Exclusive: South Carolina State Fair to Add Circus Shows for 150th Anniversary

Richard Breen

Friday, May 17th, 2019

As the S.C. State Fair prepares for its 150th edition, a nod toward nostalgia is combining with a shakeup of its traditional entertainment formula.

The annual Columbia event – scheduled for Oct. 9-20 this year – will feature a live, big-top circus performing three shows each day. Performances will be free with fair admission.

The circus will seat 1,300 and occupy space on the fairgrounds previously used for grandstand arena concerts.

“We are confident that it will be a great addition to the fair, but no long-term decisions have been made beyond the 2019 event,” said Bertram Rantin, the fair’s public relations coordinator. “We will monitor this and all other attractions during the fair, and those that prove to be most popular could be considered for our regular lineup in the coming years.”

Past grandstand arena shows featured national touring acts such as Alabama, Fantasia, Foreigner, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Temptations. Some concerts required purchase of additional tickets along with fair admission.

They were also susceptible to rainouts or bad luck, such as the last-minute tour cancellation by ZZ Top in 2017.

“We kind of live and die with weather,” said Nancy Smith, the fair’s general manager. In 2018, Hurricane Michael caused the fair to shut down for a day, something that had never happened before. “I think we’re making better use of the arena now.”

The fair’s outdoor music venue will now be the 1,000-seat Pepsi Place near the Nutt Cattle Arena. Shows will be free and include acts such as The Tams, The Restoration, and Warrick McZeke.

“We wanted to take advantage of the 150th anniversary to expand our musical offerings to include a wider mix of local and regional artists,” Rantin said. “As with the circus, we will monitor and gauge the success of this year’s concert lineup as we plan for future years, and all past and present formats remain possibilities going forward.”

Despite last year’s weather problems, the fair drew a record 443,000 attendees. Smith said she anticipates another bump in attendance this year due to the sesquicentennial celebration.

“I’m hoping and praying for 10%,” she said.

Organized in 1869, the fair is a nonprofit that operates on a $6 million budget. It awards more than $300,000 in scholarships each year.

Organizers say an economic impact study of the fair is nearing completion. Carl Blackstone, president and chief executive of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s business community is fortunate to be in position to host event-goers.

“It brings in thousands of folks to Columbia every year,” he said. “It’s a significant impact for us.”

As in years past, the fair will feature approximately 70 rides and 70 food vendors. There will also be the traditional livestock, heritage exhibits and arts and crafts.

The fair plans to commemorate the 150th anniversary with a postal cancellation stamp, limited-edition coin and several events leading up to the October opening.