Review: Aaron Rosenblum – State Fair! Vol. 1: The Midway

Three attraction operators in full theatrical flow, captured at the Kentucky State Fair back in 2013.

Review: Aaron Rosenblum – State Fair! Vol. 1: The Midway

“Three dollars you can win the pictures, five dollars you win anything”, says the Guesser, their voice thinned by budget fairground amplification. The album cover shows them sat beside a sign reading “FOOL THE GUESSER: AGE WITHIN 2 YEARS, BIRTH MONTH WITHIN 2 MONTHS, WEIGHT WITHIN 3 POUNDS”. Most of this recording captures not the guessing, but the enticing of punters – a repetitive, drawled monologue consisting of phrases like “any prize you like – it’s your turn”, or oddly demystifying statements such as “I might know the truth; I might not”.

On State Fair! Vol. 1: The Midway, Rosenblum presents audio recordings of three attraction operators, spanning three generations, captured at Kentucky State Fair back in 2013. Each adopts their own tactics for luring passers-by, ranging from the gentle and unadorned (the Guesser) to the whacky and infuriating (the dunking booth clown on “Make Bozo Swim”). Yet all are engaged in acts of theatre, imbuing their respective attractions with suggestions of the paranormal, the illusion of an easy win, or the catharsis of revenge – whatever mades the games transcend their raw mechanics of winches and lights and metal poles, and whatever tempts people into opening their wallets.

“Lean Wit It” features a game operator in an auctioneer-style breathless rant. “You lean wit it, you’re gonna get it” they insist, delivering a flurry of hints and tips, presumably while demonstrating the “simplicity” of a game that they’ve doubtless perfected after hours of practice. According to the album notes, the challenge is to upright a glass bottle using a “fishing-pole like rig” – it sounds like a fiddly exercise, with the wry irony being that the operator’s onslaught of game-winning wisdom is surely a distraction more than anything.

Lastly there’s the dunking booth insult clown. Videos of this attraction show a note from the management that reads: “if you can’t take a joke, please don’t play”, while a clown sits in a chair suspended above a pool of water. Two buttons are visible on either side – throw a ball at these buttons and the clown plummets. The clown is on an incessant jeering tirade, with personal insults punctuated by a grotesque belly laugh, or taunting whistles, or mouth-mimicked guitar licks, rousing challengers into throwing off their mark while doubling their desperation to make the clown pay. Some of the insults are truly crass, but would it be a night at the fair if it didn’t eschew the odd diurnal taboo? Besides – the clown is a surrogate for every shit-talker who seems to waltz around in the world outside and get away with it, with the game offering a crude punitive justice not so locatable in the bureaucracy of day-to-day life. At one point there’s an almighty clunk, and a huge cheer erupts from the gathered crowd. Clearly it’s not just the thrower who’s relieved when the clown finally sinks and falls silent.

The edges of these tracks are wonderful. Presumably Rosenblum starts by walking toward each attraction, the voice of the operator rising among the din of rides, muffled music, mooing cows (!) and shouting children. After a few minutes Rosenblum walks away again and the voice recedes. Within the context of the fair these are transient characters – modest little ripples of theatre in a sea of fairground stimuli – and yet, as the generational spread suggests, these acts are the product of both tradition and a true dedication to the craft. Kudos to Rosenblum for giving them this charming appraisal.