JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / Bee file, 2007

Brian May, the California State Fair's deputy general manager, says a highlight of his tenure has been the fair's transition to ethnic and cultural inclusiveness.

Q&A: California State Fair veteran offers memories, good and bad

Published: Monday, Jul. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 23, 2012 - 7:56 am

One constant at the State Fair for the past two decades, besides pitchmen, carnival rides and the Footsie Wootsie foot-massage machines, has been Brian May, the fair's deputy general manager.

May, who retires Dec. 29, has been the calm voice of the fair, answering calls from the media when things went awry. And he has been the friendly face of the annual extravaganza, helping guide it through summers of fun at the big fairground on Exposition Boulevard.

What do you remember about the fairs of your youth?

My fondest memory is attending the horse races with my parents at the Alameda County Fair.

What's the best thing about fairs of the past? Is there something from those fairs that we should bring back?

The fair has evolved during my tenure from a program that produced one new single attraction of large proportion to multiple attractions on a smaller scale each year. Large attractions such as Big Bear Frontier, Carnaval, Sand Castles and Pop Rocks were very popular and expensive. The concept of one large attraction should be revisited as resources permit.

You and Norb Bartosik, Cal Expo CEO, have been the faces of the State Fair for a long time. How would you characterize your partnership?

A partnership is a great way to describe our relationship. The partnership has always been built on faith and trust in one another.

People used to love the old State Fair when it was on Stockton Boulevard, with its big trees and lovely brick buildings. People would complain about Cal Expo's somewhat sterile concrete buildings and small trees. You don't hear those complaints much anymore. Why?

Well, the buildings haven't changed much, but the trees have grown taller. While the architecture of Cal Expo won't win any awards, we've overcome the complaints with more drinking fountains and places to sit, shade structures with misting systems, clean restrooms, and a State Fair program that is considerably larger and more interactive than fairs of the past.

Tell me some highlights of your years at Cal Expo.

This is my 24th State Fair. If I were to pick one highlight, it would be the work we did in the face of much adversity when we transitioned from the traditional cultural days (black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific Islander) to a State Fair that is inclusive of all California cultures and ethnicities. Cal Expo is a much better organization as a result, and its bond with the community has grown stronger.

There have been some lowlights: shootings outside the gates, a still-unsolved robbery at a cash-counting room and the killing of a runaway cow. Still, you invariably have been available to the media in the face of bad publicity. Is it in your nature to face things head-on?

We're in the people business. You can't successfully sell your business unless you have the trust and confidence of your customers. That trust and confidence come with knowing that we'll always be open and truthful.

What hurdles face Cal Expo in the future?

The primary hurdle is finding a path for reinvestment in the physical plant. Without major reinvestment, Cal Expo will struggle. The Legislature and governor must work with Cal Expo to find a source of money that ensures long- term investment to upgrade and modernize the facilities.

How might the State Fair change in the future?

The fair continues to evaluate many of its traditional programs for their popularity and relevance. As an example, as entries in food competitions declined, the fair developed the California Foodstyle program where chefs from local restaurants compete against one another in front of the public for the best dish. The public gets to taste the food at the end of the competition. Future fairs are likely to have a much greater focus on food and wine. This is a great example of how fairs can present agriculture in a fun and educational manner.

Best attractions in two decades at the State Fair?

Carnaval in 2002 – nothing else compares. Fairgoers were treated to a world celebration of global cultures.

Bookings or attractions that fell flat?

You had to ask. Musical acts Lou Gramm and Hinder were a bust. The "I Love Lucy" 50th Anniversary Tour and Technomania are two attractions I would like to forget.

Do you eat fair food?

Who doesn't eat fair food? But I tend to lean more toward the healthier offerings.

What will you do when you retire?

The San Francisco Giants are calling my name.

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