Behind-the-scenes workers backbone of Curry County Fair

Jan Riley, center, Jodi Clark, to Riley’s left in the ticket booth, and Peggy Burns, left, sell wristbands Saturday for the arenacross event during the Curry County Fair. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Lemonade guzzlers and soda slurpers may not spend hours pondering the origin of ice cubes, and the man in charge of supplying it to Curry County fair vendors isn’t exactly a main attraction.

But Ken Urban is an essential part of operations.

The Clovis resident works behind the scenes, buzzing through dirt roads on a compact utility vehicle, delivering about 200 bags of ice a day for a week to vendors, all so fair consumers can drink their chilled beverages in bliss.

Urban is part of a group of largely unseen hands, some hired, some volunteers, who assure that all runs smoothly, or as smoothly as possible, during fair week. This year, that task was especially demanding, as almost nightly rains pounded down on the county, turning the outside food court into a swamp and canceling a number of events.

“The best part of working at the fair is when it’s sunny. The worst part is when it rains,” said Urban, a pair of sunglasses slung across his face.

In charge of combating water — his name not an intentional pun — Wetter Ortiz drained gallons of water from the fairgrounds. He threw plywood and sand over patches of mud and water, the bane of many corn dog and cotton candy seekers this year.

While Ortiz and others trudged through mud, Jodi Clark, housed in an air-conditioned building, ruled over stacks of paperwork and reels of event tickets. If you listened to broadcast announcements as you strolled through the fairgrounds, or called the fair’s office for information, it likely could have been Clark’s voice you heard.

Behind a red countertop littered with letters and paper, Clark and company field phone calls and stamp payment records, among other jobs. The seasonal employees, Clark said, rarely get a moment to enjoy the fair’s offerings. They sometimes work 17 hours a day.

“By the time the last day (of the fair) comes, we’re happy, because we’re tired,” said Clark. “We run on a lot of caffeine, soda, Pepsi, Coke — whatever we can get our hands on.”

The sliding glass door of the office swings open quite regularly, almost as frequently as the office phone rings. “I guess the running joke here,” Clark said, throwing a sidelong glance toward her co-worker of five years, Jan Riley, “is that next year we should get a recording. There are two typical questions that people ask: how much does it cost to get in the fair, and how much do the rides cost. So our recording would just say, press one for entrance information, press two for ride information,” Clark joked.

The rain, she said, also complicated her job, with more complaints pouring into the office and contest entries down. Clark said the department had 1,000 less home craft entries this year than last.

Yet another office behind-the-scener is Cheri Christensen, fair marketing coordinator. Unlike the jobs of Urban, Ortiz and Clark, hers is year round. She promotes the fair vigorously, even when it is in full swing. Because of this year’s unusual rains, Christensen said she had to be extra aggressive, keeping the media abreast of schedule changes. Christensen also books entertainment for the fair.

“I have to find entertainers that appeal to all walks, from 8 to 80, and the talent must have a family image,” Christensen said, seated next to a laptop, a sign posted nearby directing office workers to answer the phone on the first ring.

Despite rainy days, monotonous phone calls, and the occasional cranky client, Christensen and most fair workers are aware of the insider perks of fair life, which include more than just free food.

Christensen, a former science teacher, said nothing in the world could persuade her to leave the fair business, of which she has been a part for 30 years.

“I get to work with people from all walks of life. There isn’t one day exactly like the other day,” Christensen said, with a smile.