Twice at least during the 1970's there were early versions of Fair St. Louis, one of which celebrated the Bicentennial in 1976. There were new quarters issued that year, the Olympics were coming, and everywhere you looked things were red, white and blue with the number '76 on it somewhere. I was fifteen that summer and was asked to volunteer at a soda/hot dog vendor booth at the fair along with some of my classmates from St. Louis U. High. I remember it being total chaos. A dozen boys in this booth could not keep product in the ice tubs fast enough. After the first hour everything was warm, it took forever to get more ice, and at one point the thing we used to cook the hot dogs caught on fire. After the fireworks I was tasked with guarding a pile of packages of hot dog buns and cases of soda in a dark and sketchy section of Lenor K. Sullivan boulevard while they got trucks in there to load up the leftover supplies. At one point a long, fancy Cadillac with some folks who were most likely a pimp, his driver and some of the ladies called me over and asked me to give them some bread. I balked for about a minute or so until they suggested it might be better for my health if I did. Armfuls of packaged goods were quickly in their vehicle and they drove away. I waited there terrified until the supply truck finally arrived around midnight.
In the summer of 1982 I was 20 years old and living in the Central West End in what was the Ettrick Building at the corner of Euclid and Forest Park Parkway. Today there is a huge BJC garage and office building on that site. I had been a huge Elton John fan since I was a kid and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the first album I purchased. I was so excited that he was to perform at the fair that year. I took the Lindell bus downtown early in the afternoon and walked over the Arch grounds. There was a sea of people and blankets and mud everywhere. It had been raining hard for days and it was a mess. They put straw down but that barely helped. It was steamy and sunny and glorious. I waded my way through the crowd and the mud and wound up fairly close to the stage. I was handed a beer at some point and eventually even a puff of an herbal cigarette. It was awesome. The concert was amazing and I remember event jumping in one the lakes that were down there back then to cool off afterwards before getting back on the bus to go home.
By the way, the image accomanying this article is from the fair in 1982. At the time the grounds were not yet renovated and you could still bring in coolers and blankets. The grass was basically destroyed every year and had to be replanted/sodded at great expense each summer. What a mess it was!
I have gone back many times over the years and depsite the heat and crowds, it's a hallowed STL tradition to do so. Somewhere around 2000 a friend was managing the KMOX building and we had a party on one of the empty floors during the fair and could see everything below including the fireworks. My inner hoosier reveled in seeing Cheap Trick in 2006 under the Arch. I sang along to every song standing there by myself. Once I planned ahead and stashed a car by Kiener Plaza the night before so we had a quick getaway with a three year old. That helped. The fantastic series of Live on the Levee concerts were also very cool for the years that was held on the Riverfront. I saw B.B. King, the B-52's, Macy Gray, Little Feat, and many more bands that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The move to Forest Park will be interesting. I fondly remember the cluster that was First Night in 2004. Fifteen to twenty thousand people were expected and at least ten times that many came. It was messy and super crowded, but really fun. One vivid memory was of the poor people crammed in school buses that were supposed to be shuttles to various attractions all over the park. The streets however were so crammed with people that the buses could barely move and people with heavy coats were packed into them like woolen sardines. It was hilarious. My partner at the time and I ultimately watched fireworks from Turtle Park and went back to a party in Dogtown. Any street near the park was virtually impassable and navigation was exteremly difficult. A great night nonetheless.
I hope the fair goes well in the park. I really do. Despite the potential of parking disasters and traffic gridlock, heck yeah I am going on Saturday. I'm taking the Metrolink and yes I may even take my shirt off if it gets too hot. I'm a South Side boy after all and we do love our outdoor events.