The State Fair and WRAL Through the Years

Throwback Thursday: CBC History

The North Carolina State Fair has been around since 1853. WRAL joined the fun shortly after the station signed-on the air in the mid 1950s. Viewers have come to count on The Big 5 to cover horse shows, pig races, apple pies and spinning rides, fried candy bars, and entertainers.  Join us as we walk down memory lane made up of dusty straw and sawdust.

Just saying the words – state fair – immediately engages just about every human sensory receptor; sight, sound, motion, touch, taste-buds, smell…especially the smell. Thankfully in our business, “smell-a-vision” is not available, but in real life the smell associated with the State Fair is High Def!

In 1962, our locally produced programs blended quite nicely with the merry-go-round atmosphere of the fair. Thousands of fair goers came out to see to see Captain 5 (Herb Marks) and Space Ace (Oscar Cochran.) The shows, “Cap’n 5 Space Harbor” and “Bozo the Clown” were telecasted daily from the fairgrounds. An estimated 5,000 people watched “Professional Wrestling” in-person while it was being videotaped to air later during its regular time period. The high-schoolers came out on Saturday and danced the day away on a live broadcast of “Teen Age Frolics.”  All of this was happening in the midst of rotating Ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls, cotton candy, cows mooing, pigs grunting, kids squealing, bright blinking neon lights at night…you get the picture.

Ethel Griffin & A.J. Fletcher

Mrs. Ethel Griffin receives her television from A.J. Fletcher.

Also in 1962 and for several years afterwards, WRAL, forever the savvy marketer, gave away a portable television to a lucky fair-goer. One had to drop by the WRAL booth, located at its usual spot at the north entrance of Dorton Arena, fill out a form and drop it in the box. The winner that year was Mrs. Bank Scudder of Raleigh. In 1963, people came to expect that WRAL would give away another TV. More than 20,000 people registered and the happy winner was Mrs. Ethel Griffin of Durham. Here is a picture (right) of A.J. Fletcher, CEO and President of Capitol Broadcasting, presenting the portable television to her at WRAL-TV.

Michael Dante

Michael Dante, star of the ABC show “CUSTER.”

WRAL kicked it up a notch in 1967. Over 30,000 people registered for a Zenith COLOR television set. Plus, fair goers met an honest to goodness ABC television star! Michael Dante, the star of CUSTER, greeted fans at the WRAL booth.

Stillman family

The Stillman family with their color TV.

The winner of the color television set was Mrs. Dora Stillman from Edenton, North Carolina. Her ticket was drawn by “Miss Wolfpack” during the HIGH NOON NEWS on October 16, 1967.

The mainstay of any state fair is agriculture; in particular, the farm animals. WRAL placed a heavy emphasis on agricultural news since North Carolina predominately had an agrarian economy at the time. Ray Wilkinson with his team of experts, Verne Strickland, Ken Tanner, and Dix Harper, could make hay out of any subject. Farmers and 4-H Club members beamed with pride whenever Ray talked with them during a newscast. A frequent guest was the immensely popular NC Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Graham –  AKA “The Sod Father” – wearing his trademark Stetson hat and cowboy boots.

Jim Graham and Sharon Nash

Jim Graham, N.C. Agriculture presents a baby chick to WRAL reporter Sharon Nash. Circa 1984.

Jim was quick to let North Carolinians know that “We’re #2 in pickles.”  Not to be outdone, one could hear Jim Yeargin, Jr. Director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, chime in “We’re #2 in sweet potatoes.”

In the 80’s WRAL’s presence sported a large tent that was outfitted like a studio. News reporters and anchors cycled through the tent throughout the day. The noon, 6:00 and 11:00 newscasts featured live reports, or was broadcasted entirely from the fair.

“Live at Noon” was a perfect fit for the fair. WRAL News anchors John Hudson and Denise Boyer could quick change from “news mode” to “howdy folks” and create a bit of mischief.  The large production truck, Unit Zero, served as the control room on wheels.  Kevin Shand, then producer of Live at Noon,  and Pam Parris-Allen, then director of Live at Noon, remember when Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff came to the fair. Smirnoff and Hudson played the carnival game “whack-a-mole” with such vigor and peppered with comedic one-liners it left the whole crew howling with laughter. Yakov and John just about collapsed with laughter as well.

I also remember when some of the crew members would take a spin on one of the amusement rides before time to get behind the camera. One camera operator got off the tilt-a-whirl ride and was “green around the gills” from the violent spinning. Thankfully, he rested in a dark corner of Unit Zero and recovered in time to focus his camera during the noon newscast. Needless to say, from then on, riding the rides was banned during work.

Nights at the fair were just as thrilling. In 1986, John Harris, then Executive Producer, came up with the bright idea of entering Jay Jennings, then sports photographer, into the “Demolition Derby.” The goal is to ram old cars into each other in the confined grounds of the Grandstand arena until there is only one drivable, usually limping, car to be crowned champion.

Jay Jennings

Jay ready to roll in his Olds 98.

Jay strapped on his helmet and tightened his seat belt in a 1970’s Oldsmobile 98 “land yacht” sedan with “Country Animal” spray painted on the side. WRAL news photographer David Creech was assigned to capture the crashing and bashing.  Jay decided on the “rope a dope” strategy to preserve his steed on wheels. Knowing that protecting the radiator was the key to survival, he decided to “lead from behind,” better stated as – attack with the rear bumper.

Country Animal

“Country Animal” on the attack!

The cheering fans could easily identify Jay’s car; it was the one careening around in reverse. It did not take long for steam to spew from the radiator of most of the cars and the acrid smell of spent brakes to fill the air. If you can, visualize this whole competition as “Mad Max” in slo-mo. Jay and his “Country Animal” finished 2nd and lived to tell the tale.

The North Carolina State Fair 2015 starts Thursday, October 15 and ends Sunday, October 25. We are looking forward to hearing the wild and crazy stories we can add to our CBC History. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Corp’s Pam Allen for this capcom story. Pam Parris Allen is a former WRAL newscast producer/director who now works as a researcher and producer on the CBC History Project.

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