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Grape Festival guru: A day in the life of Mark Armstrong

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Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2005 10:00 pm

Mark Armstrong points fondly at the pictures of his four children that surround him in his office at the Lodi Grape Festival grounds.

But sporadic squawks from the walkie-talkie shoved into the back pocket of his cream-colored cargo shorts are a steady reminder that, for the next four days, he has a job to do.

And a big one at that.

It's just past 10 a.m. Thursday -- the first day of the Lodi Grape Festival. Armstrong, the fair's manager, started at 7 a.m. with a walk-through of the fair grounds with a safety inspector, scouring for trip hazards such as potholes.

Now at his computer, he's printing out posters describing two antique tractors on display in the Grape Pavilion. This is the type of minutiae he tends to before fleets of cotton candy makers, woodcarvers and entertainment acts set up, admission gates open and the, er, grapes hit the fan.

Freshly laminated posters in hand and a dark blue Red Sox hat on his head, he makes his way to the back door of the office, heading to the Grape Pavilion. But not before a concessionaire enters the doorway and asks directions to the parking area. It's near Lawrence Park, Armstrong tells him.

Most of the year the grounds are quiet, with occasional weddings, events for RV groups and the annual Spring Wine Show breaking the silence. But as Armstrong, fair manager for the past 13 years, walks past temporarily vacant booths and food trailers, he's ahead of schedule.

That's good news for someone preparing for 80,000 people to swarm the 20-acre Grape Festival complex seven hours later. He waves to passing vendors. There are more than 120 vendors, and he knows most by name.

"Remember deep-fried Twinkies, the craze?" he asks while pointing to Clint Mullen, a lemonade and coffee concessionaire. "That's him."

Murals made of variegated grapes, dried beans and rice encompass Armstrong as he tapes a poster to one of the tractors.

Fair entertainment director Marc Gibson walks up to Armstrong and tells him the main stage is coming along well. But he needs light bulbs. Armstrong points to the far end of the Pavilion and Gibson is on his way.

Grape Festival Manager Mark Armstrong puts some final touches to the fair exhibits inside the Grape Pavilion. (Angelina Gervasi/News-Sentinel)

Then Brandy Haupt, the manager of commercial exhibits and concessions, approaches. There's a problem.

The owners of Valentines Hot Diggity Dogs don't want their trailer across from Lockeford Sausage. They say they won't be able to sell any dogs after Lockeford fires up its outdoor grill.

"They're going to pull out if we don't move them," she says.

Armstrong pauses, then finishes attaching the final poster to the tractor.

He and Haupt leave the Pavilion for Valentines. Armstrong's radio buzzes with voices.

After a brief discussion with the owners, Armstrong and Haupt rattle off a list of other locations to put the Valentines' trailer. Armstrong settles on a spot near the front entrance, pulls his radio from his pocket and calls over a forklift to move the trailer.

The fair collects a 20 percent commission on food sales for the event -- which was near $200,000 last year -- so strategic placement is in the best interest of the fair and the vendor.

Minutes later, while a man with a Marlboro Light hanging from his mouth repositions the trailer with a forklift, the owner of the slingshot ride comes to Armstrong. The Canadian man thanks Armstrong for suggesting a trip to Alcatraz as a way to pass time before the fair begins.

Armstrong asks if he took the headphone tour, and their discussion soon turns to whether a fence can go up around a portion of the slingshot ride. Armstrong says the fence is no problem. The conversation turns back to the Alcatraz trip before the ride owner walks away.

At 11 a.m., vendors are testing their electrical connections, which are always a tricky aspect of the fair because some trailers draw enough juice to power a single-family home.

"I'm already blowing breakers," Tom Stroud, owner of cotton candy-selling Sugar Shack, says to Armstrong. "I gotta spin sugar."

Armstrong calls the fair electrician on the radio.

When the fair's first customer enters the gates at 4 p.m., Armstrong's job slows to dealing with the mostly minor problems the musical acts, magicians, jugglers and amusement ride owners may encounter.

At 2 a.m. the next morning, the end of the night for the fair manager and his 50-person crew, Armstrong will return to his office to clean up and answer e-mails that were forsaken during the course of the long day.

"Its a fun business," he says. "We all look forward to this all year long."

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at jakea@lodinews.com.

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