Editor's Note: Our nightlife columnist, Deb Doing Dallas, wrote about this year's State Fair Classic, a longstanding Fair tradition at least as much about the pageantry and the marching bands in particular as it is about the actual football game played between Louisana's Grambling State University and Texas' Prairie View A&M. This week, the extent of the damage Grambling's football program has sustained over the last few years has become very public, mostly as a result of state cuts to education funding. This story is not about the cuts. It's not even about the future. It's about the past and present of an institution that means a great deal to the culture of Dallas, one that now appears somewhat jeopardized.
It's difficult to pinpoint the beginning of a good rivalry. It should seem as though the foes were born onto each other. It should give a person something to root against; more importantly, something to cheer for. It should create pride, pomp, and circumstance and enable pageantry.
The first year I attended the State Fair Classic was somewhere around 1997, some 70 years after the tradition had been established. I had been prepared by a Grambling alum, the father hosting a group of us teenagers, "This is a day about the bands, and about tradition. And about the World Famed Tiger Marching Band." Then, my affiliation had been decided.
These traditions, they have complex pasts. The first meeting of the State Fair Classic happened in 1925 between the Wiley College Wildcats and Langston College Lions. It was held on a Monday, then designated as the State Fair of Texas's "Negro Day," and it entwined these historically black colleges.
That first game resulted in a 0-0 score - a fitting outcome, given the lack of focus on actual football at the Classic. The score is of little import when compared to the social traditions surrounding a game that would survive a changing world, a changing Cotton Bowl and provide a comforting permanence amidst the fluctuations these schools would face over the course of 88 years. Monday Night Football, indeed.
In 1955 Juanita Craft would lead a protest against "Negro Day," at the Texas State Fair. By 1961, one week before the Dallas Independent School District was officially integrated, the State Fair announced it and all of its buildings, rides and events would be completely integrated.
Eventually Prairie View would replace Langston College. Grambling State University became the permanent competitor sometime in the 1980s. Today, it's an incredible day of music and gaming and collegiate traditions in Dallas, and we are lucky to have it. And you are crazy to not at least go watch the parade into the Cotton Bowl every year. The history deserves attention, even if it must be commanded with a literal marching band. In 2013, the State Fair Classic, now held on a Saturday, headlines a day of events where no one stands taller or marches with more style than a drum major. And that level of peacocked swagger colors the entire day.
The traditions begin with buying a ticket. William's Chicken, a major sponsor of both the State Fair Classic and the High School Battle of the Bands that preceded it in Lancaster, is also a ticketing outlet. This makes for a fantastic mid-day errand. Sure, you could go to Ticketmaster.com, but then you don't even get any iced tea.
On the day I go, a woman pulls up in a maroon car with maroon tinted windows; she gets out of the car in a maroon nurse's uniform. Scrubs don't keep a lady like this down. Her sunglasses pull your focus up as she walks towards the short line and she pulls her hair down revealing long curls, the tips dipped in the same dark red of her uniform and automobile.
"What?!" she says, exasperated, "There isn't a window for tickets only? This is not how you run a business."
She has a point. We are waiting behind two kind souls who picked the wrong restaurant at which to buy the entire office lunch.
"Four tickets and a large iced tea?" I inquire when my turn comes. "Oh, darling, we out of tickets 'til four o'clock," says the woman behind the counter, preparing a basket of chicken tenders.
"MA'AM. THIS IS NOT HOW YOU RUN A BUISNESS," my nurse friend interrupts. "You should be out here telling us. It's the day before the game; we are all here for tickets, not chicken."
I renegotiate my order: Just the tea.
The Williams' employee stares blankly at the nurse's red curls and sunglasses. "Yeah, well, we been out since this morning."
The Fair Park location of William's Chicken will sell out of their tickets again later that night. The North Dallas location has been sold out for days. There are still tickets at Ticketmaster, but there you won't find a line of women in a South Dallas parking lot, accepting promoter invites for after-shows and surrounding parties for something happening the next day.
A rapper who has traveled from Louisiana passes us all a flyer. A gold tooth in his grin is subtle, not front and center, when he smiles. "Hope you ladies can make it," he says sweetly, in that accent reserved for NOLA boys. We take the flyers, but if anyone was impressed with the smile or accent ... it's hidden.
On game day, the fair is swarming. It's a day of music and spectacle without parallel. This year's pre-game concert from Kelly Rowland brings an early crowd into Fair Park proper, and we have a little time before the festivities officially kick-off. Time to sip on that snuck-in flask of bourbon and the poorly named Barrel-arita one of our own has found near the midway. I'll be direct; it is a hollowed our pineapple full of Piña Colada, and it is a fair game changer.
Students from high school bands from all over the region are strolling the fair grounds. They walk with the pride of knowing we are all here to see their kind.
Your first encounter with one of the official marching bands always comes from seemingly nowhere. We are walking towards the midway as are stopped by the first parade into the Cotton Bowl. The Prairie View A&M "Marching Storm" are in step, their Black Foxes waving and the horn section shining. Like some kind of royal procession, the crowd freezes, scurries to take a picture, gets quiet. The horns blare and step-by-step they make their way into the Cotton Bowl.
Following behind them the World Famed Tiger Marching Band is in place. Covered in gold, they shine despite the cloudy skies overhead. A whistle whistles, and just as I creep too closely to the side of the band the tubas nearly knock us over. I can't keep my eyes off the majorettes. I don't even have a gold leotard.
The bands are impressive, just like we knew they would be. Grambling strikes hot with the hits, from an arrangement of "Body Party" to the only remaining tolerable version of "Blurred Lines." Prairie View is less bombastic, but shows off with more traditional musicianship; Daft Punk blends to Justin Timberlake effortlessly. And we should all be so lucky as to have our events narrated by a historically black college marching band announcer. They are very good at their jobs.
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Glancing around, I notice hardly anyone is in football gear. Fans fall into two categories: dressed for church or dressed for the club. All turned out for the courts of princes and princess from both schools making their way across the field. It's a lot to compete with the men, women, and children in marching band uniforms, who clearly own the place. My first host wasn't wrong; it was a day about music. The day would begin and end with song, binding together a tradition 88 years in the making, providing the very bombastic and well-rehearsed underscore to a tradition that has stood the test of a once tumultuous time.
"So, who won the battle of the bands?" someone would ask me later.
We all did. I relayed to them the goings-on of the day.