A Party for 1.8 Million People: Minnesota State Fair
Known as “The Great Minnesota Get-Together”, the Minnesota State Fair is in the midst of its 12-day run that concludes Labor Day. Nearly 1.8 million people are expected to attend; it’s one of the largest fairs in the nation and dates back to 1859.
Along with memorable food, animal barns, exhibits and midway, many visitors are attracted to the entertainment presented at five free stages across the 320-acre grounds in St. Paul – more than 900 total performances – plus nightly concerts by national acts in the 13,000-seat grandstand.
Helping to schedule and present all this entertainment is a team led by
Renee Alexander, the Fair’s Deputy GM of Entertainment & Marketing. She calls the effort “a giant chess game with a lot of moving parts” and considers each day like staging a month’s worth of entertainment.
In Your Blood
Alexander is a year-round employee; she’s held this position for 11 years. She started as a summer intern during college, then worked year-round for five years, mainly on the smaller free stages, daily parade and talent contest. Then she left for ten years to work with ‘Sesame Street Live’ and in corporate meeting planning. She returned when the Fair’s entertainment director position opened up.
“The Fair gets in your blood,” Alexander explains. “Helping plan a party for 1.8 million people is quite an adrenaline rush.”
Full-time Fair staff numbers almost 80. The entertainment and educational area includes six year-round positions. Summer staff additions include five runners and five superintendents, who oversee specific areas, and a stage manager for each stage. When the Minnesota State Fair starts, volunteer support increases that total to more than 1,000 people, just in this area.
For backstage assistance, Alexander praises their “incredible” local production vendors who help with the free stages, including Allied Audio for audio and Freestyle Productions handling video elements across the Fair. The Fair also works with the Local 13 IATSE Stagehand Union for the stagehand labor.
“We probably use 15 to 20 stagehands across our free stages,” explains Alexander. “Large grandstand shows might have calls upwards of 75 or 100.” National touring acts bring their own crew that’s augmented by local support.
Alexander says her team “feels like a family” because they go through both successes and trying times together. “Everyone shares the strong sense of ownership,” she says. “We’re committed to making the Fair what it needs to be for the people of Minnesota – we only have one chance to get it right.”
Despite teamwork and preparation, weather is an element outside anyone’s control, with lightning and high winds the biggest issues. Since all stages are outside, pre-Fair meetings are held with key departments, including police, security and ushers. AlexanSeder says this preparation is key.
“We walk through procedures for different scenarios, discussing how communication should be handled,” explains Alexander. “Messaging to our guests is also important, so staff members don’t instill panic.”
Each outdoor stage has its own tarp and the stage managers are all connected via group text to receive weather alerts. Alexander says staff also monitor weather on their own phones; they have the latitude to stop the show if they feel it’s unsafe; safety is the number-one priority.
Weather-related delays are more common than cancellations. Only twice in the past 11 years has the grandstand required evacuation. According to Alexander, resuming a concert after a weather-related delay adds a whole new level of energy for the artists and audience. “The feeling is, ‘We’re going to do this – it’s going to be a great night,’” she explains.
Alexander recounts a weather-related story from two years ago to illustrate the can-do attitude of her staff. The talent show semi-finals are held on the band shell stage during the Fair, with the finals held in the grandstand on Sunday night, just before the Fair’s last day.
A strong storm rolled through Sunday night during the finals, requiring the grandstand to be evacuated. After the storm blew over, Alexander and her staff huddled to discuss options. They wanted to finish the contest but the grandstand stage was soaked. They decided to resume the contest at the band shell, which had already been shut down for the night.
“We called that crew, who were already heading home,” recalls Alexander. “Everyone came back and fired up the band shell stage so we could finish the contest!”
What keeps Alexander excited about her job? Likely the same feelings that compel countless visitors – old and new – year after year.
“Visiting the Fair is like a day without rules,” she remarks. “You can check your problems at the gate and enjoy spending a day with family and friends.”
She loves seeing people make wonderful memories and have a great time. “It’s so satisfying to stand in the grandstand’s backstage area and look out at 13,000 screaming fans – it’s pretty cool,” Alexander says.
Several years ago, artists from Montreal visited the Fair while developing a public art project that became the Giant Sing Along – a field of microphones that enables people to share a karaoke-style musical experience. The artists spent time walking around the Fair and soaking in the atmosphere.
A comment from one of the artists still resonates with Alexander. “She said, ‘You don’t feel any tension here’ – and that’s so true,” Alexander concludes. “Everyone gets along. There aren’t a lot of places where that happens anymore.”