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Del Mar Fairgrounds: History

1946-1984 — Don Diego Years

The San Diego County Fair resumed in 1946. Among the new offerings was a horse show competition that grew so large over the years, it was separated from the Fair and now is staged annually in April and May as the Del Mar National Horse Show. The show attracts some of the West Coast's top riders in Hunter/Jumper, Western and Dressage competition.

To get the fair-going public back into its old habit, the promotion department pulled out all the stops in publicizing that year's Fair. One of their ideas was to have their artist draw a symbol of hospitality for the fair. The picture the artist came up with was a dashing caballero, smiling and welcoming all with hat in hand — "Bienvenidos, Amigos."

Don Diego was born, and he would remain the most-recognized symbol of the County Fair for four decades to come. The character was based on a real-life Don Diego, Don Diego Alvarado, whose family had a large land grant in Del Mar during the late 1800s. Don Diego was known for his grand parties, and was regarded as the local symbol of a gracious host.

The image was used in all Fair promotions. But the publicity people wanted more than a picture, so they hired an actor to play the part. In 1947, the actor hired to fill the role was a young Spaniard by the name of Tom Hernandez. His Don Diego was to be the longest-lasting role in show business history at that time. He was not available for the 1948 fair, but returned in 1949. He portrayed the living Don Diego every year after until his untimely death in 1984. For 37 years he made Don Diego come alive two months of the year, as he traveled the county in advance of the Fair to promote it, and then maintained a prominent presence during it.

Tom Hernandez is no longer with us, but Don Diego remains the Fair's symbolic host. The tile likeness of Don Diego graces the clock tower along the main avenue, as it has since 1954. A bronze, 16-foot statue of Tom Hernandez as Don Diego was unveiled the night before the 1985 Fair at the main entrance of the Fairgrounds. Don Diego Memorial Scholarships are awarded to deserving young people each year.

In 1947 the Fair's promotion department came up with another idea that lasted many years — the Fairest of the Fair Pageant. The young lady was selected at the Fair-sponsored pageant from among the winners of locally sponsored contests held throughout the county, and escorted around the Fair by the dashing Don Diego. The first Fairest of the Fair in 1947 was Claire LeRoy of East San Diego. (There were earlier Fair Queens, but LeRoy was the first to hold the Fairest of the Fair title.) There has been a succession of Fairests in the years since, the best known of which was the 1958 the Fairest of the Fair, a young La Jolla woman by the name of Raquel Tejada, who went on to become Raquel Welch of movie and television fame. The last Fairest of the Fair was Troy Lemperle, who reigned over the 2004 Fair.

Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd, Del Mar, CA 92014

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