Getting ready for fun

County fair adds Punch this year


While entertainers have been performing Punch and Judy puppet shows for more than 340 years, the jokes have changed to reflect the times, but some traditions remain intact, according to Bel Air puppeteer Mark Walker.

A true Punch and Judy show has the title characters along with a baby and a policeman, among others, he said. Slapstick humor is essential. And Punch should have a squeaky voice, which is created by talking through a small metal-and-tape device called a swazzle.

Walker, who has put on Horn's Punch and Judy show for 17 years, will be one of several new entertainment acts this year at the Howard County Fair, which prides itself on adding fresh elements while remaining traditional at its core.

The 61st fair runs tomorrow through Aug. 12 and features many activities that have defined the event for six decades: livestock and horse shows, 4-H activities, demonstrations, contests, a petting zoo, carnival rides and family fun.

Fair President John Fleishell said he and other organizers strive for a fair that is clean, wholesome and family-oriented.

"We personally push and push to maintain tradition, and we always have," Fleishell said. "At the same time, we also understand we have to keep up with the present and future."

Fleishell said many changes to the fairgrounds this year are subtle but will increase safety and convenience. There is new lighting and better access for the disabled. And golf-cart rides will be offered on the grounds for those who have difficulty walking.

The 4-H Activities Building has been renovated with new air conditioning, and aesthetic improvements - from landscaping to more attractive black-and-white trash can covers - have been made on the grounds .

"The biggest thing this year is we're praying for cooler weather," Fleishell said. Attendance is always affected by high heat or rain and, he said, "When it gets super brutal ... it is hard on the animals."

Cooler temperatures, which are expected over the weekend, will be welcomed by the entertainers, who will sing, dance, make jokes, perform magic and amuse audiences at several outdoor locations.

This year's lineup includes longtime favorites, such as the Browningsville Cornet Band and Baltimore's Marching Ravens. Shazam Magic will perform for its sixth year, and pig racing, chainsaw carving and clowns will return.

Last year, the fair brought back square dancing with the Tom Thumb Club after a break of several years, and the Surftones Barbershop Quartet was introduced.

This year's newcomers similarly have a traditional feel.

Walker, 53, said he saw George Horn put on a Punch and Judy show when he was about 10 years old and remembered it into his adulthood.

He reconnected with Horn in the 1980s, after Walker had started performing magic, and the two became friends. When Horn retired in 1989, Walker, who also works in strategic planning for Johns Hopkins Medicine, took over the show and bought the rights to continue using Horn's name.

He will do four shows Tuesday and Thursday, and he said, "I'm always working on new material as far as jokes. I try to keep the show very topical."

But, he said, the appeal of the characters is timeless.

"I find it rewarding just to hear the little kids with these belly laughs. It's just infectious laughter," he said. "Sometimes they laugh so hard it makes me laugh."

Wes Holly's Variety Show is another addition to the fair, with strolling performances Sunday and stage performances Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon.

A professional entertainer for 10 years, Holly, 41, of Baltimore began singing and performing magic for day care centers and other children's events. Over time, he said, he learned from friends and colleagues and expanded his act to include balloon art, juggling and ventriloquism.

"Part of my inspiration for his show is the children's TV programming from when I grew up, things like Bozo's Circus. ... My thing was before kids can get bored with me doing one thing, I was on to something else, keeping it lively. It fit my personality to do the variety show."

Holly said he is looking forward to playing a large venue.

"The bigger the crowd, the more I like it," he said. "When I get to be on a large stage with a group of 500 people in front of me, the show just takes off. There is just so much energy there."

Many of the fair's evening musical acts this year are audience favorites, but there are a couple of new faces.

Returning from past years are Common Clay, which will perform contemporary Christian music Saturday; Sheila Marie, who offers "A Tribute to Patsy Cline" on Sunday; country music by Jay Henley and the Stone Broke Band on Monday and by Tori Anderson and Possum Holler on Thursday; oldies from Big Cam and The Lifters on Tuesday; and rock group the Back Pages Band on Aug. 12.

Alibi, a rock band that started in Howard County, first played the fair last year and will return to play Friday, while Marriottsville-based Richie Fields & Big Time Country will have their fair debut Wednesday.

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