Horse jumping and competitive games at shows were increasingly performed as much for the spectators as for the participants. Grandstands were built around the show-ring from the early 1900s, and loudspeakers were introduced in the 1930s.
Entertainment events had begun even earlier. Brass bands and pipe bands often played at shows in the late 19th century. During the South African War, troopers displayed their prowess at marching and horse riding to enthusiastic applause. In 1920 at the Manawatū show, a plane looped the loop. In later years the Manawatū show had go-karts and police-dog displays, and in the 1970s the spectacle of ‘hell drivers’ crashing through walls of flame.
By the early 2000s such events were essential to a show’s success. The 2007 Waikato show included ‘rough riders’ doing dangerous stunts on horseback, armoured knights jousting, fire-eating and juggling, and a fireworks display. The Auckland Royal Easter Show offered the Cadbury Great Bunny Show and the Looney Tunes Loot Show – family fun for city kids.
Sideshow alleys appeared in the late 19th century – one was introduced at the Hawke’s Bay show in 1892. Emerging from entertainments like world’s fairs, sideshows were usually provided by travelling troupes that went from one rural show to another.
Fortune tellers, music halls and cinemas were popular in the early years. There were skittle games with prizes of plaster-of-paris dogs, and illicit gambling, such as games of crown and anchor. One popular attraction, usually advertised by a ‘leather-lunged gentleman’ hollering outside, was the ‘freaks’ – very fat people, or odd animals like fighting kangaroos or the Queensland ‘shoat’ (half sheep, half goat).
In 1897 Manawatū introduced a steam-driven merry-go-round, but these did not become universal until the late 1920s. There were soon chair-o-planes and eventually ferris wheels. The 1930s saw the arrival of exotic confectionery such as candy floss and brightly coloured popcorn. There were always rigged shooting galleys and ‘laughing clowns’ – moving plaster clowns' heads, in whose mouths the punters dropped balls.
The sideshows offered an exciting family time out for one special day a year.
As the shows focused on entertainment, their audience grew. Early shows had been attended by farmers who came, as W. H. Beetham wrote, ‘to look at each others stock and to have a yarn about matters agricultural and pastoral’ 1. As farmers’ wives and children were drawn in, the show became a gala day for which the whole community turned out. It became more ‘a show of people than a show of produce’. 2 Families would turn up in their gigs or cars and bring a picnic. Brick coppers were built to provide a steady supply of hot water for tea. At Hawke’s Bay, mothers could leave their babies at a Plunket building, and enjoy the fair. People dressed up for the occasion. The success of the show depended much on the weather – rain would bring a big decline in attendance. In the evening there was often a dance, or even a formal ball.
Wet and dry
In 1902 it was decided that there would be no alcohol at the Gore show. But there were no parched palates, because the occasion was marked by heavy rain. The local newspaper described the show as both ‘wet and dry’. 3
Increasingly town and city people were attracted to shows. At first the promoters were largely the local farming élite – but as early as 1888 in Gore there were complaints about the lawyers, bankers, merchants and auctioneers who were joining. By the 1960s A & P associations were deliberately recruiting townsfolk as members.
City people began to come in their thousands for a day at the show. Some shows were extended to two or even three days. Show week was often timed to coincide with local race meetings, and ‘people’s days’ began when local businesses would close for a half-day. In Canterbury the provincial anniversary day was moved to the ‘people’s day’. Winter shows sprang up, with a more urban flavour and featuring industrial displays and home appliances. In the 1980s the Egmont show was described as ‘perhaps the greatest factor welding town and country people together’. 4 Shows close to the big cities had displays of wines and exotic foods.