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.

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Music for the Masses

One of the biggest mistakes that Cal Expo has made over the years was giving up its 14,500-seat outdoor amphitheater. Once run by Bill Graham Presents, the venue hosted acts from David Bowie to Depeche Mode to Tina Turner. But because of noise complaints from residential areas across the river and an ensuing lawsuit from the City of Sacramento, Cal Expo booted Bill Graham and shuttered the venue in 1998, forcing today’s concertgoers to trek 45 minutes north to Wheatland to take in large-scale outdoor shows.

Since then, Cal Expo’s concert series, now held in a much smaller venue, has devolved considerably. Last year, the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville featured Rascal Flatts, Hank Williams, Jr. and Journey. Minnesota’s state fair booked Bonnie Raitt and Blake Shelton. Cal Expo’s musical entertainment options in recent years have included acts like Rick Springfield and Weird “Al” Yankovic.

When Cal Expo opened in 1968, it booked the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London.

Rebuild a permanent outdoor amphitheater at Cal Expo and bring back big-time outdoor concerts. The NIMBYs across the river agreed to a set of noise curfews back then, and we’re confident that new technology can make a quieter outdoor arena a reality.

Farm to Fork

One way that the state fair has been ahead of the curve is in its celebration of agriculture, such as it is. There are, in fact, a few agricultural exhibits past the barricades of Bloomin’ Onions stands and assorted fried food shacks (alas, no fried Twinkies this year, may they rest in peace), beyond the sea of Jacuzzi vendors, and tucked back behind the industrial buildings that house the Ginsu knife hawkers.

Now that Sacramento has rightly proclaimed itself as the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America, it’s time to find a way to shine a brighter spotlight on agriculture and local food at the state fair.

The fair should be inviting chefs like Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Patrick Mulvaney, Grange’s Oliver Ridgeway, Enotria’s Pajo Bruich and other regional champions of local food to brainstorm ways to bolster Sacramento’s claim. Celebrating agriculture, after all, was one of the fair’s founding principles. Long ago, when the fair was located in the central city, there was even a majestic agricultural pavilion (unfortunately it was torn down in 1908).

There now exists an extraordinary opportunity for the state fair to champion healthier eating and educate the public about our agricultural heritage, including our world-class wine and beer industries, in a more exciting, engaging way.


In the end, the California State Fair needs to emulate Disneyland in its focus on telling stories through experiences, sounds and tastes. In this case, the stories aren’t fairy tales, but extraordinary examples of the things that make this region and this state so amazing.

Echoing Walt Disney’s 1955 hopes for Disneyland, Cal Expo’s original general manager, Doc Lemmon wrote in 1966 that “the new Exposition will be a dynamic, ever-changing affair, reflecting the constant growth and advancement taking place in the nation’s most vital and progressive state.”

This past year, prompted in part by the actions of Sactown magazine, Disneyland donated the massive letters spelling “California” that once stood in front of Disney’s California Adventure Park to the State Fair. They will be installed at Cal Expo in the near future.

Let’s hope the new letters spell more than just our state’s name, but provide some much-needed Disney pixie dust for the fair that time forgot. S