Local News

Sunday, Sep 23 2012 10:42 PM

Half the fun at the Kern County Fair is seeing the strange and unusual

BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

The daylight hours are still owned by summer, but when evening comes to the Kern County Fair, the slowly changing seasons bring hints of longer sleeves, shorter days and ripening pumpkins.

And though you won't find it listed in the fair's glossy entertainment calendar, the annual carnival is as much fun for its quirks, characters and bizarre attractions as it is for its big-name (and not so big-name) acts and locally famous foods and traditions.

Sure, the slightly sinister, slightly risque tent shows and so-called freak shows of a bygone era are long vanished. No more will you find pitiful five-legged lambs, disembodied heads floating in mysterious liquids and veiled snake dancers hidden behind garish tents like so many grotesque characters in a Ray Bradbury story.

Besides, since the advent of special effects and CGI, our spines are not so easily tingled as they once were.

But if you search the fair's less-traveled corners and keep your eyes open, you're sure to find some prime examples of the strange, the wonderful and the wonderfully mundane.

Exiled far from the center of the action in the southeast corner of the grounds, you'll come upon this sign:

"He's giant! He's alive!" the painted letters scream. And it's true. He's both.

It only costs a buck to get in to see the Giant Pig. Yes, you heard right. Who could resist the recorded voice of the carnival barker urging you to cap off your night by witnessing a 1,000-pound porker as he sleeps, breathes, snorts and vainly ignores every paying customer willing to lay down a single greenback.

You may whistle. Try hog calling. Or threaten to turn him into bacon. The swine simply will not give you the time of day. But for a star of his caliber, that's to be expected.

The hog-shaped sign overhead reads, "Please don't touch pig." But if it weren't for the metal guards erected on the sides of his pen, it might just be impossible to resist caressing that perfect pink skin.

Eleven-year-old Kaelah Latkey, a Bakersfield sixth-grader, peered into the nameless hog's enclosure and happily snapped photos with her point-and-shoot camera. The pig didn't even bother to open his eyes.

"I see him every year -- since I've been coming to the fair," she said. "He's huge!"

Kaelah also has a hankerin' to pop into the enclosure next door to see Big Al, a supposedly 65-year-old, 14-foot Florida alligator. Like the pig, Al doesn't do much of anything to entertain his guests.

"Every year, she has to see the gator and the pig," said Kaelah's mom, Sarah Esquival, who prefers to wait outside as Kaelah says hello to her old friends.

As the corny, 1950s pop hit, "See You Later, Alligator" pours scratchy and worn from a single metal horn speaker, Kaelah and her mom head back toward the well-lighted center, entertained and satisfied.

Just to the north, you'll find the elephant rides, occasionally the target of animal rights advocates concerned about the treatment of the huge Asian pachyderms. In fact, the fair board has promised to investigate further before inviting the attraction back next year.

But the most bizarre aspect of the place may be the sign out front claiming that "riding an elephant can save an endangered species," because it "teaches us to care."

A walk through the carnival area, a form of entertainment that pays off without spending a dime, proves that the art of carnival barking is not completely dead.

"It's the easiest game out here," implores one employee at the Rainbow Game, where tossing your quarter on certain colors apparently can result in unimaginable riches -- or possibly a stuffed penguin.

Iconic rides like the Tilt-a-Whirl blast dance pop out of speakers that have seen better days. And the infamous Zipper tosses paying customers around in several directions, some tossing their cookies as they gratefully exit the locked metal cages.

Inside the commercial exhibits, well-known names and products butt up against merchants hawking crystals, magnetic bracelets claiming to ease the ills of arthritis and headaches, and gadgets like "Primo, the world's best peeler."

The Schticky Roller was worth a look simply on the merits of the name itself.

At the Kitchen Craft booth, "Chef" Steven De Vincenzi regaled potential customers with the magical qualities of the cookware.

"A chicken breast with the skin on has about 300 calories," De Vincenzi said. "Take the skin off, it has about 30 calories."

No one batted an eye or thought to examine the chef's math, but it didn't seem to matter.

At the fair, half the fun is in the wonderfully mundane.

We had arrived.

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