High School Yearbook Photo

"More than a place, the Shady Dell was and will forever remain a state of mind." - Shady Del Knight

"More than a place, the Shady Dell was and will forever remain a state of mind." - Shady Del Knight

Thursday, September 8, 2011

York Fair Diary Part 1: Goin' Strates, Midway Between Naughty & Nice!

 During the 1950s and 60s 

 I never missed going to  

 the York Interstate Fair. 

I cannot tell a lie. The educational exhibits were swell, but examining beeswax in the horticulture building could not compare with indulging in the myriad of cheap thrills on the midway. Yeah...that's the ticket!

The James E. Strates midway shows delivered an all-out assault to the senses - a blitzkrieg of sights, sounds and smells. Teeming with rides, burlesque queens, sideshows and junk food concessions,
the midway offered
a plethora of guilty pleasures perfectly suited to the sensibilities of the adolescent male. (Me!)

 Here's a song that played in 1956 
 as I made my way from the Ferris Wheel 
 to the funhouse: 

"Tonight You Belong to Me" - Patience and Prudence 
(September 1956, highest chart position #6) 

The Strates midway was also littered with games of chance.
It would be more accurate to call them games of little or no chance. I had to laugh every time I passed one game in particular. It was the roulette wheel where you placed your bets in hopes of winning cigarettes.

No matter what hour of the day I happened to walk by
I always noticed the same customer, an old guy wearing a plaid jacket and hat standing in the same spot wagering on the wheel. Judging from the 50 or more packs of smokes piled in front of him, this dedicated gambler had lady luck on his side and was on a major winning streak. The bogus player, an obvious shill, was a fixture at that gaming booth day after day and year after year.

 Here's a song that played in 1959 as I  
 got off the Tilt-a-Whirl, tossed my cookies
 and staggered over to the Octopus: 

"Sea of Love" - Phil Phillips with the Twilights 
(September 1959, highest chart position #2) 

I was too young to go in and see the hootchy-kootchy dancers (except through the hole at the rear of the tent). The next best thing was the human oddities exhibit, a midway attraction that aroused so much curiosity it was nearly impossible to resist.

In the trade, they referred to it as a “ten-in-one” but it was commonly known as a freak show back in those politically incorrect times. Filed in my brain under totally useless information is the carny pitchman’s incessant patter that blasted from the loudspeakers and played repeatedly in a recorded loop.

 Have you seen 
 Sylvia Porter? 
 She’s the girl 
 with the world’s 
 largest feet. 
 Her feet are 
 so big, so large, 
 she has never 
 worn shoes in 
 her en-tire life! 

 Have you seen 
 William Dirks? 
 He’s the man 
 with three eyes 
 and two noses. 

 Have you seen Zuma the snake woman? 
 She’s down in a pit with all those reptiles, 
 and they’re crawlin’ all over that crazy old 

 Have you seen the fire eating marvel? 

 …the funny old magician?

 …the human blockhead?

 …the anatomical wonder?

 They’re all alive and all inside 
 and it only costs one thin dime. 

 Have you seen Sylvia Porter?... 

If you took the bait, paid the fee and entered the tent you soon discovered that the performers looked nothing like the images painted on the giant murals out front. William Dirks was a man with severe facial deformities resulting from birth defects. The snake woman, as it turned out, was not the bikini-clad young beauty depicted on canvas courageously wrestling a giant python. She was instead a plump, plain looking middle-aged woman in slacks and sweatshirt sitting bored and expressionless in a pen filled with harmless garter snakes, geckos and box tortoises. That deadly reptile pit
was no more dangerous than a children's petting zoo!

Freak shows were eventually phased out as audiences became more sophisticated and demand grew for high tech thrill rides. Ironically, many of the human oddities that we gawked at actually resented it when freak shows closed because the tawdry exhibits were the only means they had of making a living.

 Here's a song that played in 1961 as I 
 exited the Caterpillar and moseyed on over 
 to the Dodgem bumper car track:

"Last Night" - Mar-Keys (September 1961, highest 
chart position #3) 

Question: Ever try to eat a hot dog down wind from the swine pens? I suppose that's called poetic justice.

The final day of the Fair was always my favorite because
it was time to head for the grandstand and watch the spectacular auto thrill show.

Jack Kochman's Hell Drivers featured "Happy" the stunt driving clown, rollovers, ramp jumps, T-bones and cars crashing through walls of fire, all the things a kid my age wanted to see (except hootchy-kootchy)!

 Here's a song that was playing in 1967 
 as I strolled from the Scrambler to the 

"Ode to Billie Joe" - Bobbie Gentry (September 1967, 
highest chart position #1) 

Yep, when you added it all up there was a lot to like about the York Fair:

 * Bonus day off from school 
 * Pumpkins the size of Buicks 
 * Bonus day off from school 
 * Lose your lunch on the Tilt-a-Whirl 
 * Bonus day off from school 
 * Lose 10 dollars trying to win a 
   10 cent teddy bear 
 * Bonus day off from school 
 * Hootchy-kootchy dancers 
 * Bonus day off from school 
 * Guy hammering spikes up his nose 
 * Bonus day off from school 
 * Flaming car crashes 
 * Did I mention a bonus day off 
   from school? 
 * Did I mention hootchy-kootchy dancers? 

 The York Fair midway 

 of the 1950s and 60s: 

 Politically incorrect? 


 Fun? Always! 

Shady Dell owners John and Helen Ettline are linked to the York Fair in several ways. I’ll explain in my next post. Find out how they figured into an event that began with hope
and inspiration and ended in bitter irony.

Have a Shady day!


  1. What fun memories, Shady! And the music you features today to go along with those memories is superb. It bbought back memories of the fairs I used to attend as a kid.

    I just about spit my apple out when I read the hot dog line- that was a great one!

    I can remember being in middle school in the 70's and one of my friends singing the Bobbie Gentry song over and over again. Those lyrics always kind of haunted and intrigued me.

    At any rate, thank you again for providing us with great songs, stories, and memories this morning!

  2. Shelly - I'm glad I didn't make you choke on your apple! (LOL) Bobbie Gentry's "Ode" certainly is evocative and firmly linked to my memories of the 1967 York Fair. The weather leading up to this year's exposition hasn't been good. Parts of York are flooded and tropical system Lee is adding to the misery. The fair starts tomorrow! Thank you very much for coming by, dear friend Shelly, and make it a safe and happy day!

  3. I even surprised myself by knowing all the tunes this time good buddy. The same fair crew made their way down here to NC as well and I went to a lot of them but as I have gotten older they do not draw me in any more. The only part that still amazes me is when 4 Mexican guys get into this steel ball shaped thing on motorcycles and drive around inside missing each other only by inches. This one brought back some real good memories.

  4. Odie - That's right! I forgot about that motorcycle sphere thingy. Intense! Remember the dunk tank that had the guy in a clown suit sitting on a ledge above the water heckling customers? "High and dry, high and dry, high and dry and lookin' for a ball player!" Great memories! I hope things will soon be back to normal for your family, good buddy. I've been thinking about you. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Hi Tom. Hope your day is going well over there. Great post today. Talking about The Freak Show, I have just finished reading Water for Elephants, which was about a Circus way back when, and they had all these Fat Ladies etc. etc. Politically correct it was NOT! LOL!! Gosh, that song by Patience and Prudence was very sweet, wasn't it? They don't make them like that any more!! I have The Sea of Heartbreak on my jukebox, but obviously a later version, by Don Gibson. (I've just looked at the 45, and it was released in 1961). Really enjoyed the post today my dear friend.

  6. Hi, Thisisme! Just curious, are you going to see the Reese Witherspoon movie Water for Elephants? While you're at it, please watch David Lynch's brilliant film The Elephant Man. You'll remember it always! I once heard of a carnival that fell upon lean times. The fat lady only weighed 98 pounds! Patience and Prudence were a far cry from modern gangsta rap, don't you agree? Thank you very much for making time for me today, dear friend!

  7. Hi Shady, I will be attending the York Fair this Sunday if the flood waters subside by then. The fair has changed some, but not that much. The junk food is still a main attraction and the games of chance are now called games of skill. I Got It replaced Bingo and the Blanket Man is history.
    PS: Reese Witherspoon was hit by car while jogging. Jerre

  8. Jerre - I read about Reese being struck by a car. Supposedly it's not too serious but it must have given her, her family and fans quite a scare. Are you saying that guy in the jacket and hat is no longer standing there at the roulette wheel? I'm shocked! (LOL) I suppose you can't play for cigarettes any more but I might be wrong about that. Please PLEASE tell me they still got the hootchy-kootchy! Don't be takin' away our hootchy-kootchy!!! Thanks so much for coming over, Jerre. Stay dry up there!

  9. Me again Tom! I only read that book whilst I was in France last week, and I had seen the film a few weeks ago. It was very true to the book, and I enjoyed it.

  10. Thanks, Thisisme! It's good to know that Ms. Witherspoon was not serious hurt. Have a wonderful evening in Devon, dear friend!

  11. Sea of Love is such a gorgeous song. Interesting tid bit: this song was played at my wedding for our first dance (the Cat Power version). I hold that song very close to my heart. On another side note, have you ever been out to Coney Island? The freak show is still raging there.

  12. Amber Blue Bird - I can just imagine you and your Kevin swaying to "Sea of Love" at your wedding, and don't forget Robert Plant's Honeydrippers and their version of this romantic classic. I haven't seen the Coney Island freak show, but I entered and won the amusement park's competitive jalapeno pepper eating contest, consuming 549 of them within the 30 second time limit. Thank you very much for reporting in, dear friend, and congratulations on your guest blogging today!

  13. Shady! Thank you for your continued support good sir. I am overjoyed to be able to peruse your excellent blog once more! This post was fantastic. I've always loved fairs, and carnivals and circuses ever since I was little. I used to go to the county fair every year but I missed it this year, so your post was just the thing I needed to fulfill my fair fix. Hope you're doing well Shady, and I'll be seeing you soon.

  14. Alabee - What a delightful surprise to have you come by! Seeing as how you missed going this year I'm happy to give you your fair fix, although I would think that globetrotting in places like France and Spain is more than an adequate substitute. I loved going to the fair and getting lost in the noisy crowds on the midway. Sometimes it feels great to go to a place where NOBODY knows you name become invisible for a while. It give you a sense of freedom. Please stay safe and I do hope to see more of you soon. Thank you, dear friend Alabee!

  15. Thank you for stopping by,it's always wonderful to hear from you. Wishing you a safe weekend x

  16. Gingey/Sharren - Hello, dear friend! Your visit puts a smile on my face and I hope my post and my visit to your blog did the same for you. Thank you very much for coming and have a safe and happy weekend, Gingey!

  17. Thank you for sharing such fun memories. Loved this post! Big Hugs
    Hey guess what I'm following you with two of my accounts now. giggle

  18. Katie - I noticed that! I knew you were already following me for months and therefore I was a little confused when I saw your smiling face appear on my Rodentia Intelligentsia list today. Two heads are better than one, I always say, especially when they're as pretty as yours! Thank you for coming by, my Fair lady!

  19. One for the "Shady Dell Hall of Fame"! I ♥ this post! Being a fair/carnival/circus lover, I enjoyed this so much. "Tonight You Belong to Me" kinda got to me (tears) and it was so good to hear it again. It's a little sad but then I realized in this fleeting life, "Tonight You Belong to Me", is a daily tune. It's truly about life and making each day count with loved ones. Today we could sure use some "patience and prudence", couldn't we?

    "Tilt-a-Whirl, tossed my cookies and staggered over to the Octopus". What a picture you painted, Shady, insert a big LOL here. ☺ (sorry for you getting sick,though)

    And the unforgettable songs in this post ... Sea of Love (was up at 3 am this morning watching the movie 'Sea of Love'); "Last Night" and "Ode to Billy Joe".

    Great images you used, I laughed at the freak banner that had written in the corners, "Help Wanted" and "Now Hiring". I could just imagine the odds of a 'fire eater' or 'evil dwarf' sauntering by, reading the signs and thinking, "Wow, a job opening for me." ☺

    I know, I'm on a roll here (NOT), I better sign off here and drink some more coffee! ;~O

    Shady, thank you so much!

  20. Hello, dear Cindy! I'm glad my blog gave you a smile and a laugh on this otherwise somber morning. I forgot that there had been a Sea of Love movie. Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin were two of the hottest box office stars of the late 80s. I'm sure you remember me explaining in a comment on your blog how I listened to "Ode to Billie Joe" at the 1967 York Fair while sitting on a bench in the rabbit and domestic fowl (sic) exhibit hall. I also vividly remember "96 Tears" being played at a ride at York Fair 1966. Isn't it odd how little moments like those become burned into our brains and stay with us for a lifetime?

    A mind is a terrible thing! (LOL)

    Have a wonderful Sunday, dear friend Cindy, and stay tuned for York Fair Diary Part 2 coming tomorrow!

  21. Your posts are always so well presented and I guess this will sound like a completely dumb comment to you, since your blog is governed by the music you love, but I am struck time and again by how you map your life out in terms of songs you listened to at the time. You have an uncanny memory, being able to recall exactly what songs were playing at a particular point in your life. I found your descriptions of the fair very colourful and could almost imagine being there. I didn't ever attend anything like this while I was growing up, so I assume we didn't have fairs such as this in SA. We did visit the circus a few times, which was fun.

  22. Hi, Desiree! I wish you could have been there to experience the York Fair of the 50s and 60s. From what I hear the annual exposition has changed dramatically over the years and no longer offers the same assortment of educational exhibits, thrills and curiosities. You're right. Songs are the bookmarks that trigger many memories of the events in my life great and small. Thank you very much for your visit and kind comments, dear friend Desiree!

  23. Oh how I loved going to the Orange Bowl Fair in San Bernardino! When I was a teen I would go with all my friends. I always bought a metal necklace with a heart on it and got a boy's name engraved on it. One year it was Paul, for Paul McCartney. I saw Ricky Nelson sing there once. Loved the rides, but never went in to see the "Freak Show". I would try to win things, but never did. Candy apples and Cotton Candy!

    I didn't get a day off school for the fair! That is not fair :)
    Love "Sea of Love". Ode to Billy Joe was played so much on the radio it was crazy. Very popular in California.

  24. Hi, Belle! This is great information because I never knew what fairs were like on the West Coast. I loved to ride those Dodgem bumper cars. Did you? Did you throw balls at a heckling clown at the dunk tank? (LOL) Isn't is something how that Bobbie Gentry song resonated with all kinds of people all across the country? Country crossover was coming on strong in the late 60s. Remember Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay"? Thank you very much for reading both of my York Fair segments. I really appreciate your interest and support, dear friend!

  25. Bumper cars were one of my favorite rides! I don't remember us having the dunking tank of water at all! As for Lay Lady Lay - Loved it.


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