PALMER — Live entertainment is one of the main pillars of the Alaska State Fair. Based on what I’ve seen and heard about this season’s live performances across the board, I’d say it’s evident that entertainment in all its forms is alive and well at the Alaska State Fair.
I asked Fred Scheer’s Lumberjack Show organizer, Tina Scheer, or “Timber Tina” about what she thought about this year’s entertainment lineup. Like most vendors, performers, staff, and volunteers, she was bound mostly to her area, but she said that she was impressed with the star-studded roster of visiting performers like Billy Idol.
“So much entertainment. More than I can see,” Scheer said with a laugh.
Showmanship seems to be one of the prevailing traits of the lumberjacks that pull in the crowds and keep them in their seats. I noticed that Scheer’s skill with keeping the audience entertained while playfully teasing the lumberjacks seemed effortless, setting everyone at ease. That was thanks in no small part to the fact they’ve more or less done the same thing for every 30 years at the SBS Woodlot.
In some cases, it really is true that some things are best the way they are, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”
At the end of every show, a lumberjack is asked to carve a rabbit or other animal with a chainsaw. I saw this firsthand when Anchorage-based lumberjack Tom Lancaster, or “Turbo Tom” kept the audience laughing with his antics, pretending to be done with the whole thing right at the beginning and every step of the way while Scheer pushes him to finish.
At the end of the carving, Lancaster gave the top half of the “decapitated’ wooden rabbit away to an audience member’s child. The whole setup is simply to give an attending kid a free wooden chair and memento from the show, but it’s more than that. Each time it’s a different kid. Each time it’s someone bringing a friend or relative that hasn’t seen the show before. Each time there’s some who’s seen it a million times since they were a kid. Sure, the jokes aren’t verbatim and there’s always room to mix it up, especially based on whatever the crowd is feeding them that day. But all in all, it’s still the same old song and dance. But it works and people are invested. You can tell by the kids’ faces as much as the adults.
The contest is real and the feats are very real. Ask anyone with woodchips stuck to their shoes or the ringing of chainsaws still buzzing in their ears.
Many would say that having a mirror maze, rides, games, a haunted house, and other carnival-like elements are essential to a state fair experience, regardless of the state. I’m one of them and so is Kurt Solberg. Solberg owns a haunted house business called Fright Nite and this is his first year participating in the Alaska State Fair. He said that he’s operated out of Anchorage for the last 35 years.
“We haven’t had one complaint this year. We’ve got a pretty good show,” Solberg said.
Solberg is essentially filling the void left behind when the Fair’s recognizable haunted house left the grounds due to the death of its owner, Rodney Clark. He said that he had a friendly competition with Clark over the years and nothing but respect for his character and impact as much then as he does now.
“He was a dreamer, always trying to help people. He was a great guy,” Solberg said. “That’s one of the reasons we did it. He did a great job here… They should have a haunted house
Daun Szumiesz is Solberg’s reliable horror actor for the haunted house, acting as a demented clown convict like the Joker. Solberg said that his young employee’s vibrant energy and skillful showmanship enriches the experience for everybody.
“He’s the best. He scares people well,” Solberg said.
Solberg told me that he’s worked at the Fair across various capacities since he was a kid. That hit home for me since my first real job was working at the Fair like so many others that grew up here. I asked Solberg what he thought about the Fair itself and he said, “The way they run it here. It’s unbelievable It’s above most fairs in the country. I’ve been to other fairs across the country. This is by far the best. These guys are fun.”
Someone who also keeps coming back to the Fair isn’t from the Valley or even Alaska. He’s known around the world with seven Guinness World Records, and made it to the finals of America’s Got Talent, where he was called their “most dangerous act.”
I’m talking of course about Dan Meyer, the sword swallower. He’s the quintessential showman. He said that he was “born to do this” and makes his dangerous death-defying feats look effortless, but it took years and years of practice and in his words, ‘believing in the impossible” to get where he was today. I also saw this firsthand at the Blue Bonnet Stage and won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.
“It’s not about the places you see. It’s about the people you meet, the lives you impact on the way… It’s not about the successes. It’s not those 14,000 failures,” Meyer said after his performance, taking a bow. “It’s not about the sword. It’s not what you see on the outside… It’s what you don’t see on the inside, what’s substantial, your purpose and calling that gives you significance, your superpower that gives you strength deep inside.”
For more information about the 2021 Alaska State Fair, visit alaskastatefair.org.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at email@example.com