It doesn’t matter how many TV channels you have. The Napa fair has things you will never see on the home screen.
You’ve witnessed horses racing horses and cars race cars, but a pig race a duck? A goat race a chicken? Only at the fair.
And maybe you’re a circus buff who’s been under the Ringling Brothers big top and the Cirque du Soleil cute top. But have you witnessed a circus where pint-sized children are turned into elephants and human cannonballs?
The GASCAR Crazy Animal Races and Circus Imagination are offering up the unexpected on a daily basis at the Napa Town and Country Fair.
Joe Anderson, Napa Valley Exposition’s CEO, decided that the kids entertainment area need a boost this year. Inter-species racing and a circus that is pure imagination should do the trick, he said.
Emilie Owen said her family, which operates petting zoos and animal rides, was brainstorming one day about what else they could bring to the fair circuit. That’s when inter-species racing was born.
Before her first performance Wednesday afternoon, Owen shared a little secret: “Don’t bet on the poultry.”
Chickens have a reputation for running around as if their heads were cut off and ducks can make a mean beeline for bread, but in a racing situation always bet on the pig, she said.
The one thing you can expect during a race is chaos, Owen said. Her goats are notorious fence jumpers.
Before a crowd of about 150, Owen ran her barnyard animals through four races. The goats won every time, even when they didn’t cheat.
Although the poultry always finished last, they became the crowd favorites. Who doesn’t love a strutting chicken?
Circus Imagination followed on the heels of GASCAR Animal Races. Instead of barnyard critters, ringmaster Caton Raintree, resplendent in red tails and top hat, wrangled small humans.
Picking 20 kids of pre-school and elementary age from his audience, he and two female assistants turned them into performers such as Marco the Lion Tamer, Clarence the Clown and Tina the Tightrope Walker.
“We have Arnold the Gorilla still available,” said Raintree, who got no takers.
While the audience watched, Raintree and his wife Carolina dressed the volunteers and whispered instructions. At times, it looked like herding cats.
“And you guys thought it was difficult to dress one or two kids in the morning. Try 20,” he told the audience.
His circus has a philosophical underpinning, Raintree said. “We want to get kids away from TV and video games and get them to use their imaginations,” he said.
Raintree’s circus of the imagination was started by his father some three decades ago. He’s been traveling with it or running it for 27 of his 31 years.
In his experience, the kids haven’t changed much over that time, but the parents have. “The parents have become more TV-oriented,” he said.
Megan Walkenhorst, a Napa parent, said Circus Imagination reinforced things her children already did.
“They like to dress up,” she said.
Inspired by one of the circus acts, Walkenhorst suggested that her daughter, Emily, could turn a jump rope, laid across carpeting, into imaginary tight rope.
For the circus finale, John Galloway watched his 8-year-old daughter Jionna, renamed Zazelle the Human Cannon Ball, lowered into a cannon. When Raintree asked permission to “blast her away,” he replied, “sure.”
Raintree counted down — three, two, one — then a balloon popped. Miraculously, Zazelle — or was it a Zazelle double? — popped up in the parking lot 40 feet away.
The finale got big applause.
Raintree said it’s convenient to operate a circus without animals. “No clean-up, no feed. It’s a good thing,” he said.
He and his wife travel the fair circuit in the summer, then spend the winter — South America’s summer — in her native Brazil. “We have a full year of summer,” she said.
“We’re fortunate every week to see another small town in America,” Caton Raintree said.
“And go to another bowling alley,” she said.