“Listen, ladies,” said Barbara Smith, 78.
The only man to turn around, I looked up as I rummaged through a threadbare suitcase with a “damaged” Alaska Airlines tag. It contained a checkered tablecloth, plastic flowers, two faux blue ribbons, and more.
The 14 women around me, one dragging a saddle in a red cart, another carrying a model bumper car that also doubles as a radio, also rolled over to hear. We were all there, in the Home Arts building at the Ventura County Fair a day before Wednesday’s opening, for the same reason – to step into a ring of perfectly square tables bordered by a white palisade and compete.
Our battle involved fairground-themed centerpieces, three-pronged dessert forks, spoons that should never sit next to the table knife, and other attributes of the competition table planet.
I lugged not only the suitcase but also a double-sided blackboard, bags of balloons, plates with Chinese roosters, scissors, straight pins, fake fairground tickets, and a veggie server that looked like a big Wheel. There were bags of candied peppermint, salted peanuts, mason jars and a pair of helium balloons that were fading much like my sense of perspective at home.
I had taken a swan dive into madness. It all started with two friendly phone calls.
Feel the pressure
The first came from Maria Hagman, 77, from Moorpark. She told me that she was delighted that I decided to participate in the first of three table dressing competitions at the fair. She wanted to send me a book, show me pictures, and tell me about thrift stores, thrift stores and Pier 1 clearance lane.
It’s the hunt that has captivated her since she started competing, teaming up with her mother after the Northridge earthquake in 1994. Now her team partner is her daughter Theresa Hagman Lawson.
“The fun part is going to the stores and finding these things,” said Maria, estimating that the bargains meant her entire display – a seaside reflection with a sleek metal sailboat – would cost $ 17.
She suggested that I first adjust the color of my tablecloth before looking for something else. And I needed to know my menu to be able to buy the right plates and cutlery.
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Suzanne Farmer also called. The longtime Oak View resident treats Chihuahuas, Akitas and everything in between in a mobile business based on a white mini-bus. She makes cats too.
When it comes to table settings, it’s a free spirit that dives deep into designs based on “Alice in Wonderland”, the old 101 Drive-In in Ventura and, for the fair, a theme rodeo which included a rope frozen in the air as it circled a wooden pole.
She builds centerpieces by combining toilet paper, linseed oil, and drywall mud in what she calls papier-mâché clay sculpture. Sometimes she incorporates layers into her work.
“I usually get up the night before at 3 am,” she said. “I work better under pressure.
She told me to forget the menu. She told me to shop and explore until I found a theme.
I did. I’ve been to 99 Cents Only, Party City, Pier 1, Michael’s, four downtown Ventura thrift stores, then Dollar Tree.
I walked five miles through parking lots and stores because I couldn’t find the carnival-themed items to build on my wife’s silver appetizer server. But I kept seeing cool things. I jumped on the 99-cent glasses that looked like light bulbs and the checkered tablecloth scored on a late-night foray into Big Lots.
Saturday turned to Sunday, then Monday.
On my fourth trip to Oxnard’s Party City, I just wanted to be done. I wanted a simple balloon on a stick to replace the helium-filled orbs that were now deflated and dead on my bedroom floor.
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They didn’t. But Clerk Deanna Ayala listened to my plight and produced a set of red and white balloons with a bearer slogan, “Welcome to Carnival”.
I ran out of the store, rocking the balloons like quintuplets. When a gust of wind blew one off, I chased it down the sidewalk. It was my missing link.
Saved from disaster
A day later, we transported our goods to Home Arts. Some women have been doing this for years and chatting about the A&W burger restaurant that once stood in Oak View and its deceased loved ones.
Smith, the longtime volunteer who runs the competition, is a local legend who has already won first, second, third and fourth places in separate table setting competitions the same week. She told us we had an hour.
Women flocked to the 10-table ring. Some have teamed up with siblings or daughters, with only one allowed in the ring at a time. The other was coaching behind the fence. A woman next to me was wearing black gloves.
“Fingerprints,” she explained.
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They built little worlds on the square tables, elegant starfish designs, illuminated carnival rides, and veil-like fabrics. There were sunflowers, wine glasses and, on Farmer’s blue ribbon rodeo collection, green bandanas as napkins and a small skull as a centerpiece.
I walked painfully, gently cursing myself for not bringing more accessories. The women admired my light bulb glasses and offered me tips. Maria Hagman sent a polishing cloth for the silverware and a bottle of Windex.
A moment after we were done, my carnival balloon sagged to the side like I did in Party City.
But when I came back after the judgment and found a fourth place pink ribbon pinned to my table, the ball was back in place. Someone saved him.
I think it was Deanna Ayala.
Tom at the fair
Writer Tom Kisken reports on the Ventura County Fair by doing a cartwheel in the middle of it. In over a decade of writing on the fair, he’s done everything from selling hot tubs to soaking up one to ballerina-style dancing under hypnosis. This year his game plan includes a lobster corn dog or six, table setting and a little bit of magic. Follow him on VCStar.com.
Thursday August 2 at the fair
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. midway opens at noon. No fireworks.
Special entry: Feed the Need food drive. Buy an adult admission ticket, bring five cans for FOOD Share by 5 p.m. and get a free return ticket to the fair valid August 6-9. Otherwise, admission is $ 12 for adults aged 13 to 64, $ 9 for children and seniors.
Entertainment: UB40 with Ali, Astro & Mickey, 7:30 p.m. Free with entry to the show.
Carnival bracelet day: Bracelets are sold from opening to 6 p.m. for $ 30 and are good for unlimited carnival rides until 7 p.m.
Car park: $ 10
Free shuttles: Pickup and drop-off from Ventura County Government Center, Ventura High School, Pacific View Mall, Harbor Boulevard and Schooner Drive, Ventura Unified School District Headquarters, Oxnard Performing Arts Center, at Marriott Ventura Beach (Parking Fee), San Buenaventura State Beach (Parking Fee).
For more information: https://bit.ly/2Kje82w