State Fair

January 27 is the birthday of Iowa writer Phil Stong (1899-1957), who, though he wrote more than 40 books, is today almost exclusively known for having written the 1932 novel State Fair.

If anyone ever asks me what my favorite Rogers and Hammerstein musical is, my answer will always be State Fair by several train lengths. Not because of the songs (most of their other shows have better songs) but because of the book. Not because the other books are darker (I usually prefer darker) but because it doesn’t fall short of its own ambitions (it even may slightly exceed them). And because it is such an EPIC expression of Americana. It is a love poem to this American rural tradition of the state fair. When I was a kid my local county fair was an important annual ritual for me. It was the first place I ever encountered a midway with games, carnival rides, the dusty fair ground, prize-winning livestock on display, contests of farm skills, treats like cotton candy and popcorn in boxes –for real. The annual county fair had the same kind of magic as Christmas — it was the embodiment of summertime magic.

Moreover, aesthetically, the shape of a fair experience, a day-long adventure, is a perfect structure for a film or play. The excitement leading up to the fair; the melancholy of going home when it’s over. Here, the fair is also a metaphor for an AFfair  …the two teenage kids meet experienced worldly older people and fall in love, and then part from them. The ritual of romance matches the ritual of the fair (which is its own kind of romance). When you are young, this happens a lot. You meet somebody in the morning, you have fun all day doing things you never did before, then you parts ways in the evening, full of memories, and never dreaming that you’ll never see that person again.

Stong’s 1932 novel was an unexpected smash hit, striking a major chord with Depression era readers. The following year it was made into a charming film starring Will Rogers, Louise Dresser, Janet Gaynor, and Norman Foster. In 1945, as part of the orgy of Americana that also produced Oklahoma! and Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein turned it into a new movie, their only original musical for the screen, starring Charles Winninger, Fay Bainter, Jeanne CrainDana Andrews, Dick Haymes and Vivian Blaine, and featuring (in smaller roles) Donald Meek, Percy Kilbride, and Harry Morgan. 

The film is gorgeous to look at. Of course its all very idyllic and unrealistic. These people (especially the teenagers) have way too much leisure for actual farmers. In real life, instead of putting on swanky city duds and having romances at the fair, the teenagers would be entering contests of their own, or helping the parents with theirs. One of the most preposterous (and convenient) elements in the film is a special nightclub on the fairgrounds for the singer to sing at!

“It Might As Well Be Spring” is the only real classic tune to come out of this movie, although the title song is memorable by virtue of being the title song. Hammerstein’s book is funny and charming. Rodgers’ music, as always, is unassailable, beautiful, fun, inventive, and memorable.

In 1953, Stong published a sequel to State Fair, called Return in August.

In 1962 a remake was made, directed by Jose Ferrer, with new songs by Richard Rodgers. This one had Alice Faye and Tom Ewell as the parents, with Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, Bobby Darin and Pamela Tiffin as the kids, and Wally Cox playing the Donald Meek role, the pickle judge. The events were moved to Texas, and the young newspaper reporter was updated to be a television one.

State Fair didn’t get its first stage production until 1969, when it premiered at the Muny in St. Louis, with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in the cast. A 1976 television production featured Vera Miles and Mitch Vogel. It didn’t make it to Broadway until 1996, in a production that included John Davidson and Kathryn Crosby (Bing’s widow).

But ya know what it cries out for? And I don’t know if this has ever been done. SITE SPECIFIC. Man, you could have an amazing production of State Fair that took place in the midst of an actual State Fair. If no one steals this idea, I may have to do it!

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,