Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Help, I'm Being Stolen!" by Tom Rizzo



On a warm August night in the mid-1970s, I happening to be standing in the midway of the Ohio State Fair talking with a plainclothes state highway patrolman when a bizarre theft took place. 

 

 It was late. Midway vendors were preparing to close for the night. Soon, the lights began dimming and flickering on concession stands that featured Elephant Ears, Funnel Cakes, Deep Fried Donuts, Fried Oreos and other unique and mostly fried creations.

Seconds later, I heard someone yell for help. I glanced into the pockets of darkness separating a row of exhibits and I saw a man flash by carrying what looked like a child under one of his arms. Then I heard the same cry for help again. I recognized the voice. It was someone named Pete Moore. 

Before continuing with the rest of the story,  this post was inspired by Jacquie Rogers who last month, blogged about "Fair Play: How to survive the Owyhee, Idaho County Fair and Rodeo." 


Her blog triggered memories of my three years as public relations director for the Ohio State Fair. The vendors, entertainers, concessionaires, state fair staff, and even fair-goers represent fascinating opportunities in character study.

Consider this a change of page. Normally, the WF blog focuses on stories of the West, instructional articles, and posts about the craft of writing fiction. I'm invoking a bit of poetic license to share a couple of anecdotes that took place during my tour of duty at what used to be billed as the World's Largest State Fair


I did a lot of writing different writing during those days, some which I suppose could be branded as fiction if you're splitting hairs.



In addition to news releases and articles, I wrote a pocket sized booklet about the history of the Ohio State Fair, various media relations guides, even the results of various competitive events for distribution to newspapers and broadcast outlets. 

I also served a ghostwriter of sorts for the governor and for the state fair manager, developing Welcome messages that were included in each of several booklets detailing the broad range of events scheduled during the twelve-day run. 

This was no cookie-cutter approach. Each message had to be unique to the particular venue.  I especially got a kick out of signing the governor's name to the messages. But my words weren't sacred. All the messages produced for the governor were delivered to the statehouse for his - or someone's - approval.

During those three years, I learned what it took to  put on such a huge event that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. It was intriguing getting to know the various vendors and exhibitors and learning how they lived and traveled and made a living.


Now, the rest of the story . . .


Pete Moore stood 27 inches from head-to-toe. Of the nine children in his family, he was the only one afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta. The disability kept him out of school--not by his own choice, but by directive of the Wetumpka school district in Alabama. 

Despite his handicap, he was quite intelligent. Pete was home-schooled until age 11. When he finally got the okay to attend public school, he put himself on a fast-track and got a diploma in nine years. And with an A average.

But making a living was difficult. During a visit to a sideshow in the early 1960s, he saw an exhibit billed as The World's Smallest Man. But Moore, who stood 18 inches tall, was smaller and got hired on the spot. Several years later, he fell in love and married and he eventually became the World's Smallest Dad. The couple had a boy and a girl, but their daughter inherited the same bone disease as her father. 

Wife and kids, however, toured with Pete who made a financially comfortable living at various venues. Pete owned his own show and acting as his own booking agent, appearing at major fairs across the US and Canada. He died of heart disease in 1984. He was 51.

When I met him, I was impressed by his genuine nature. Simply put, Pete was a nice guy. And, except for his disease, quite normal. He drove a car, did chores around the house, including mowing grass. 

He spent 23 years on the road appearing in carnival freak shows. I have a feeling that in those two decades of entertaining the public he would always remember a bizarre event that occurred during one of his visits to the Ohio State Fair.

When I heard his cry for help, I couldn't imagine the scene being played out before me. 

 

"Help! I'm being stolen."

"My God," I told the patrolman, "someone's trying to steal Pete Moore."

"Who's Pete Moore?"

"The World's Smallest Man."

He frowned until he heard another desperate cry for help from Pete. Wasting no time, the patrolman radioed his colleagues and they corralled the thief before he could escape. 

I learned later, the culprit crept into the Pete's exhibit test and spotted in in the display cubicle. He walked over, snatched the little man up into his arms, tucked him under his arm, and raced along a fence bordering the midway seeking a way to escape with his prize possession. 

The entire affair was ludicrous, and we managed to keep it quiet. I never learned exactly what the thief intended to do with Pete. He wouldn't have been able to exhibit him and I doubt Pete Moore would never have allowed that to happen anyway. Maybe he planned to hold The World's Smallest Man for ransom. No one knew the reasoning behind it. A weird crime, not well thought out.

One of the biggest events at the Ohio State Fair is a livestock exhibit called the Sale of Champions where a professional auctioneer sells off the grand champion and reserve champion steer, barrow (a young, neutered male pig), and lamb to the highest bidder. 


At the time, the proceeds were rolled into a scholarship fund and awarded to the 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) youths who raised and exhibited the animals. The exciting showcase event attracted television coverage and lots of statewide publicity.

The Sale of Champions began in 1968, a brainstorm of then-Governor James Rhodes. He attended every Sales of Champions auction during his four terms. And he would actively participate by cajoling business people to make bids and then urge them to push their bids even higher. 

Rhodes was a savvy campaigner and a shrewd promoter with a reputation for leaving nothing to chance. Under his direction, the sale of livestock became a made-for-TV event.

"You can put the whole state of Ohio in a corner of California," he once said, "but we've got the world's largest fair."

On the morning of the Sale of Champions in the mid-1970s, I happened to be in my office when the phone rang about 6:30. The manager, from his office in adjoining building, said Governor Rhodes was in his office and wanted to see me. He told me to bring a pencil and a pad of paper. When I walked in, the governor motioned me to a chair.

"Here's what I'd like you to do," he started. "Get six panels of stiff white cardboard, about two feet long and six inches wide. Then find a handle of some kind that you can affix the panel."


The governor's eyes sparkled with excitement. Keep in mind, the fair and the Sale of Champions took priority over more serious affairs of state. Fair-goers often spotted him strolling the grounds, sampling fair food, chatting it up with Junior Fair exhibitors, and generally making himself visible and accessible. 

"What do you want me to put on the six panels?" I asked.

"The amounts each grand and reserve champion is sold for. Get a chair and put it out of sight behind that big auctioneer's desk. Then when each winning amount in announced, hold up the appropriate sign so the TV camera can zoom in on the price."

"How much time am I going to have to write the amount on the sign and hold it up. That auction moves pretty fast, governor."

He dismissed my question with a shake of the head. "Don't worry about that. Write these numbers down."

The governor then told me to write down six different prices - down to the penny - which represented each of the categories involved in the auction. After jotting them down, I looked up and frowned.


"You look confused, Tom."

"Do these numbers represent the actual bids?"

"They do."

"I'm still confused," I said, wondering whether the prices he gave me were nothing more than educated guesses. "Let's say someone bids a penny or two above or below these numbers. It's going to look a bit stupid if I hold these panels up and the numbers are wrong."

He looked at me as if I landed from another planet. "The numbers are right. Those are the actual prices."

"I thought this was an auction."

Rhodes smiled. "It is indeed and it's going to be a good one."

Later, I realized what I sat through was a lesson in political theater. Leave nothing to chance. Even when it involved selling cattle, pigs, and lambs.

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9 comments:

  1. Oh my, eye-opeing and fun post. I'll be thinking about these incidents for a day or two. Doris

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  2. Very interesting and amusing post, Tom. You must have no end of anecdotes to share.

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  3. Doris, Keith--thanks for dropping by. It proved a wonderful source of so many fun stories.

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  4. Tom,

    What struck me most about this post are your years of journalistic experience and years of honing your skill as a writer. In everything you post, it shows.

    What a vast life experience you have!

    You are one of the wild and wooly ones!

    Charlie

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  5. These funny little life experiences are like money in the bank for fiction writers!

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  6. Ha! Thanks, Charlie. I'll try to keep my wooliness in check.

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  7. Vonn, you are so "write"--life experiences are such great resource material.

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  8. Now that's the strangest story I've heard today, or this week, or this month...

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    1. Great, Gordo, I'm glad I made your month...

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