembled, to create a calamity. So it was, with some reluctance, that Bucky and I dared to enter certain rides.
One incident that I remember vividly, as it touched on the absurdity of my size, was really kind of funny. It took place as we waited in a double line to purchase tickets for a ride, the Ferris wheel. The box office had two sides; two ticket windows that pointed outward on slight angles, so two ticket vendors could sit, side by side, and both sell tickets at the same time. Bucky and I waited in one line. There was a sign that said admissions were less for “children 12 years old and younger”. Bucky, who, like me, was eleven, was ahead of me in line, and successfully bought a child’s admission. But when I stepped up to the window and bent down to pay the woman, she would no way believe that I was only 12 years old, let alone, eleven! And she insisted that I pay adult admission. I was both pissed off, and mortified, and walked away angry, embarrassed, and empty handed. I was determined to get on that ride for my rightful child’s admission. So, I threw caution to the wind, and did something audacious! I got into the other line, and walked up to the other window, this time, in front of everybody, walking on my knees. My baby face could just clear the window; and the new lady sold me a child’s ticket, gladly.
Now 63 years later, all Midways seem the same, to me. They all flow together, from one State Fair after another. But two attractions that I saw that year, stand out from all the others, and left an indelible impression on my memory. The first exhibit was housed in a trailer, a trailer park type trailer, with a doorway at each end. Garish signs screamed out, “See the TWO HEADED BABY!” All over the display were paintings that portrayed scenes of the cozy home life of this baby, twice as cute as ordinary. There was also a dramatic banner, like a daily comic strip, that wrapped around the length of the entire trailer. It consisted of a series of semi-lurid realistic paintings, portraying, in one panel after another, the things one could expect to see inside. The first panel showed the baby bouncing on its daddy’s knee. In the next, the two headed baby was standing in its play pen; then sitting in a high chair, having a bath in its little bassinette, and last of all, sleeping like a little angel. And all the while, over the PA system, one could hear two babies crying, laughing, giggling and cooing! The horrible sound quality made it apparent that it was only a recording.
Bucky and I paid fifty cents, and entered the doorway, marked “Entrance”, on the right. Inside were a series of chambers, each furnished like a room in any “normal” trailer. As if, any trailer could be normal. The first was like a living room with an empty play pen on the floor, the next room was a kitchen, featuring an empty highchair. I guess the baby had already eaten. Then was a bathroom with a rubber duck beside an empty tub. Aw shucks! We missed the baby’s bath time, too. And, finally, the nursery! Above the door there was a sign that read: “Shhhh! Baby’s Sleeping!” And there, inside the nursery, standing in a baby crib, was a horribly deformed two headed baby, floating in a large jar of amber colored formaldehyde. From there, we were issued out the EXIT door. The lasting effect of this display was to leave one sickened and ashamed, and feeling guilty for wishing to satisfy a morbid curiosity, and being duped, deservedly.
But that exhibit was a mild one compared to one that dominated the entire Midway, and cast its chilling spell all over everything. There was no way of avoiding it. The fact is, in a world of sanity, it should have been against the law. But entering the Midway at the Michigan State Fair, above all, because of this display, was like entering a World of Madness! The very concept of it, and the fact that it even existed was evidence of some deep seated sickness. It was not only inexcusable, but on top of that, it was placed in a prime position, and the ironic contrast with the booths beside it bespoke of a society that had gone insane.
On either side of the large tent that housed this excrementitious exhibit, were two “Girly shows”. In the interludes, between shows, the platforms were filled with lewd, but not nude, ladies. One attraction had an Arabian Nights theme, more popular, then, than it might be now. While the barker promised exotic wonders, the women on the platform performed excerpts of a belly dance, which he implied they would repeat inside, next time, perhaps, without their harem pants. The attraction, on the other side, featured a herd of assorted “heffers”, who were in the “Mooed” for Love, wearing (maybe only?) bathrobes. It was clear that Bucky and I would have to be a little older, before we could see these shows. Then again, thinking of my Ferris wheel adventure, I wondered if I wasn’t, already, big enough to enter.
But, as we were only eleven, for now our rapt attention was focused on the sickening exhibit in the center. It was called, “THE MUSEUM OF TORTURE”! The exhibit was housed in an enormous tent , that for some reason didn’t quite come down to the ground , so all around the perimeter there was a two foot space that one could easily look under, which was just enough to give a taste of the horrendous spectacle, inside. On the facade of the enclosure, as well as suspended on scaffolds above it, were horrifying painted banners, graphically depicting the most disgusting and grisly forms of “Torture, through the Ages”. This art was downright pornographic, and must have been a tremendous turn on, provided one was the Marquis de Sade. The women shown were mostly naked, but strips of tape had been slapped across certain aspects of their anatomy, just enough to pass the censors, while leaving little to the imagination.
One scene depicted the opening of an iron maiden, to show a lady perforated, with blood pouring from a hundred punctured places, and band aids applied, only to discreetly cover certain prominent portions of her chest. The rack, the noose, the guillotine, the cage full of hungry rats, the water torture, and burning at the stake: all the old familiar favorites were featured. Need I describe any more? Instead, I’ll let you use your own imagination, which is something no visitor to the Michigan State Fair Midway needed to do. For anyone, from six to sixty, could get an instant education in the Hideous History of Torture, by simply studying the pictures.
Bucky and I really didn’t need to pay to see what was inside, all we had to do was bend over, and peek under the tent. But that didn’t prevent us from paying anyway, and going inside, officially. What was in there was horrendous, but not so much the subject matter. What really was appalling was the advanced state of deterioration and decay. This exhibit, which was an amateurish piece of crap to begin with, clearly, had seen better days. It was, indeed, in worse condition than the Picture of Dorian Gray.
Its main elements had been assembled from an odd collection of department store manikins, no doubt collected from garbage bins, after they were thrown away. Each was of a different style and maker, and many had been crudely animated with limited motions, most of which were broken. Many of the mannequins had missing limbs, which was not intended to be part of the display. And each little scene that filled the tent, haphazardly, had a well-worn place card, describing in lurid detail, the torture it portrayed.
The lighting, as I now recall it, was also very strange, strange in that there wasn’t any. The entire interior was bathed in a sort of dark brown twilight, consisting of the scant amount of nether light that filtered through the heavy canvas of the tent, and augmented by the ribbon of subdued daylight that crept under the two foot gap around the edge. This lack of auxiliary illumination was, no doubt, intended to both save on the electric bills, and at the same time, obscure the advanced state of decay that characterized all the displays.
One that I remember well, consisted of two heads, protruding from an ant hill. The first head slowly moved from side to side. The second merely twitched a little, as its mechanism was kaput. Hundreds of ants were attached to their blood soaked faces, and they SCREAMED in agony, as a whole army of immobile ants, “marched” permanently in place. This was the “Apache Ant Torture”.
In another scene, a young department store mannequin was chained to a dungeon wall, her head moved mechanically, from side to side. Her screaming mouth was open wide. These screaming mouths were especially ugly, because they had obviously been badly adapted from standard issue department store dummies that had been smiling, formerly. Their mouths had now been hollowed out, and augmented with real false teeth. Naturally, she was bare breasted, and where her nipples used to be, provided she ever had any, two round red light bulbs had been installed; one was blinking on and off, and the other was burnt out.
Standing before her was a man mannequin dressed as a medieval executioner. This figure swiveled at the waist. In one hand, he held a red hot poker, another red light bulb, at the tip, and it was lit! His other arm was gone. As he swiveled, back and forth, the poker moved in close proximity to the young lady’s half lit lights, and, all the while, she screamed, “OH NO! NOT THE POKER! YEAAAAAAH!”
Yes, SCREAMING was what made this exhibit so intrusive! There was a SOUND TRACK, crude as it might be. It was, most likely, a 78RPM recording, playing, over and over again, and BLASTING over the PA system! The huge loudspeakers were located outside the tent. So, one could hear the Sounds of Mayhem, all over the Fair. They overwhelmed the Midway: “NO NOT THE RACK!’, “STOP! YOU’RE KILLING ME!” “THE RATS ARE EATING ME ALIVE”, descriptive phrases, intermingled with an endless variety of Blood Curdling SCREAMS, punctuated by the sound of sawing, chopping, and clanking chains!
All these elements combined to make this exhibit disturbing. And the worst part of it was the fact that all its components were in an advanced state of neglect and decay. The many coats of paint were peeling, and the figures, themselves, were crumbling. Some had lost an arm, a leg, a hand, even a head, and yet, they still stood there, headless, mechanically writhing in pain. This exhibit, from its very conception, God knows how many years before, to its makeshift execution, was a revolting collection of assorted horrors. Every aspect of it was decaying in full view of the public, while the unsettling sound of endless screaming, polluted the air of the Michigan State Fair
I guess it’s clear to see that this so-called attraction made a deep impression on me. And, as if, experiencing it, once, was not enough, the Museum of Torture returned to the Fair, year after year, in an ever increasing state of disrepair.
MY ROOM AT NIGHT
Throughout the eleven Nights of the Michigan State Fair, the sights and, alas, the sounds of it, followed me home, to Seven Mile Road, and entered my darkened bedroom. The Fairgrounds, were really, not that far away, as the crow flies. Thus, lying there in the darkness I could see the many searchlights, moving, back and forth across the sky, as if they were attempting to sweep the clouds away. I watched them, every night, through the open window, beside my bed.
The view through the other window, across the room from me, was always blocked by the ever present magic tree that had been there, as long as I could remember. This tree glowed in the dark, at night, a subtle shade of bluish green. I never questioned if other trees might do that too. I just knew that mine did, and I accepted it as, not only, normal, but, beyond that, I welcomed it as a kind of friendly sign that magic could happen, any time, if you had the eye to see it. And this enchanted tree had chosen to share its secret with me, each night.
There was a sweet feeling of security about my bedroom. By eleven, I had conquered all the petty fears that plagued my early childhood years, and the imps, demons, and bogeymen that used to crouch in darkened corners, and hide under my bed, had, long since, gone away; and I felt safe and brave, even in the dark.
But for these eleven nights in August, the charm was broken, shattered by the hideous sounds of the Torture Museum. Of all the sounds of the nearby Fair that Fate chose to bring to me, floating across the rooftops on the warm late summer air, why did they have to be those terrible screams of agony? Even with the window closed, I could still hear them as clearly, as if I had been there at the Fair. There was something about that recording that went far beyond haunting. I wondered if the sounds of horrible hollering it captured were genuine or phony. The Shrieks, the groans, the Blood Curdling Screaming, the pitiful sobbing, were they real or recreated?
As I lay awake, pondering that question, mercifully, the spell was broken by the startling onset of the nightly Fireworks display. Beginning with a single BANG, and followed by whistling, whizzing, popping, booming, and the earth shaking familiar sound of bombs bursting in air, the sky was suddenly filled with Magic, as a multitude of multicolored flowers of fire, bloomed, blossomed and died, each living out its short lifecycle in a few glorious seconds, then, falling to the earth again as a shower of flickering embers, only to be followed by another, and another, and yet another fire flower, until, with the arrival of the Grand Finale, the entire firmament, above the Fair, became a veritable bouquet.
And then, as suddenly as they began, the Fireworks came to an end. And the blazing light that had momentarily illuminated both my bedroom and the sky, abruptly went away. And I found myself in darkness, once again. Taking inventory of the situation, I was not surprised to realize that the persistent pestilence of that insidious recording had survived the fireworks, and was now continuing to assault me, until, in spite of it, with the murmurings of distant torture still reverberating in my ears, I fell asleep, perchance to dream, of the Michigan State Fair.