Men on fire, racing pigs, and Flying Wallendas

State Fair brings thrills and entertainment for all ages

On July 4 you can see a man set himself on fire and launch himself more than 100 feet through the air from a giant crossbow. Or if you prefer, on June 21 you can catch Cousin Brucie’s Palisades Park Reunion Show II, with classic performers like Neil Sedaka and Chubby Checker. Or perhaps your tastes run to teen sensations Heffron Drive, featuring Kendall Schmidt of boy band wonders Big Time Rush. That performance is on June 28.
On any night you can see racing pigs, a big cat show, local bands, motocross stunt riders, and a selection of famous TV and movie cars, including the Back the Future DeLorean, the Ghostbusters vehicle, and several different Bat Mobiles.
All of this in one place can only mean the annual State Fair is back in the Meadowlands. This year the fair runs from Friday, June 20 through Sunday, July 6.

Something for everyone

There will be more than 70 rides in the fair grounds, with a special area for smaller children. “Kiddie Land is separate,” said Michele Tartaglione, managing director of the fair. “It’s a contained area with kid-friendly food.”
Ever popular with the young ones are the animals. “We have a petting zoo that has all kinds of exotic animals: kangaroo, lemurs, birds, camels, llamas, pony rides,” said Tartaglione. “That’s free with the admission ticket, and it’s always packed.”
A new attraction this year is Sharkbait, a duo of comedic jugglers who have performed with Jay Leno and in Las Vegas. “We’re a very family friendly fair, so it’s important that acts play to that audience,” said Tartaglione.
But that doesn’t mean the grown-ups should feel left out. Hypnotist Steve Bayner, a popular returning act, puts on a family oriented show during the day. Once the sun goes down and the lights go up, however, he switches gears for an adult show.

The fair spans 35 acres and sees about 400,000 visitors over 17 days, with more than 70 rides and 50 food vendors participating.
And then there’s the reason why most people go to the fair, according to Tartaglione. “This year I’m saving my calories for Mr. Sticky’s and of course Kettle Korn,” she said, and proceeded to list many of her other favorites from among the more than 50 food vendors who will be wowing the crowds with unique fare.
“Spaghetti Eddie’s my fave,” she said. “And there’s donut burger, that’s a cheeseburger inside a frosted Dunkin Donut. I had my husband buy one so I could take a bite and it was delicious. We’ve got Chester’s Gators and Taters, he’s got Dogzilla, a foot long corn dog with bacon. Buckeyes are peanut butter and chocolate deep fried.”
And that’s just scratching the surface. “There’s a whole candy store, an old time candy store under this big purple and yellow tent,” she continued. “You buy by the pound. They have chocolate they keep in a refrigerated case.”

A family af-fair

The State Fair began in 1986 on six acres. It grew little by little over the years and in 2003 the state put it out for bid. “We were one of half a dozen companies that bid, and we won,” said Tartaglione.
Today the State Fair is a family-run operation. Tartaglione’s cousin, Al Dorso, is president and his two sons are the fourth generation in the family business. “Our grandfather started in the amusement industry and our father continued,” she said. “That’s why we care so much about what goes on.”
The family contracts with food, ride, and game vendors, and all the performers to bring them together for the event. “We have strict rules,” said Tartaglione. “New Jersey is a very strict state governing games and rides. We have someone policing the games to make sure they’re playing right, not cheating customers.”
Today the fair spans 35 acres and sees about 400,000 visitors annually over 17 days. “Setting up is like setting up a little city, with the generators and lights,” she explained. The fair has made an effort over the years to become more environmentally friendly, using biofuel and more efficient generators.
“Most of the people are New Jerseyans from the five northern counties,” said Tartaglione. But not all. “We had people from California. From Toronto. A couple from Minnesota came for their 40th anniversary.”

With the greatest of ease

The Flying Wallendas are legends of aerial acrobatics. “We’ll be performing our traditional chair pyramid, that our grandparents did when they came here,” said Rick Wallenda, who will be up on the wire with his sister, a nephew, and a non-relative.
“My sister will go up on a 85 foot high sway pole and she will perform up there including a headstand which is a traditional trick for the family,” he said. “She’ll conclude with a slide for life. It’s kind of a zipline that she’ll do by her ankle.”
The Wallendas came to the U.S. in 1928 and have been performing ever since, but that’s not the start of their legend. “They were doing it in Europe before coming here,” said Wallenda. “We’re a large circus family that’s been doing this for generations. The1820s is the earliest documentation I have, in Germany. But there’s a good chance we were doing it before that.”
Asked if there were any non-flying Wallendas who took up other careers, like stockbroker, for instance, he said, “There are some in the family who decided performing was too tough. They tried the road for a while and stayed home. But no stockbrockers. We try to keep an honest living.”

The flaming human arrow

“I have a giant crossbow that I made and I get on that thing and it shoots me across the sky, 40 feet high, 110 feet long, 65 miles an hour,” said Brian Miser, adding, “It’s a fun ride.”
For a special treat, on July 4 he’ll set himself on fire before launching skyward.
“I’ve always been a daredevil,” he said. “I started on a trampoline when I was eight. I was a natural acrobat. After high school I was a trapeze artist for 15 years. I used to do high falls, climb up a ladder or platform and hang 60 feet in the air and dive down to an airbag.”
When he quit that, he missed the aerial action. “What better way? I built myself a cannon and became a human cannonball, and this evolved from that.”
Now 50 years old, he has no plans to retire anytime soon. “As long as my body holds up I’ll continue to do it. It’s too much fun to give up. And I don’t want to work for a living.”

When and how

Full information on the fair can be found at Combo tickets are available and special bargain nights include “dollar night” on opening night, with $2 admission and lots of food and rides for one or two dollars, and “cheap, cheap night,” with reduced admission and rides. All military personnel receive free admission and unlimited rides throughout the fair.
Asked what she recommended as the one thing not to miss, Tartaglione said, “The Sky Ride is something I love to go on, to see the sites, the fairgrounds from above.”
A sort of ski lift that travels from one end of the fairgrounds to the other, the Sky Ride is more than just a way to hop between locations. “It’s peaceful up there,” said Tartaglione. “You can see the New York City skyline. Coming back you have a view of the meadowlands. At night it’s especially beautiful.”

Art Schwartz may be reached at

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