With official word that Josh Turner’s Friday show kicking off the Central Washington State Fair was canceled, Greg Stewart reached out to his many connections in the entertainment industry, agents and others who could help him fill the slot.
Turner, a country and gospel singer, canceled his performance Thursday morning after the passenger bus carrying his road crew crashed in central California late Wednesday. The fair announced late Thursday that country singer Phil Vassar would perform in his place.
Stewart, general manager and fair board president, has faced similar challenges before. In the decades since he was hired in 1972 by the Central Washington Fair Association as assistant general manager, the Olympia native has made several last-minute adjustments to the entertainment lineup. In 2018, Blood, Sweat & Tears performed in place of rock band Survivor, which canceled due to a band member’s injury.
So this is not Stewart’s first time handling such a late change to the fair lineup. But it should be his last. Stewart is retiring at the end of the year.
“Every year it’s something different,” he said in his award-filled second-floor office at State Fair Park. “Over the years we’ve had cancellations for whatever reason. ... Twenty-four hours to find an artist out there is very dicey.”
Stewart seemed almost serene during efforts to replace Turner and the collective flurry of pre-opening-day activity. Phones rang almost constantly, with staffers telling callers and walk-ins when the box office would open (11 a.m.), when the fair would open on Friday (noon) and how long parking would be free that day (noon to 4 p.m.)
Fair admission on Friday is $1 from noon to 4 p.m. It’s going to be busy, very busy. In passing, another employee asked Stewart if he was ready.
“No, but I will be,” he said.
Stewart oversees one of Yakima County’s most popular family events. The fair brought in 321,600 people in 2018, its second-highest turnout on record. The record was 2017, when 326,273 people attended.
The 120-acre fairgrounds are filled with history in the Agriculture Building, Modern Living Building, Pioneer Hall and Expo Hall, all set near a picturesque grassy expanse. During the fair, that space is packed with product displays and concessions, kiddie rides and a steady stream of performers in the gazebo.
Stewart also oversees the 8,000-seat Yakima Valley SunDome and Yakima County Stadium, home to the Yakima Valley Pippins, a West Coast League baseball team. And there’s State Fair Raceway, a 3/8 mile all-clay race track, a legacy of the former Yakima Meadows horse track that many remember with fondness, including Stewart.
Nearly a dozen full-time employees help oversee more than 300 annual events in those venues and other sites at State Fair Park. “There’s a great staff here,” Stewart said.
He will miss the people, he said. “It’s like a big family reunion at fair time,” Stewart said, with between 1,500 and 2,000 hired just for the fair. “A lot of people work their vacations.”
Fair directors need them as putting on 10 days of events is a massive undertaking requiring year-round planning and several intense weeks before opening day. “Right after Labor Day, we shift into high gear. As you get closer to Day 1, it’s a mad rush,” Stewart said.
Even as the fair focuses heavily on nostalgia and tradition — people come back every year for the lamb burgers, the sky ride and the pig races, to start — it’s important to stay relevant, Stewart said. He mentioned the expanded Science and Technology building with several new exhibits featuring robotics and some hands-on virtual reality displays.
“We try and make changes but you still need a lot of the basics,” he said. “We’ve got to keep it relevant. That’s the challenge.”
Stewart clearly enjoys recalling some of the more colorful performers at the fair and their stories.
“Tanya Tucker, she first came here when she was 15 or 16. She was wild. Her dad was with her,” he said. “They were staying at a hotel on North First Street and she went down in the bar and they had her come up and sing. They packed the place.”
The most recent time Tucker performed at the fair, she and her assistant accidentally locked themselves in their trailer backstage, he added. They pounded on the door and hollered until someone heard them and called maintenance.
Stewart can tell stories like this all day about his favorites — Bob Hope, Wayne Newton, Clint Black — and all the others.
“For Bob Hope, I was backstage. I happened to be standing there by the steps. Bob walks out and we’re just talking. Les Brown was on stage and started playing ‘Thanks for the Memories.’ When that song started, it was remarkable,” Stewart said.
“Anne Murray was here three times. ... She just liked coming to Yakima. She had friends here she played tennis with,” he said. “John Denver was another one. He reached out, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘How are you doing?’”
George Burns was great. So was Red Skelton. The lines for Rick Springfield were impressively long. Michael Bolton brought his girlfriend, Marla Maples.
Maples was beautiful and nice, and asked for a tour of the fairgrounds. This was about 9 p.m., he said. Afterward, at Stewart’s suggestion, Maples and Bolton shared an elephant ear.
“She had just left Donald Trump,” he added. “I had (media) calls from Los Angeles, New York, Seattle.”
Amid the stories, longtime fair board member Leslie Roy stopped in to visit and wish Stewart good luck going into his final fair.
“It was a great pleasure working with him, and he’s a friend,” Roy said, noting that Stewart was chairman of and honored by the International Association of Fairs & Expositions. Stewart received the organization’s Hall of Fame Award in 2010.
Roy was on the local fair board for a dozen years. When Roy first became a board member, he enjoyed joining Stewart for his morning walks around the fairgrounds. Those who know Stewart are familiar with those morning and evening walks, during which Stewart greets employees and guests, checks on progress or challenges and comments on fair events and features.
“The little insights you get ... there’s so much behind the scenes,” said Roy, who appreciates Stewart’s dedication. “He and his wife, Karen, (they) bring their trailer here” during the fair, he added.
Though he’s retiring, Stewart hasn’t been replaced just yet. “They’re getting close,” he said.
Board members also have to replace Greg Lybeck, who on Oct. 1 will begin his new role as the first executive director of nonprofit Sozo Sports of Central Washington. Lybeck has more than 26 years of experience as assistant general manager at State Fair Park, where he was in charge of all non-fair events in the SunDome and around the grounds.
Stewart has a lot to think about over the next 10 days. But what will he be doing a year from now?
“Whatever I want. Or what my wife tells me to do,” he said.