Fair is Fair

Fry Street Fair has changed over the years. But is it for the better?

The lot at the corner of Fry and Oak streets in Denton, next door to Voertman's bookstore and across from the Cork Screw, still sits empty. There are a few trees and bushes, freckles of weeds on the packed dirt and trash, beer bottles and cans, fliers for shows and condoms, mostly. It doesn't sound like much, but in Denton, this is prime property: blocks away from campus, not far from patchwork quilts of apartment complexes and off of one of the main roads through town. It's big enough to fit an eight-plex or maybe a fast-food restaurant with a drive-thru and parking lot. Or it could add dozens of parking spaces to the bookstore next door for the back-to-school rush. Instead, for 364 days a year, it's deserted. Yet each year on the third Saturday in April, the lot is a makeshift home to Fry Street Fair, Denton's annual rock-music festival and charity fund-raiser, hosting a sound stage, a generator, a tent or two, maybe some portable toilets and lots of drunk college kids baking in the sun.

Even those involved with Fry Street Fair question whether most attendees know the connection between the vacant lot and the noon-to-nightfall concert. The common ground is the Delta Lodge, the University of North Texas' rogue fraternity known for breaking ties with its national organization and settling Animal House-style into the multistory white wood house that once sat on the now-vacant lot. Some people were sure that when the house burned down in October 1995 because of an electrical wiring problem--not a meth lab or unattended bong as some speculated--the Delta Lodge would be destroyed with it. Some contend it was. And even Robert Bone, the president of the Delta Lodge's board of directors, called The Pentagon, will admit that the frat, which is technically a nonprofit corporation these days, is not what it once was. It's because the lot still sits empty.

"After the house burnt down, that was a pretty big turning point in the organization, and some key things changed," Bone says. The most visual change, besides the empty lot, is Fry Street Fair. Once individual bookers scheduled bands for the fair's stages, checking in with the brotherhood as needed. The fire changed that; now there's a music committee whose members make the decisions together. The days of beer-fueled, informal roundtables were gone, replaced by, according to one former fair booker, lodge alumni armed with demographics and charts and numbers.

Crowded house: The Polyphonic Spree, performing at last year's Fry Street Fair
Cabe Booth
Crowded house: The Polyphonic Spree, performing at last year's Fry Street Fair

Plus, with no house to repair and maintain, the money from the fair was accumulating, and it was enough to make some elders nervous about who was guarding the piggy bank. "[The alumni] started taking a more active role as far as the board of directors went and started trying to help guide the organization because we started getting some assets from the Fry Street Fair," Bone says. "As the fair started to get bigger and make some more money, we realized finally that we were sitting on a lot of assets. We didn't feel it was right to trust that to 18- to 20-year-olds to have free reign over."

The alumni saw Fry Street Fair as more than a neighborhood-wide party to raise money for a handful of local charities and to keep the lodge going. To them, it was a "million-dollar business," Bone says. The fair was already turning a good profit, but some thought it could be even more profitable if it attracted more people. So instead of allowing a single person to book the bands (as lodge brothers Cabe Booth, Scott James and Jeremy Shelby had done during the last decade), the informal music committee became more of a governing body, deciding which bands to seek out to increase the attendance numbers.

Shelby, who left last year after several confrontations with the committee, says, "My experience was, as time progressed, the people who were part of the committee weren't really in tune with what was going on. They weren't avid showgoers. They didn't listen to the stuff. They were some of the older guys who wanted to muscle their way into it and create more of a marketing scheme, I think. They were looking to start doing away with the local bands and start bringing in some national talent. That's what they're doing now." Last spring, while Shelby tried to book some lesser-known local bands, many of whom went on to play the F$$$ The Fair concert he organized after leaving the lodge, the committee booked Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and Built to Spill without him.

Paul McEnamy, a brother who booked the fair this year along with the committee, paints a different picture. He says the committee tries to choose bands that past Fry Street Fair attendees would like. "We sit down and name a lot of bands we like," he says. "And we are like the people who go to the fair a lot of the time. And most of us on the committee have knowledge of what those people want to see. We are those people. I'd go to the show regardless of whether I was doing it or not."

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