For every concert in the Pepsi Grandstand during the Missouri State Fair, Tim Eppenauer is certain he has the best seat in the house – and it faces away from the stage.
This is Eppenauer’s 20th year operating spotlights for grandstand concerts, and each of those evenings he pauses to look out over the fair’s midway.
“Every night that I work up here I get the chance to turn around and see this gorgeous sunset over Pettis County, Missouri. Every night it should be a picture on a calendar,” he said.
Eppenauer started working at the fair when he was 14 years old. His first duties were in the commissary under the grandstand in the days before it was illegal for minors to handle alcohol; his job was filling plastic cups with soda and beer for the vendors who sold drinks in the grandstand. Later he would sell roasted ears of corn for the Missouri Corn Growers Association and work a year in the fair’s publicity office before joining the concert stage crew. That gig led to his current role.
“Of course, 20 years ago we had a completely different crew running the lights and sound, but the guys who are running it now have been here six or seven years,” he said. As the veteran of the crew, “When things go wrong, they all come to you. They want to know what to do.”
Toward the end of one of this year’s concerts, Eppenauer and the other three spotlight operators lost communication with the lighting director, something that had never happened to Eppenauer before. With his three crewmates looking to him for guidance, Eppenauer told them to stay focused on their performer and just fade out at the end of the song and fade back up when the next one started.
“We did that for the final three or four songs,” he said. “It worked out just fine. Everybody clapped and went home, so we were happy.”
Over two decades in his perch at the top of the grandstand, Eppenauer has seen plenty of changes, including greater intensity of lighting and the advent of LED lights which help the stage come alive. When new operators join the crew, he stresses the need to focus solely on the performance.
“If you mess up, people are going to know,” Eppenauer said. “You are directly affecting the show with what you are doing so it is important to pay attention.”
In his regular life, Eppenauer is a surveyor, working for Pettis County Surveyor Kerry Turpin. Among his jobs was the Trail’s End Monument at the edge of the fairgrounds. Both Trail’s End and the fair bring new faces to Sedalia, but those Eppenauer encounters at the fair tend to have significantly higher profiles.
“Even though we are working with these folks whose names you have heard on the radio and TV, they just want to be treated like normal people. They put on a face when they have to meet the crowds and they become the entertainment again,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to talk to them after they have taken that down.”
Two acts that have stood out for Eppenauer over the years are Big and Rich, who were really down-to-Earth and socialized with the entire stage crew, and a then-newcomer Brad Paisley, whose 2002 performance opening for Chris Cagle still stands as Eppenauer’s favorite.
“I knew right away when he started playing that this guy is a real entertainer,” Eppenauer said. “Being here and doing this, we get to hear some of the new talent. Brad Paisley was excellent and he still does an awesome job.”
What has kept Eppenauer coming back every year for two decades isn’t the money the job pays, but rather the extraordinary experience it offers.
“I’m getting a chance to be part of the history of the Missouri State Fair,” he said. “You know you’re going to miss it if you say, ‘No, I’m not going to work it this year.’ So I keep coming back.”