There is a certain strange kind of magic that happens when people come together for a crowded festival or street fair. You never know who you’ll bump into who transform your life in an instant.
Take Michael Hilbig. As a young social worker from Germany, Hilbig set out to travel across Europe and Asia at the tender age of 22. He soon ran out of money and found himself stranded somewhere in Asia. That’s when he noticed a street performer juggling. Fascinated, Hilbig asked if he would teach him how to juggle.
“From the moment I started doing it I knew this was something I really wanted to throw myself into, to really explore further,” he recalled. “So I just started to juggle in the street and suddenly people were giving me money for it.”
Michael Hilbig was no more. Hilby The Skinny German Juggling Boy was born.
Hilby continued to travel around Asia, learning new tricks and perfecting his technique. He even went so far as to spend six months at a Buddhist monastery in Japan. One would imagine the focus and concentration that the monks taught him came in handy as he began developing an act that involved juggling things like power tools and flaming stuffed animals.
Eventually his wanderings took him to America, where he worked for three years as a performer at Busch Gardens. But the call of the open road once again beckoned, and Hilby struck out on his own to perform at festivals all over the world. As they have for the past several years, Hilby’s travels will take him and his death-defying acrobatics to Rhinebeck and the Dutchess County Fair in August, where he has built a cult following. And not just with fairgoers.
“Oh, Hilby! We love Hilby!” says Jack Prather. Like Hilby, Prather has criss-crossed the country dozens of times, to countless state and county fairs, festivals, and trade shows. Chances are, if you’ve been to the Dutchess County Fair, you’ve seen his handiwork too. But you’ve probably never seen Prather himself. He’s not the draw. The draw is Oscar the Robot, who Prather first built and programmed back in the 1980’s. Oscar went to his first ever festival in Rochester in 1989. He has been entertaining and learning at fairs ever since.
If the idea of a robot learning how to do things at a fair seems odd, it’s all part of Oscar’s job. Visitors tend to assume that, because he’s a robot, Oscar will know everything there is to know about the fair. This keeps both Prather and Oscar very busy.
“We’re programming him with new information all the time about the specifics of every fair, what the schedule is, and who the performers are that year. But there’s other stuff that Oscar has to learn. People always want to know where the best funnel cakes are, so Oscar has to go around and check out all the funnel cake vendors, even though he really prefers the cooking oil instead.”
Oscar’s hunger for knowledge isn’t confined to the culinary arts. As most fairs have an agricultural component (especially the Dutchess County Fair), Oscar always makes a point to go to the barn areas and talk to the kids, learning about their cows and chickens and horses. “What Oscar really loves to do is find the funny stuff about animals that most people don’t know,” said Prather. “For example, every chicken is born with one tooth! You know the phrase ‘Where are a hen’s teeth?’ Well, every chicken and every reptile start out with what is called an ‘egg tooth’ to help them break out of their egg. Little fun stuff like that is what Oscar picks up on, that he can then use to educate other boys and girls at the fair, and lead them over to the barn areas where they can get even more curious.”
Curiosity is certainly something that Oscar seems to foster in people, although many times that curiosity is focused on Oscar himself. Prather prefers not to discuss the specifics of Oscar’s programming. “I’m sure everyone wants to know how Hilby does all of his tricks too,” he says. “But you want to keep them curious. And what Oscar tries to do is direct that curiosity into something positive. Because that curious kid might grow up to make the next generation of robots. I’ve worked with kids in robotic programs at their schools, I’ve helped them build their own robots for workshops and science fairs. Those endless questions kids have about how things work, those questions can really work to everyone’s benefit.”
Prather continues to program and fine-tune Oscar so that he can be even more entertaining and educational every year, but there’s still one very important task that Oscar hasn’t mastered. “Oscar performs about 150 days a year,” Prather says. “And while we’re blessed that we get to run all over the country and do shows all over, the problem is that I have to be his chauffeur as well since he still hasn’t learned how to drive. We’re working on it, though.”
Interestingly enough both Prather and Hilby, men who have worked at hundreds of fairs all across the country, gave the exact same answers when asked what makes the Dutchess County Fair so unique. Both men said that the food at the Dutchess County Fair was the best of any festival they’ve been to, and that the grounds themselves are more beautiful than any other fair they’ve played.
“I don’t know how much money they make,” Hilby says. “But you can tell that whatever it is, they put it all right back into the fair itself.” Of course, Hilby has other reasons for being sentimental about the Dutchess County Fair. “I met my wife there eight years ago on a blind date” he says, proving once again that you never know who you’ll meet at a fair who will change your life forever.
Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer in Beacon, NY. You can find him online at brianpjcronin.com and on Twitter as @brianpjcronin.