An energetic teen juggler who kept sticks flying high as she balanced a tennis racket on her nose. A 6-year-old with attitude to spare, belting out James Brown. An epic beatboxer.
The opening night of July's tryouts for the Minnesota State Fair's amateur talent contest saw these 4-minute fairground acts and more as judges began the work of winnowing down entrants to compete during the fair, leading up to a grandstand finale on Sept. 4.
Brooklyn Park singer Malorey Wegner was feeling optimistic after showing off her powerful pipes on the Leinie Lodge Bandshell stage, singing an original tune with sister Cassie Opitzon violin.
"It was really fun. We kind of just went for it," Wegner said.
While the sisters are hoping to make it to the grandstand, being at the fairgrounds for tryouts had both of them excited about going to this year's Great Minnesota Get-Together with their families.
"I'm relieved — it's kind of back to normal," said Opitz.
After a year off in 2020, and lower attendance and some pandemic-related changes in 2021, fair organizers and fair lovers alike are hopeful this year's 12 days of fun — running from Aug. 25 to Sept. 5 — will be truly "back to normal" in 2022, with new foods such as vegan-fried steak and pickle pizza, and new attractions such as a 20-foot-long common loon.
The fiberglass state bird — and "world's largest floating loon" — can usually be spotted in the middle of Silver Lake in Virginia, Minn., but was set to hit the highway on Aug. 18, bound for the fairgrounds in Falcon Heights.
And some longtime fair mainstays that weren't in the mix last year — whether due to the uncertainty of planning in the pandemic or because of worries about sharing equipment — will now make a return, said fair spokesperson Maria Hayden.
"We'll be back with live births this year," Hayden said, referring to the CHS Miracle of Birth Center, where calves, lambs, goats and piglets are born during the fair. "So that's very exciting. We also have the Giant Sing Along returning."
The interactive group-karaoke attraction "took a hiatus last year," Hayden noted. "So a lot of those fair favorites that maybe weren't able to make it last year will be back this year."
One big change that fairgoers should be sure to note: Hours will be shortened, with the fairgrounds open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Aug. 25-Sept. 4, and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. on the last day, Sept. 5 (Labor Day). Ticket prices have changed as well, going up to $17 for those ages 13 to 64 and $15 for seniors and kids ages 5 to 12. (Children under 5 are still free.) The moves follow the fair's operating losses over the past two years.
Last year's attendance numbers were the lowest the State Fair has seen since the 1970s, and many decided to skip the event — which did not require facemasks in 2021 — because of COVID-19 worries.
Still, when Jerry Hammer, the fair's general manager, looks back at 2021, he feels like it was a miracle there was a fair at all.
"The fact that well over a million people came was extraordinary," he said. "It would have been impossible for us to have attendance like 2019, and nobody expected that. Nobody was looking for it."
They do expect to see higher attendance this year, Hammer acknowledged, but he said he feels the fair's success should be quantified in other ways.
"This is a great unifier for all Minnesotans and beyond. There's no way to measure that," he said. "Last year was outstanding. Numbers-wise, not so much, but that doesn't matter. That's never what it was about."
Hammer sees the fair as a "cure for whatever ails you" during difficult times.
"When we look at everything going on in the world, what we really need is to celebrate our humanity. There is so much good in people and in the world," he said. "And when you're at the fair, a lot of what's going on disappears. I see people here sitting on benches sharing buckets of cookies [who] have met moments earlier. You wouldn't see that anywhere else."
That connection is something Hammer believes has always stayed constant, even as buildings, attractions and activities have changed — some dramatically — through the years.
Debuts and milestones
Even as those only-at-the-fair moments endure, fairgoers can find plenty that's new this year — including the debut of bingo. Blue Ribbon Bingo sessions will run about every hour in the Ramberg Center, with sales of $10 game card packets benefiting the Minnesota State Fair Foundation.
The list of 38 new fair foods showcases plenty of "on-a-stick" options, from deep-fried ice cream to a corn dog coated in minced tater tots to birthday cake paletas. The number of gluten-free and vegan options at the fair continues to climb, said Hayden.
There's a couple of new Mighty Midway rides, including a roller coaster called the Iron Dragon. An interactive exhibit for kids called "Survival: The Exhibition" is coming to the North End. New cooking competitions include a Supreme Sourdough Bread Contest, for those who picked up bread-baking skills during the lockdown.
The giant loon, by the way, will be part of an exhibit at the Eco Experience in the Progress Center, which will also be home to a giant moose sculpture made of cardboard.
This year also marks more than a few milestones. It's the 75th year for the octagonal Agriculture Horticulture Building (home to the crop art exhibition and much more) as well as the FFA (formerly the Future Farmers of America) livestock and non-livestock competitions.
Minnesota's got talent
Next year will mark the big 50 for the Amateur Talent Contest (counting 2020, when the real thing was cancelled but the Star Tribune held a video competition.)
An event that began back in 1973 has gathered steam in recent years as TV competitions like "America's Got Talent" and "The Voice" helped push a new generation to try for the spotlight, Hammer said.
Sixteen-year-old Ella Holt, who performed her juggling routine in tryouts, is hoping this is her year.
"I tried out last year but didn't make it. I've actually been working on this routine for a good year now," she said. "I was really nervous at first but once I was up there, it just felt cool."
Fingers crossed, Ella.