Living in Utah means you probably won’t find out what’s happening until at least twenty years after it’s happened. Only today I learned there was once an R&B group known as Midnight Star and an African-American hairstyle called “Jheri curls.”
Until just last week a black singer wearing Jeri curls was seen in local television ads promoting the Utah State Fair. But now he has suddenly disappeared.
“We felt that the ads didn’t meet the demographics that we felt need to happen,” state fair board chairman Lorin Moench told a reporter from The Salt Lake Tribune. “We are trying to get families to come to the fair and to represent the agriculture interests of the state.”
Producer of the videos, Jared Hess, fears racism is behind the board’s decision, but I suspect it’s even worse than that. I would call it cluelessness.
Previously, Hess has produced promos for the fair starring characters from his breakout film “Napoleon Dynamite.” No one on the fair board objected. Why? Because Napoleon Dynamite and his semiconscious friend Pedro are exactly the Utah State Fair demographic!
I speak from hard-earned experience. Back in the Nineteen Eighties, when Midnight Star was evidently popular and Jheri curls were the all the rage, I had a job as official photographer of the Utah State Fair. It was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the worst gig ever. For twelve straight days, from dawn to dusk and beyond, I was an inmate of the fairgrounds, in attendance at each and every chicken judging and beauty pageant. Corn on the cob, corndogs on a stick, racing pigs, cotton candy, cloggers, yodelers, cowboys, ropin’ and ridin’—you name it, I was there. I had to be. I couldn’t leave.
Oh, sometimes I would wander off to the midway, where I was befriended by the carnies—a surprising number of whom, like me, were once famous writers. That’s right! I was once a famous writer, or at any rate I imagined myself to be. But then the magazine I wrote for went under and I fell on hard times. The state fair looked like a good bet because it was so far removed from the smart side of town I figured nobody there would have heard of me. And, indeed, no one knew my history. That was the good part. The bad part? Any measure of sophistication or insight I brought to the task worked against me. It soon became all too evident I had no idea how to photograph a dairy cow.
In my ignorance, I had asked the twelve people holding up various parts of the animal to step aside for a moment, which evidently isn’t how it is done in the country. Screw composition, judges are looking for configuration. Where is this guy from? Everybody asked. The city?
That was my problem, all right. I was a city slicker. I knew nothing of animal husbandry, cared naught for giant squash or bottled peaches. Moreover, only a handful of nightly musical acts rang a bell. Headliners like Tanya Tucker and Eddie Rabbitt were clearly nearing the end of their careers. The Drifters and Shirelles? To my dismay, I later learned these were not the original groups but rather lookalike, soundalike imposters. Elvis? I had heard that The King was dead, same as my writing career, but then one night the curtains parted and there he was. Still alive…or just playing Utah?