A Fair Assessment

With a new CEO on board, the California State Fair has a chance to start fresh and live up to the grand plans made by Cal Expo’s creators nearly 50 years ago. A little Disney magic might just do the trick.

An early rendering of Cal Expo with many features that were never built

An early rendering of Cal Expo with many features that were never built

Photo Courtesy of the California State Library

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WWhen Walt Disney opened Disneyland in 1955, he famously remarked, “Disneyland will
never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

If only that could be said of today’s California State Fair.

When Governor Ronald Reagan christened the most recent location of the peripatetic state fair on Exposition Boulevard in the summer of 1968, 13 years after Disneyland opened, the state seemed fully prepared to embrace Disney’s philosophy of family entertainment and world-class grandeur, and even went so far as to emulate the Magic Kingdom with nightly fireworks, then-striking architectural elements and even a wonderfully futuristic monorail.

In fact, the general manager of the bold new Cal Expo complex, Eugene “Doc” Lemmon, was previously director of operations for Disneyland. And Cal Expo’s director of design and construction, Louis H. Roth, was a project engineer for Disneyland (his name is even painted on one of the Main Street windows there). And a 1960 Sacramento Union article reported that state officials envisioned “a futuristic combination of Space Age exhibition, Disneyland, and Knott’s Berry Farm.”

Today, 45 years after Cal Expo opened, what are the most memorable features of the state fair? Nightly fireworks, now-retro architectural elements and, yes, the still wonderfully futuristic monorail.

So much for progress. Cal Expo was built nearly a half-century ago, but unlike Disneyland, it’s barely changed a bit.

But with a brand-new CEO on board—Rick Pickering—now’s the time for change. So where should he start?

Blue Sky Thinking

At Disneyland, there’s a program called Blue Sky where the company’s “Imagineers” dream big and float ideas, initially without much consideration for cost or complexity. It’s the stage where wild ideas are encouraged. And, believe it or not, that’s how Cal Expo and the state fair started, too. The ambitions of its planners were as big as California.

In 1966, the GM, Doc Lemmon, wrote that “the Exposition is unique because it will be operated on a year-round basis, it is being planned by some of the best architects in the nation, and it is drawing on the knowledge of experts gathered from far and wide.”

In the ’50s and ’60s, fair organizers planned two 18-hole golf courses designed by the legendary Robert Trent Jones, a 10,000-seat arena, a structure resembling the St. Louis arch, two themed islands, and much more to meet their goal to “bring California the most dynamic year-round exposition and fair that any state or country ever produced.”

Wow.

If Pickering wants to live up to the high bar set by his predecessors, he and his board need to bring in some new blood, both from the community and from throughout the state, to help create a new vision for Cal Expo.

But not just more fair experts, please. Instead, Pickering should convene a diverse advisory committee of people, including world-renowned California architects like Frank Gehry or Thom Mayne; entertainment giants like AEG (which now has a relationship with our city, thanks to the proposed arena deal); Hollywood set designers; Silicon Valley venture capitalists; editors at California-based magazines like Dwell and Wired, which track the newest innovations in science and design; the VisionMakers entertainment group, comprised of former Disney executives; and, yes, some executives and Imagineers from Disney itself (as it happens, one of Disney’s chief Imagineers, Joe Rohde, was born in Sacramento).Disneyland’s California Adventure letters have been donated to the state fair. (Photo by Ryan Pastorino)

There should also be local representatives who will keep Sacramento’s best interests in mind. Politicians like Mayor Kevin Johnson, State Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Congresswoman Doris Matsui; deep-pocketed investors and philanthropists like Joyce Raley Teel and Angelo Tsakopoulos; and creative minds like prominent local architects, and nontraditional creative thinkers like Stage Nine's Troy Carlson (who has been designing some of the fair’s best exhibits in recent years).

Give this new advisory committee a grand tour during this summer’s fair and invite its members to think big—not for a regional fair, but for a brand-new vision that represents California. Some might be willing to make investments, and others might be willing to donate time and talent if they believe they’re being asked to serve their home state in a bold and ambitious undertaking.

Building Blocks

When you think of the state fair’s physical attributes today, you likely think of the towering concrete structures that stand sentry over the exhibit spaces, along with the oddly iconic, egg-shaped water tower, and that’s about it (by the way, Rick, please repaint it with the original, mod ’60s stripes again; very retro cool).

But like Disneyland or a bustling metropolis, the physical design of a place should inspire some measure of wonder and awe. The new California State Fair needs its own physical iconography that excites the senses. That’s where the architects come in. A dream scenario, of course, is that Frank Gehry is willing to design an iconic new entrance or pavilion.

But because the fair only runs a few weeks per year, tens of millions of dollars likely can’t be spent building out the entire fair (though done right, a summer-long or year-round fair—as originally conceived by the Cal Expo founders—could be an economic and cultural boon for the city).

So build a few iconic structures and instead of merely asking counties to construct folksy little exhibits, start holding annual statewide design competitions to create extraordinary temporary works of architecture.

There are, for example, designers and architects who create mesmerizing inflatable (and thus portable) architecture. There’s even a global design movement built around constructing pop-up shops from massive steel shipping containers (we do, after all, have a deep water port).

Another form of destination architecture is the new Top o’ Texas Tower ride that will debut at the site of this year’s State Fair of Texas. The 500-foot tower will lift 100 people up to the top, where it will slowly spin, offering breathtaking, 360-degree views. Its $12 million cost is being funded by attendance receipts collected in recent years.

The original designers of Cal Expo actually envisioned something similar (you can even see it on the rendering on the previous page)—an “exhilarating sky ride” that was to tower over the fair. But it was never built. Sacramento has never had an observation tower. Cal Expo could change that.