Words by Emily Taylor
Photography by Killingsworth Photography
An in-depth look at the Texas State Fair through the eyes and experiences of recently retired Senior Vice President, Carey Risinger .
In an ever-changing world of shifting trends and vulnerable values, it is encouraging to know that there are pieces of our history and culture that have been and continue to be diligently preserved for future generations to appreciate. One such institution is the State Fair of Texas in Dallas atFair Park. The Fair has been an integral part of the cultural landscape of Texas for over 130 years and captures many of the values the Lone Star state is proud to represent.
On January 30, 1886, an ambitious group ofDallas businessmen chartered what began as the Dallas State Fair and Exposition and would later become the Texas State Fair. It boasted excellent racing stock, cattle sales, concerts, balloon, contests, and farm machinery as well as the appearances of many notable figures in the early days, garnering the attendance of thousands of people. When its primary source of income – gambling on horse races – was banned in 1903, the city of Dallas sought to preserve this community asset and purchased the property under the agreement that a period each fall would be dedicated to the exposition.
The Fair experienced immense success in the early 1900s and even contributed to the war effort during World War I when it was converted into a temporary army encampment. The 1920s also saw exciting developments in the attractions of the Fair; the Music Hall was erected in 1925, and the Red RiverShootout (Rivalry) was established as an annual event in 1929. Fair Park Stadium, later renamed the CottonBowl, was constructed one year later in 1930.
The Fair was inactive during 1942-1945, but following World War II, it surpassed its precedents of production and popularity under the leadership of R.L. Thornton. During the 1950s, the international livestock show was added and the beloved Big Tex, a52-foot cowboy figure, first appeared at the center of the grounds.
Since 1960, the expositions have been oriented around a different theme each year. Other historical highlights include the designation of Fair Park asa historic landmark in 1986, prompting a 31-day celebration of the Texas Sesquicentennial and theFair’s 100th anniversary.
“The State Fair of Texas celebrates all things Texan by promoting agriculture, education, and community involvement through quality entertainment in a family-friendly environment.”
How do we know? Carey Risinger, recently retiredSenior Vice President of Food and Retail at the Fair, can elaborate.
His journey in the “business of fun” began at a young age. Risinger, otherwise known as “CD”, became impassioned for the amusement business when he was only 10 years old during a family vacation to Disneyland. At 16, Risinger was first hired as a busboy at Six Flags. His ambition carried him through the ranks and eventually he was promoted to Corporate Director of Food Services over all six parks.
He reflected, “I loved it…it never was a job to me.I couldn’t wait to get to work every day and didn’t want to leave.” Although he thoroughly enjoyed his work, he recalls some difficult life lessons.
As a football player and working as a busboy atSix Flags, Risinger remembers feeling humbled that he was working in food production, wishing that hehad one of the more “glamorous” jobs at the Park instead. He told his father, “I think I want to try to get into another department. My dad said, ‘Son, you’re learning the business’ and he was right…I was learning the basic formulas to succeed in the industry.” Risinger describes feeling that it clicked then and there for him; these experiences would benefit his future.
After leaving Six Flags, Risinger embarked on various entrepreneurial ventures in the food and entertainment industry, opening several restaurants, one with a live music venue.
He reminisces on this chapter of his life: “Pretty much had the most fun I’ve ever had in this business, although it is the hardest way to make a living.”
Risinger transitioned from the restaurant business to food product marketing, and was eventually asked to return to Six Flags as food director for all the parks, which numbered 34 at the time, including several in Europe, Mexico, and Canada. And when the amusement business declined after 9/11; Risinger returned to his previous partnership, producing and marketing a new line of beverages for the next few years.
Risinger began producing the Wine Garden at the Texas State Fair during Errol McKoy’s tenure asPresident. McKoy, Risinger’s boss when he was theCorporate Food Director at Six Flags, is according toRisinger, his life mentor. Risinger was asked to comeback to the amusement business and joined the staff of the State Fair in 2010 as Senior Vice President of Food and Retail.
It is not difficult to see why the Fair garners extraordinary interest and participation. Usually beginning on the last Friday in September and ending24 days later, the Fair provides many opportunities in agriculture, education, and entertainment, for a wide range of ages.
Primarily, however, Risinger describes the Fair as an eating event. With over 200 food and beverage locations, it offers a variety of delicious choices.Fletcher’s Corn Dogs are the signature item, but every year, the Big Tex Choice Awards contest between the concessionaires generates many new, “wacky”food products, which include predominantly fried creations – fried Jell-O, fried bubble gum, fried beer, even cotton candy tacos.
Risinger affirms the intrinsic appeal of the Fair –“You come out for the day, leave your diet at home and just have a wacky, fun time and that’s really what the fair is all about.”
Risinger indicated that the Food and Beverage department coordinated the concessionaire group. As 78 concessionaires run all the locations, one has to leave before anyone new can be admitted. There would be only one opening most years, sometimes none, and usually 150 applicants. A candidate is chosen based on their menu and location at the Fair.Regarding the admittance of new concessionaires,Risinger asserts, “The fair is 130 years old…many people have been there 25, 30, 40 years.”
In addition to exciting college football at the historic Cotton Bowl Stadium, visitors can enjoy theTexas Auto Show. It showcases the hottest new rides on the market and offers interactive experiences alongside live entertainment. As well, there’s a myriad of thrills with the rides and games of Midway and agricultural exhibits that include student opportunities for talent and leadership. The creative arts building features native arts, crafts, culinary creations, and performing arts.
True to its mission statement, the Fair promotes education through supporting the students of Texas through the Big Tex Scholarship Program. Since1992, the program has awarded scholarships to more than 2,000 students.
One might ask, what happens at the Fair the other342 days of the year? Risinger responds, “That’s our busiest time. It’s like a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. The first thing you do is put the border in, then the next row…putting that puzzle together is what really keeps us busy…When the fair opens up, you’re just policing what you’ve done.” Renewing the contracts of the exhibitors and concessionaires, choosing a theme, and sorting through new applications occupies the staff ’s time during downtime.
Risinger is optimistic about the future of the Fair.He indicated that a positive change he witnessed during his tenure as Vice President was the media exposure and successful marketing of the Fair.
Errol McKoy transformed the Fair from filthy, unsafe and unprofitable to an immaculate, profitable, self-sufficient organization that did not rely on state subsidies to survive. Additionally, McKoy’s successor brought in a marketing director that transformed the level of exposure of the Fair during the off-season. For example, the Fair initially had zero social media presence; now it boasts a million followers onFacebook. “It’s time for the new generation to takeover the Fair and take it to another level, and they’re doing a very good job of that,” he stated proudly.
The historical significance protects and preserves the legacy of the Texas State Fair. Carried through the years by its dependable leadership who were careful to guard the mission of the Fair despite many challenges, it will no doubt continue to endear Texans for many years to come.