Fair welcomes entertainers on the go this year
By Pat Muir
Oct 2, 2015
Every single person Joe Stoddard walks past reacts to him — heads turn, eyes widen, smiles appear.
Amid the sensory overload of the Central Washington State Fair, that’s really saying something. The fairgrounds are so loaded with potential stimuli that the surreal doesn’t even register half the time. This is a place where people walk past the psychic booth like it’s nothing. They ignore chocolate-covered bacon. They determine, subconsciously and in a split second, that the blinking lights and two-story Michael Jackson picture on the Moon Walker carnival ride don’t rate a second glance.
But they all react to Stoddard, a 64-year-old strumming a guitar and wearing a costume to make it look like he’s on horseback. The “horse” is named Manfred, and Stoddard learned ventriloquism just so he could make Manfred talk.
“I’ve got spurs, that jingle jangle jingle,” Stoddard sings while strolling the fairgrounds astride Manfred, and kids all around him tilt their heads in an attempt to make sense of what they’re seeing.
“Well, now I’ve seen everything I need to see,” says 63-year-old Whitney Brown of Sunnyside, after Stoddard serenades her with the old show tune “They Call the Wind Mariah.”
“It means so much for the little kids,” says Art Espinoza of Yakima, after Stoddard stops to let his pair of 4-year-old granddaughters pet Manfred. “They’re so innocent. To them, this is a big deal.”
That kind of reaction is just what fair officials were hoping for when they hired Stoddard.
Unlike acts that are on stage, removed from their audience, the walk-around acts interact with fairgoers directly.
Stoddard started playing guitar after hearing The Beatles for the first time as a child in the 1960s. He wanted to be a rock star. And he came closer than most, first with The Nite Walkers, a teenage band that made a minor splash on the Southern California scene, then with Longshore, Stoddard and Cole, (eventually just Stoddard and Cole), an acoustic band that over the years opened for the likes of The Beach Boys and Keith Urban.
But at some point, it became apparent that the club scene and party lifestyle wasn’t going to be a career that would provide for his family. He had to start treating it like a business, and that led him to the fair and festival circuit.
He created a one-man music-and-comedy stage show, and this year expanded his offerings by building the Manfred horse costume and embarking on a few walk-around gigs.
“I see myself more as an entertainer than as a musician,” Stoddard said in an interview in his dressing room. “So the form I take to entertain isn’t as important as just being able to entertain.”
Judging by the reactions he’s gotten at the Central Washington State Fair, it’s working. People keep approaching as Stoddard walks the grounds, strumming his guitar and singing duets with his horse.
A pair of kids, 3-year-old Emilio Robledo and 2-year-old Gabriel Robledo, corner him, laughing before he even says anything.
“They chased you from the SunDome,” their mother, Juditha Robledo, tells Stoddard. “They saw you from over there.”“I like the horse,” says Emilio, after Manfred chats him up for a minute. “He’s cool.”