NAACP event draws sparse crowds

June 23, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

Fresh from sponsoring a black leadership summit, the NAACP has moved into another, more unusual arena -- the carnival midway.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is holding an old-fashioned carnival through Saturday at Pimlico racetrack, just a couple of miles from its national headquarters in Northwest Baltimore.

Known as Freedom Fest, the event features more than 30 rides and attractions, live entertainment and typical carnival fare such as corn dogs and cotton candy.

The only obvious sign of the NAACP's involvement is a tent at the entrance, where fair-goers may sign up to join the civil rights group and register to vote.

The event, which began June 16, celebrates the NAACP's 85th anniversary.

"The idea is to continue community outreach and to keep the momentum going after the summit," said Don Rojas, an NAACP spokesman.

"It's a light thing, not a heavy, political-type thing," he said.

It has also been a lightly attended thing.

Except for a respectable crowd of about 5,000 last Saturday, the midways have been nearly empty, say officials of Reithoffer Shows, the family-run, Florida-based carnival operator that is providing the amusements.

They blame hot weather and poor publicity.

"The heat's been a killer," said Patrick Reithoffer, who is managing the fair. "And they need to get the word out a little better than they have done."

Larry Koza, Reithoffer's concessions manager, says the carnival needs to draw about 6,000 people a night to break even. The NAACP Freedom Fest hasn't come close. Neither the NAACP nor Reithoffer would speculate on the size of any financial losses.

Fair-goers who braved storm clouds Tuesday night and paid the $2 admission (free for children under 6) found they could go on everything from the 125-meter-high Ferris wheel to the lowly bumper cars with no waiting. (Rides cost extra.)

"I like this -- there's no lines -- but I'm sure the [vendors] at the stands don't care for it," said Ronnie Horton, a city traffic technician from Ednor Gardens.

Antoinette Plummer, a department store employee from Mount Washington, said she had been too busy working to pay much attention to the NAACP summit. But she said her son Calvin, 8, was glad that the civil rights group was in the carnival business.

"I was surprised. I never heard of them doing anything like that," Ms. Plummer said. "I think it's great."

The NAACP's membership director, Isazetta Spikes, said she envisioned the event as "an opportunity to get 10,000 people coming through the gate, and I'd have first crack to get new members."

But Ms. Spikes looked a bit like the host of a party to which nobody came.

"I've got more cops than people right now," she lamented, surveying the half-dozen city police officers patrolling the grounds. "We're hoping for a big weekend."

Tonight , Freedom Fest is offering the reggae music of Soul Messenjah and Uprising, and unlimited rides for $5.99 (plus the $2 admission). The fair is open from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, and from noon to 11 p.m. Saturday. Joseph Stephenson, 79, a veteran carnival worker, took the poor attendance in stride. Nobody was paying him for the chance to throw a plastic wiffle-ball into a turtle-shaped receptacle for prizes.

"I don't let it get me down," said Mr. Stephenson. "When you're in this business, you can't win them all. There's always another town down the road."

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