Isabel Abuhadba Cartoon Poodles santa cruz county fair
Isabel Abuhadba and her poodle, Julieta, are ready to perform their “Cartoon Poodles” show at the upcoming Santa Cruz County Fair. Photo: Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

Zeke Fraser has a lot on his desk, both figuratively and literally. He briefly stepped away from his paperwork-lined desk at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds late Wednesday morning for a quick chat about the upcoming fair, which opens on Wednesday.

Vendors and performers were arriving, and workers were bustling about in equipment-laden golf carts as tents and food booths were being assembled. 

This frenetic bustle is typical in the lead-up to the event, which draws thousands of people to the Watsonville venue.

Fraser was hired as CEO in June, and says that everything is on track.

“The biggest thing we want people to know is that we are here and we are ready to do the fair,” he said.

Fraser says that visitors will see beloved favorites such as the All Alaskan Racing Pigs, the cinnamon roll booth and camel rides.

New this year is an exotic bird show featuring condors with 10-foot wingspans, colorful macaws, hornbills and cranes. Also new is “Cartoon Poodles,” a show featuring 11 pink-dyed poodles trained to jump, dance and otherwise clown around for their audience.

“It’s a complete 20-minute show,” says Isabel Abuhadba, whose family has been doing the performances for six generations, including casinos in Las Vegas and in numerous countries. “It’s wonderful when we present the show and hear the audience cheering.”

Throughout the fairgrounds, preparations are underway, with art being hung for display and people setting up their entries.

One of these was Jackie Cameron, who last year, after a lifetime of attending the fair—and telling herself she would enter the garden competition she loved to see—took the plunge, designing her own garden in the adult category.

“I thought, you know what? I’m 52 and I’m going to do a gosh darn garden,” she said. 

Her entry earned her a best-in-show ribbon, and now she is hoping to repeat that victory in this year’s fair.

On Wednesday, she was the first gardener working on this year’s entry, which she has titled “Color Wheel.”

Visitors to the Home Arts display in the J.J. Crosetti Hall can feast their eyes on dozens of different genres, from knotting to sewing to jewelry to quilts.

Two of the latter deserve a second glance: one is a quilt made by a 7-year-old girl—her first foray into the art. This just around the corner from a masterpiece by veteran quilter Thom Adkins. 

The complexity of the latter clearly sets it apart from that of the works surrounding it. But the work of the young girl and the experienced artist represents one of the overarching missions of the display: inspiring young people to take up and carry on a time-honored tradition, says volunteer Mary Travis.

“When you can get the youth interested, it’s amazing,” she said.  

In the Fine Arts Building, Donna Giubbini, who heads up the art exhibit for the fair, said a new category will highlight professional commercial illustration. Works include locally produced posters, business signs and banners.

“We wanted to make room for this category because there is so much talent in this kind of illustration,” Giubbini said.

Also in Fine Arts, metal sculptor Pierre Riche is showing a metal sculpture from his “Golden Possibilities” series. He says the five-foot-tall equine sculpture is a result of more than two decades of working his craft, which has included making miniature horses from recycled metal to towering outdoor pieces constructed from laser-cut plate steel. 

He says his work has been featured in venues in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as in Spain and France.

Moving forward 

Fraser took the reins as CEO in the wake of the termination of former CEO Dave Kegebein. The Fair Board alleged that many expenditures on a state-issued credit card were for unauthorized purchases, including gasoline for his truck.

Kegebein said that all his purchases were for work related to the fair, and paid back $30,000 to the Fairgrounds.

The move angered many community members, who criticized the board for, among other things, not giving Kegebein a chance to ameliorate the situation.

Fraser, who had no involvement in the termination or in the subsequent approval of three interim CEOs, says he wants to focus on this fair, and on those in the future.

“It’s in the past,” he said. “I’d love to leave it in the past and move forward. Everyone’s come together to get this fair done, and hopefully it will help us as a community to heal, that’s my hope.”

Santa Cruz County Fair Board Chair Michael Pruger agrees.

“It’s been a tough year for the fair,” he said. “However I think we’ve gotten past our roughest patch, we’ve hired a great new CEO and we believe we are going to be able to provide a great fair for years to come.”

Pruger also tipped his hat to the people who help out every year to help keep the fair going and the fairgrounds running. 

“If it wasn’t for the great volunteers that come out every single year we would be in trouble,” he said. “We appreciate their commitment to the fair. We have had nothing but great turnout again, the fairgrounds are in beautiful condition.”

The Santa Cruz County Fair runs from Sept. 13-17.

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