INDIANAPOLIS — It was a little bit of Hollywood in maybe the most unlikely place, the Indiana State Fair.
For about 10 years starting in the 1970s, WTTV Channel Four aired “The State Fair Variety Show” for a half hour just about every night of the fair’s run. The audience packed into the now-demolished Lincoln Theatre on the Fairgrounds to watch not only local acts, but big name stars who were appearing at the fair. It was sort of the “Indiana’s Got Talent” of its day.
“Keeping in mind that our viewers were Indiana as they are currently, and we thought the State Fair was Indiana, so we might as well spotlight something generic to our viewers,” said show producer Don Tillman in 2000.
The show was hosted by a then-little known news anchor from Cincinnati named Nick Clooney. He was a smooth dressing and smooth talking master of ceremonies who was comfortable with anyone.
“I think he genuinely had a great time doing it. He was such a class act too. He always wore a suit and tie whether he was talking to a little girl showing a rabbit or interviewing the lady in the husband calling contest,” said Peggy McClelland, a camera operator on the show when it started.
Clooney went on to a long and successful career in local and national television. But he’s perhaps best known today for his famous son, George Clooney. The future movie star would often sit in the audience with his family and watch his father onstage.
“George and his sister would come and sit in the audience sometimes. But to us, those were just Nick’s kids. They would come and watch their dad onstage. They weren’t there for every show, but they would pop in,” recalled McClelland.
The star power of the Variety Show was a matter of convenience. They were all headliners performing literally down the street on the fair’s main stage.
“So from the Dolly Parton’s to the Captain and Tennille’s, all the big stars who were already in town to perform that night, we would bring them down, and they would do walk ons,” said McClelland.
But the main attractions on the show were the everyday Hoosiers who performed. It was their chance to shine in the spotlight of a local TV show.
“We were able to showcase some of the talents that bring people joy, and you just don’t see that anymore,” said McClelland.