As talent show marks 50th anniversary, fair-goers reflect on rural tradition
By JAMI KUNZER firstname.lastname@example.org
When the McHenry County Fair Talent Contest first began 50 years ago, the Kuensters were the family to beat.
T.J. Kuenster and his four siblings were among the first to take the stage, and a few of them returned for repeat performances through the years, taking top honors.
"We almost turned it into a dynasty," remembered Kuenster, who has gone on to become a writer, musician and producer and spent years working as the music director and keyboardist for country legend Glen Campbell.
Kuenster also has created songs for television and radio ads and animated films, such as "All Dogs Go to Heaven" and "RockaDoodle."
With the contest – slated for 7 p.m. Aug. 1 in the Hansen Pavilion at the McHenry County Fair in Woodstock – marking its 50th anniversary this year, organizers have kept track of many past contestants whose talents have translated into careers. The contest is just one of many attractions at the fair, an event rooted in rural history that brings families out for carnival rides, a demolition derby, tractor pulls, live music and, of course, a look at everything to do with farming.
Along with Kuenster and his siblings, talent show contestants have gone on to perform elsewhere, in places such as Nashville and California, said Kathy Thomas, who has organized the contest for more than 35 years.
Interest in the contest has fluctuated, she said, but it always draws a big crowd at the fair.
"I just enjoy helping provide an opportunity for the contestants to be seen, and their music to be heard," she said. "I enjoy watching where their careers go."
Kuenster's musical roots can be traced to one of the Talent Contests' very first stages, featuring a 12-year-old Kuenster dressed alongside his siblings in a sort of sailor outfit similar to the Von Trapp children from "The Sound of Music."
The five of them – T.J., Dan, Mark, Luke and Andrea – played instruments and sang "Green, Green" by The New Christy Minstrels.
"It was more of a folky kind of thing," Kuenster remembered. "We went there and won first place. That was a thrill. We had some little dance routine. ... It turned out people liked it."
Kuenster and his family had just moved to a farm in rural Crystal Lake from the south side of Chicago and discovered the fair. The family had cows, sheep, chickens and horses.
"We got into the 4-H and ended up looking foward to going to the fair and competing in the talent show," said Kuenster, who recently moved from Branson, Missouri, to Dallas, Texas. "That was a thrill, such fond memories. We have a strong connection with the McHenry Fair and with the talent show. ... We were the pioneers."
Everyone in the family played instruments, with T.J. – known for piano now – playing guitar back then. His siblings played ukulele, piano, drums and all sorts of other instruments.
Kuenster returned a few years later with his own band, made up of friends and his brother Dan, to perform "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Dan played the ukulele, donned a black wig and pretended to be Tiny Tim, as the band also played "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." The group won first place.
Their sister – now Andrea Kuenster Markese – also returned, performing a solo and playing the piano.
She won as well, and still performs, plays piano and writes songs in Florida.
Featured in a new documentary, "I'll Be Me," about Campbell's final touring years and his battle with Alzheimer's, T.J. Kuenster said he always wanted to come back to the McHenry County Fair.
"In my career with Glen, we did a lot of fairs, state and county fairs. I was hoping Glen would maybe play back at the county fair and everything would be full circle," he said. "It would have been fun to have played back there."
Following is a list of performers in this year's McHenry County Talent Contest:
Juniors (Perform at 7 p.m. Aug. 1.)
Brianne Markee of Crystal Lake – vocal
Lars Burke of Crystal Lake – yo-yo
Katie Burris of Crystal Lake – vocal
Ross Relic of Crystal Lake – comedy
Kaci Callahan/Breonna Culver of Huntley – vocal duet
Andre Reilly of Algonquin – guitar
Alexis Schwartz of McHenry – vocal
Alyssa & Jordan St. John of Crystal Lake – vocal duet
Seniors (Perform at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 1)
Stephen Schuch of Woodstock – vocal/piano
Carmen Seda of Crystal Lake – vocal/piano
Ryan Lammers/Cale Singleton of Cary – vocal/instrumental
Lena Burke of Crystal Lake – vocal
Kogan Murphy of Crystal Lake – dance
Kevin Coppola of Crystal Lake – drums
Katie Carsello/Christine Cisko of Spring Grove – vocal/guitar
Marissa Glosny of Cary – vocal