Behind the lights: faces of the fair

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Awash in blinking lights, airbrushed scenery, and faux-food, it is easy to become swooned by the fantasy of the State Fair. It is a carefully executed promised land flowing with milk and honey (not to mention fried pies, over-sized meat portions and an unholy amount of sugar). In this temporary microcosm of smoke and mirrors, the real personality can be difficult to see.

Life is funny

Kevie Penny is a clown by trade, and a self-made man. Monday at just before noon, he walked to his stage at the North Carolina state fair past wide-eyed children and their parents. He stopped and clowned with a few special-needs children before taking the stage. He started gently for an audience of nervous children.


Kevie Penny in his dressing room under Dorton Arena. Photo by Andrew Mayo

“Are you ready to have some fun today? My name is Hubba Bubba. I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina. We’re gonna have some fun today, we’re gonna do some magic stuff some silly stuff, okay?” Penny said in a soft central North Carolina accent.

A few minutes later the kids were laughing and dancing like monkeys, literally.

After the 30-minute show and a bit of mingling wrapped up, Penny made a brief retreat from the crowds, jeers and crack-ups to a small dressing room underneath the Dorton arena. “Last year I only had a chair. They gave me this nice couch and a place to hang my outfits.” The drabness of the pale room is starkly offset by his loud wardrobe.

“I was a shy, introverted person all my life. When I started clowning, the first time I put the make-up on something just seemed to open up inside. I’m behind the make-up so I can express my real feelings instead of just being a shy person.”
Penny’s words are soft and southern, prickly with laughter, and his manner gentle.

“I love what I do. I make a living doing it, but it’s not really a job. It’s a pleasure.”

His workday begins around 9, when he dons his make-up that he will wear into the night, just as any other career. Only his colors tend to pop a little more. He preforms three times a day, and between performances he continues au colour, walking the midway and just plain “clowning.”

Kevie Penny was born in Whiteville, NC, and ended up in Cary in the 6th grade with his father, a homebuilder. After graduating from Garner High School, he was set to continue his father’s trade until 1992, when he took a class, and stepped into the world of clowning.

He began taking more classes, including a 7-week course at Wake Tech, where he learned “juggling, magic and things to do in the off-season, like be a Santa Claus.”

“When I was getting out of the building business, I gave my father a year’s notice. Dad said ‘you can’t make a living doing that’ and I was always kind of suppressed, in a way.”

He had married the year before. His wife, a mortgage loan officer, took thar first clowning class with him.
Penny said he uses skills he had learned earlier in life in his clowning. His set is hand built, he runs his own sound board and he is his own publicist. It is truly a one-man show

“So what do you think my wife freaked out a little? ‘why do you wanna take a clown class.’ So, you know what? She took it with me. She took it, said, ‘I did it just to be with you.’”

“She made a beautiful clown, but she said, ‘look, when I get off work I don’t wanna be a clown, I don’t wanna do nothin,” he remembered. “She’s good at what she does, and I’m good at what I do.”

While working the fair, Penny sleeps in his RV, where his big problems are a busted fridge and leaky plumbing. “But they have showers here,” he said.

He travels a little, the NC State fair is his fourth fair this year. “I was driving to the Taswell county fair and I had to drive through two mountains, I pulled out my camera near the end and took a picture and posted it saying ‘Look, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.’” He said he doesn’t mind being alone, and his wife and 11-year-old daughter will join him over the weekend, as civilians.

The family that plays together

Stuck in an awkward location, on a sidewalk outside of the Exposition Center, the Dazzling Mills Family brings raw energy to a crowd saturated by the lights, colors and sounds of the fair.


The Mills family performs at the state fair. Photo by Andrew Mayo.

“We’re gonna entertain you today with gasoline!” yelled Steve Mills. He laughs maniacally, and frequently. He then forcefully volunteers people from the crowd and throws them into his family’s witch’s brew of twirling pins, unicycles, and torches. The four performing members of the family move as one, juggling up to sixteen pins at a time in chaotic but orchestrated patterns. There are no gimmicks here. The awe is hard-won.

Steve Mills’ daughter Michelle was crowned the Women’s Juggler of the Year by the International Jugglers Association in 2002, and her newlywed husband, Kris Groth, is a champion juggler as well. The youngest, Tony, was recently featured in the magazine “Juggling.”

After each show, Steve is sweating and more alive, his eyes are brighter, his face pinker, his movement more animated, and the crowd dumbfounded. He has been preforming like this for 37 years.

He even has his own pattern of juggling, the “Mills Mess.”

“I just like to apply myself 100 percent. I don’t like to waste time.”

It shows. Steve, his wife and children, are unstoppable, splitting time at home or traveling, performing or promoting. Working this hard has rendered a collection of iron-sided wisdom.

“Tony was born 8 weeks early at a juggling convention in St. Louis,” Steve said, “It was rough for a little bit, after three days of worrying whether he’s gonna live or not. I woke up that night and realized we hadn’t even been thankful that he’s alive. In thirteen days we left with no monitors. Now he’s perfect.”

Speaking before a performance earlier this week, Steve said, “We have the usual things, breakdowns, having no money, you know. But they all go by. Even the rough times where work isn’t coming in are challenging because then you have to get on the phone or send out faxes. There’s always something you can do, you know. When you’re self-employed the beauty is you can’t be unemployed because either you’re a sales person or you’re doing it. I hear so many businesses saying it’s slow, and I think, well, how can it be? You should be busy when it’s slow. That should be your busiest time.”
Steve is the son of a typesetter, and that was the only other job he has had.

“Everyone said ‘get a college education, have something to back up what you’re doing.’ And I think that could be a minus because if you have a way out, sometimes you take the way out, the easy way rather than grinding. It doesn’t have to be easy. You just have to be motivated and persevere and set a goal, not bail out. You make it work. If it’s worked for the last thirty years then it will work for the next ten, even with the economy. Adjust your lifestyle.”

While jazzing up the crowd before performing each time, Steve takes a minute to pick up the litter on his 30 square-foot makeshift stage, suggesting the onlookers follow suit.

Steve met his to-be bride Carol on the competitive circuit in the late 1970’s, when he won a juggling championship and she a unicycle title. They were married shortly after. They both wanted children, and were willing to settle for a quiet life if necessary, to raise them. Steve tells what happened:

“I said, ‘we have one more big finale, the coolest thing we’ve ever done, you’ve never seen anything this cool, you better brace yourselves,’ and just walked out with a 3-day old baby. Who can beat that feat? And then at 8 weeks old I already had her standing on my hands on her feet. And from there things just fit right in.”

Tony just graduated high school. He was home schooled on the road. Steve just remodeled an 1885 church into a home for his daughter and new son-in-law in Marion. They have another house, as well as their motorcade: two RV’s and a 35-foot motor-home, totaling 70 feet. Carol was injured in a car wreck five years ago, and now lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, keeping her from performing. She still travels with the rest of the family. The five Mills, their two dogs and two cats are at home anywhere. They are ready and willing to travel the whole year, never knowing when times will be busy or slow.

Steve only has one clarification for the fair-goers: “We’re not carnies, we’re fairies.”

Under the little big tent

Nestled in the midway is a small, nearly empty blue-tarp-walled tent. It is next to the “Museum of Human Oddities” a two-bit freak-show where there was “no one inside that can do an interview,” according to the gatekeeper.

One man was sitting alone in the tent next to a table of tracts in both English and Spanish, representing the Independent Baptists. He was upright in a full-traction wheelchair asking fair-goers if they had heard the good news. Across from him children were shooting water cannons, dreaming of glorious prizes, and the midway crowd passed hurriedly, hands and stomachs full. His unamplified vigor was drowned easily by the surrounding showmen, indecipherable music and children with cheap plastic toys.

Roy Pierce is a 67-year-old retired preacher from Richmond, VA traveling with a group of evangelicals setting up shop at festivals across the nation.


Roy Pierce in his tent at the fair. Photo by Andrew Mayo.

“Our mission is in every state and thirteen countries,” Pierce said.

He was a missionary in the Philippines for ten years, and a pastor in Richmond for eight, until he broke his neck falling from a ladder.

“When everyone said I was all done, God said ‘no no, you can still work for me,’ so here I am, 67, loving Jesus and wanting people to know him too.”

Pierce has been working eight hour days at the North Carolina State Fair, but he said recently at Virginia’s state fair he worked 12 hours a day.

He does not get paid.

“This isn’t all about me, it’s about Jesus. This is all volunteer, I use my social security to help people come to know Jesus.”

Making a living

Having fun is hard work, in this case for someone else. There are some people employed at the fair who have no act and nothing to sell. They do not seek the attention of the crowd.


Richard Bowen works the Ferris wheel. Photo by C. Duncan Pardo.

Richard Bowen, 62, helps run the Ferris wheel, the largest structure on the midway and one of the number-one fair attractions in the country. Monday night, a slow night, he could be seen hurriedly seating people in the carriages and sorting tickets. Running up and down stairs making sure the machine doesn’t get off time. It was necessary grunt-work. He has a small frame and distinguished face. He treated riders with a distant professional courtesy. He did not smile but was warm and open to conversation, if only he had time.

Bowen said he works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, all year long.

Bob Kellepouley, Bowen’s co-worker, has a similar schedule. However he said he has two months off during the holidays when he and his wife will spend at home in Florida. He took a five minute smoke-break in the shadow of the wheel. He hesitated to be interviewed, but was happy to talk, eventually warming up to speaking on the record.

“With a good crew we can have the wheel up in 11 hours.”

They haul in the wheel on three flatbeds, working up to fourteen hours each day, and then on to the next fair. They work in every state in the continental United States.

Bowen ends each day exhausted, his only noted activity outside of work, he said, is watching TV.

Kellepouley has been working the fair circuit with Wade Shows Incorporated for 27 years. His wife works with them too, so they are able to travel together. He said he loves the work he does, that he makes good money and plans to retire on it. He also said his boss flies him to visit his seven children from a different marriage whenever he wants.

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