This is a dangerous admission because that jingle, while loved by many, has become an annoyance for others. But it served its purpose back in 1988 when it was created, and remains the brand for the Northwestern Michigan Fair today.
Now, I cant take sole credit for creating this song and commercial. David Williams (of the Williams Brothers Cherry Festival float fame) and John Wrocklage deserve the real credit. They were the commercial production team for TV 7&4 at the time. Jim Sullivan, who was the commercial production manager also deserves a lot of credit since he authorized the making of the commercial as a donation to a then financially-struggling NWMF.
When I was hired by the Fair Board in 1987 to be the day-to-day manager, the NWMF was in somewhat of a state of turmoil. It was in serious debt. In fact, I remember picking up my first paycheck and the treasurer telling me if I wanted to get paid again, I was going to have to go out and raise some money because there was not enough in the account to make payroll at the end of the month.
The Fair also was faced with deteriorating buildings. In addition, it had an image problem. The National Cherry Festival and the Vasa had surpassed it as the main events of the region. Attendance at the Fair had been in sharp decline since it moved in the early 70s from where the Civic Center (the former home to the fairgrounds) is today, to the current fairground location near Chums Corners. That move hurt the Fair. Going from the center of Traverse City to what at the time seemed to be the middle of nowhere, it fell victim to out of sight, out of mind.
So I rolled up my sleeves and got busy in order to keep my promises to the board creating an innovative marketing campaign, a sponsorship program, and developing year-round revenue sources for the Fair.
One day Wayne Bancroft (the guy holding the pitch fork singing the song), who was the president of the Fair Board at the time, told me that an auction was going to take place at the fairgrounds on an early spring Saturday afternoon. Bancroft was both a successful dairy farmer and an auctioneer.
While listening to Bancroft auctioneering, the idea for the Goin To The Fair commercial came to me. I quickly headed to my office and jotted down the outline for what eventually would become the commercial -- well, sort of.
The following Monday I had to travel to Cheboygan for a meeting for all fairs in Northern Michigan. On my way -- it was 5:30 a.m. -- I saw the TV 29 & 8 production truck at the gas station. Because I was so excited about my idea for a commercial, I approached them. The two production staffers were somewhat taken aback as I was spitting out that I was the NWMF manager and what I wanted to do. They said they were headed to the Upper Peninsula and to call them at their office on Tuesday.
After my day-long meeting in Cheboygan I headed back to Traverse City and on the way decided to stop at La Senorita in Petoskey for dinner. As I walked in I saw the two production staffers from TV 29 & 8. They recognized me and invited me to join them for dinner.
I outlined my idea to them. What I had envisioned was Wayne Bancroft, dressed in overalls with a straw hat and pitchfork, walking around Northern Michigan with a cow on a leash. He would be on the beach and kids would run up to him asking where he was going. Bancroft in his auction voice would respond, Goin to the Fair, Goin to the Northwestern Michigan Fair, and then he would quickly rattle off the events at the Fair. Another commercial would have him at Chums Corner at the stoplight with a Pepsi truck (the major sponsor that year) in the lane next to him. The driver was asking him what he was doing.
The two staffers from 29 & 8 looked at each other and almost in unison said there is only one person capable of making this happen. David Williams at TV 7 & 4.
The next day I called David, asking him to meet about creating a commercial for the NWMF. When I arrived at the production offices, Jim Rockledge and Jim Sullivan joined us. I quickly laid out my vision to the three of them. I remember they all had this look on their faces and were probably thinking, What has this guy been smoking?
I remember that day, said David Williams, who still coordinates commercial production for TV 7 & 4. What we were thinking was wow, this was the first time someone had come in to push us creatively. This was advertising agency stuff you were asking for. When you left we immediately began letting that creative process work to try and meet this challenge.
Williams and Rockledge immediately went to work on developing the concept that would eventually become the Goin To The Fair, commercial.
While we were intrigued with your original concept, we knew we couldnt pull it off logistically and from a timing perspective, said Williams. So we had to modify it.
I have saved a lot of memorabilia from the making of the commercial. On my home office desk sits the cow that starred in the commercial (it was part of a salt and pepper shaker set Williams purchased at Meijer). I also have all of the outtakes of the making of the commercial. My most prized possession is the voice mail recording of Williams and me going back and forth singing the song and with ideas for changes. No worries, David: with my lack of vocal talent those tapes will remain locked away.
Williams and Wrocklage went around and shot a lot of b-roll of area landmarks like the Makinac Bridge, the sand dunes, The trout in Kalkaska and the Blue Angels. They called Dills Saloon and recruited Golden Garter Revue musician John Lane to dress the female part of the American Gothic painting and play the banjo.
We also shot the commercial at the Bugai farm around the corner from TV 7 & 4. It was known as the Five Gals Ranch because they had five daughters and because it was a dairy farm. It was raining that day and we shot the film underneath a tree and part of a barn overhang.
Poor Wayne Bancroft was not given much rehearsal time. Then to make matters more challenging for him, the three of us made changes to the lyrics during the shooting. Finally, after at least 30 attempts, we thought we had a good version of the commercial. During the playback we noticed that some of the cows in the background were pooping so we had to start all over.
Eventually the perfect clip was shot, and as they say, the rest is history. The commercial won several awards. Locally it took home Best of
Show at the Max Awards (the local advertising club annual awards program). It won the Michigan Association of Broadcasters Best Television
Commercial for that year, beating out the popular Dominos Pizza Noid commercial.
It also won the International Association of Fairs and Expositions Best Television Campaign of 1988 Award. The commercial was shown to 2,500 in attendance at the awards dinner in Las Vegas.
RAN FOR FREE
When the commercial first appeared on TV 7 & 4 it caught on literally overnight. Because the Fair had limited funds we were unable to air it on the other stations. But it was so popular that the other stations began running it for free. Wrocklage and Williams even made a radio version because radio stations wanted to play it. I also appeared on several local news programs and radio talk shows.
The commercial played a major role in making the 80th Fair one of the most successful to date. Attendance increased by 45% from the prior year. It was also the most financially successful Fair to date.
The popularity of the commercial spread with other fairs contacting Williams and Wrocklage to produce a commercial for them.
The Alaska State Fair wanted the commercial, but when we started factoring in the airfare it just wasnt going to be feasible, said Williams.
The commercial still has staying power even 20 years later. To celebrate, TV 7 & 4 held a competition asking contestants to perform the song. The five semi-finalist entries are available online to view at TV7-4.com. The winning contestants video will appear this week on TV 7 & 4.
The Northwestern Michigan Fair continues to use the commercial, though modified from its original format. Wayne Bancroft who appears has had his version of the song voiced over by Larry Avery.
I asked David Williams if he thought this commercial was going to last forever. For some reason, once that song gets on your mind,you find yourself singing it in your head over and over.
Rick, I think we have created a musical virus that there is no known cure for, laughs Williams. What is real scary is we have all of these people from all over the country in town for the Film Festival hearing this song. They are going back to their homes and spreading this virus.
As for those responsible for this musical virus: Williams remains at TV 7 & 4. Jim Wrocklage worked for years at Brauer Productions in Traverse City before recently moving to Florida. Jim Sullivan has his own commercial production company in Traverse City. Wayne Bancroft is still active as an auctioneer in the area. John Lane has moved away from the region and is probably a musician somewhere. As for me, I am right here at the Northern Express.
To learn more about all of the activities at this weeks 100th Northwestern Michigan Fair check out northwestermichiganfair.net or call their office 231.943.4150. The website has a complete listing of all activities as well as the 100 year history of the Fair.