Q&A: Debbie Branan
The 151st edition of the Mid-South Fair takes place September 21-30 — the first year the Zippin-Pippin and other Libertyland attractions will be shuttered and probably the last year the event will be held in Midtown. We spoke with attorney Debbie Branan about the fair, family, and fiddlesticks.
IF SOMEONE WANTS TO KNOW ABOUT THE MID-SOUTH FAIR, WHY WOULD THEY COME TO YOU?
Well, I call myself the chief has-been. I have been a participant in just about everything at the fair since 1964, when I took part in the cheerleading competition. After that, the youth talent program. Then I was Miss Youth Personality. I have been a committee person. I have been an advisor, a chairman, an officer, everything you could be out there, including the first female president [in 1990-91].
WE UNDERSTAND THE FAIR HAS BEEN A FAMILY THING FOR YOU.
I dragged the others into it. My dad [Will Pace] is currently on the chili cooking contest committee and youth talent committee and is on the board of directors. My mother [the late Jerry Pace] was very involved with the youth talent program and, in fact, there is a scholarship in her name, because she was so supportive of the "worker bee" — the kid who had that talent that somebody needed to find. My brother played football at Ole Miss and now he's involved in the cheerleading competitions, as a spotter and doing whatever needs to be done. And my daughter Whitney won the Youth Talent Contest, first as a dancer and later as a singer.
HOW DO YOU EXPLAIN THE FAIR'S EVERLASTING APPEAL?
I think it's one of those generational pass-downs. It started with the family fairs, and it became a family tradition. And when you have traditions, and fun, and families, and food, it kind of develops a life of its own that just keeps going. The tentacles of the fair just touch so many. We've got people involved from 11 states. And people forget that the Mid-South Fair is a nonprofit, private organization. It is not subsidized by the city and county. Those rides, the stages, everyone rides on the backs of the volunteers. We have a small paid staff that supports the volunteer effort, but the community makes it happen.
WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE MEMORIES?
Oh, there are so many. When I was Miss Mid-South Fair, I got to travel with Johnny and June Carter Cash, and a band called the Cowsills, to other fairs, like the Texas State Fair, because they all became an extension of the Mid-South Fair family. When Sonny and Cher came to the fair, their child Chastity was just a toddler, and part of my responsibility was to babysit Chastity while they performed on stage.
HOW WILL THE CLOSING OF LIBERTYLAND AFFECT THE FAIR?
It won't. No one struggled with the closing more than those of us involved in the inception of Libertyland. We saw the kids who got their first jobs there. But we weren't able to justify continuing it if we weren't able to put in new attractions. So it's like cutting off your arm to save the body, which is the fair.
WHAT'S THE FUTURE OF THE MID-SOUTH FAIR?
The future of the fair is not only bright, but it's going to be an explosion of great things, and I'm very excited. The fair is going to be around, I believe, for another 151 years.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE RIDE?
Which year? Whatever twists and turns me upside down the fastest and the most! I've always been the first one to ride any new ride.
OKAY, HOW MANY FIDDLESTICKS HAVE YOU EATEN OVER THE YEARS?
Too many! One of our favorite traditions is, you start at one end of the fair and eat your way to the other end. You have to do that at least once, hitting every food stand. Fiddlesticks I love, but also the navy bean soup and sweet cornbread at the Boy Scout concession. Oh, it's incredible. And who can turn down that smell? Plus I love the Amish ice cream. And don't forget the fat balls at the Rhinelander Deli!