When most people walk through the gates of the Ohio State Fair, they have a good idea of what they'll see. Or do they? In between the animal barns, corn-dog stands and Tilt-A-Whirl, dozens of entertainers wander the grounds - from African acrobats and stilt walkers to a clown band.
When most people walk through the gates of the Ohio State Fair, they have a good idea of what they’ll see.
Or do they? In between the animal barns, corn-dog stands and Tilt-A-Whirl, dozens of entertainers wander the grounds — from African acrobats and stilt walkers to a clown band.
The entertainers’ job is to create “spur-of-the-moment happiness,” said Matt Rolf, patriarch of Matt’s Family Jam, a band that cruises the fairgrounds with a mobile stage and performs impromptu concerts.
The fair has plenty of onstage, scheduled concerts and acts, of course. But the roving entertainers, officials say, are a crucial part of the fair, which runs through Aug. 4.
“That spontaneous, unexpected-type thing really enhances the atmosphere and people’s enjoyment of the fair,” said Brett Chance, fair entertainment director. “Sometimes, seeing the unexpected things and having an experience you hadn’t planned on — those are the things that stick with people.”
Judging by the descriptions, some of this year’s roving entertainers might stick with people.
The list includes Those Funny Little People, a group that performed on the TV show America’s Got Talent; Bill’s Nautical Nonsense, a one-man act featuring a land yacht; and Project Dynamite, a duo that describes their act as “ Saturday Night Live meets Cirque du Soleil.”
Alex Clark and Patrick Connor form Project Dynamite. Clark said he had always wanted to be a street performer, and, when he met Connor about six years ago, the two honed their act by performing — uninvited — at fairs and festivals.
“We would always get kicked out,” said Clark, 28. “I didn’t understand that. We were performing for free. The joke is on them now because they have to pay us.”
When creating the entertainment lineup, Chance tries to balance returning favorites with several first-time acts, such as Project Dynamite.
New acts are discovered through an annual trip to a trade show in Las Vegas, the review of videos online and tips from officials at other fairs and festivals.Chance spends much of the fair walking the grounds and observing the roving entertainers to gauge audience reaction.
Matt’s Family Jam appeared at the Ohio State Fair last year and was invited back.
Based in Branson, Mo., the group consists of Matt (who plays bass and fiddle); his wife, Lisa (saxophone and keyboard); and children Collin, 14 (guitar), Adrienne, 11 (mandolin and keyboard), and Benjamin, 7 (drums). All share vocalist duties.
The children are home-schooled as the family spends much of spring performing at festivals in Florida, then summer and early fall roaming the Midwestern fair circuit.
Lisa drives a golf cart that tows the stage. When they stop, they throw out a rug and bring out hula hoops and other toys for spectators to use as they enjoy the 20- to 25-minute concert.
“Part of our deal is encouraging moms and dads to get down in there with the kids and do something fun,” Matt Rolf said.
Project Dynamite also performs a number of shows on college campuses, but its fair performances are more family-oriented. As Chance said, he won’t book anything “too edgy.”
On the Project Dynamite website, the act is described as “10 percent knife tricks, 3 percent pingpong tricks, 5 percent chain-saw juggling, 4 percent magic, 16 percent audience interaction, 7 percent ukulele songs and 55 percent jokes.”
Some performers might feel pressure to instantly captivate people surprised by their sudden appearance. Clark isn’t one of them “People (at fairs) want to be there, so that takes the pressure off,” he said. “They’d rather be with you than waiting in line to use the restroom.”
The biggest challenge at events such as the Ohio State Fair, Clark said, is the heat.
“That’s what may take me out of the business, for sure,” he said. “We’re out there yelling and screaming on unicycles. I’m worrying about passing out 20 feet up in the air.”