By 8 p.m., all decorum was gone.

One of the pint-sized beauty contestants shrieked and scampered across the stage. Another stuck out her tongue as she sauntered past the judges. And several more wandered to the edge of the platform and goggled at the audience.

It was the Beautiful Baby Contest, the primary attraction on the opening night of the Prince George's County Fair -- and the embodiment of all the hokey charm and citizen participation that is a county fair.

Beginning at 6 p.m. and continuing for three hours Thursday, more than 400 Megans, Aprils, Brittanys and Jasons paraded before a panel of amused judges. The contestants, ranging in age from 6 months to 4 years old, received blue ribbons simply for showing up and entering the pageant. A multitude of winners in various age categories also accepted cash prizes, some with bottles or thumbs stuck determinedly in their mouths.

"I'm just glad it's over," said Bonnie Kohansby of Clinton, holding her 22-month-old daughter, Tiffany Lynne, a fourth-place winner in the girls' category of 18- to 24-month-olds.

Tiffany Lynne, a blue-eyed blonde unimpressed by the prize of a crisp $20 bill in her mother's hand, gazed up at the dark star-studded sky over Upper Marlboro and idly made sputtering noises with her lips. She declined to be interviewed.

A few yards away, the Super Loop, a roller coaster-like ride whose occupants are suspended upside down for interminable moments, beckoned to the daring with blinking red and yellow lights. Less adventurous types toured the exhibits of award-winning pumpkins and rhubarb in the striped exhibition tents or tried their luck at skee-ball and games of chance. Cattle lowed and chickens preened in the nearby livestock barns. And the delectable smells of cotton candy, hot dog onions and caramel corn wafted over the midway.

The Prince George's County Fair began in 1842, billing itself as family entertainment, a label that still generally applies. There are no freak shows or exotic dancers. Through Sunday, fairgoers will make their own scarecrows, participate in bicycle rodeos, horseshoe tournaments and tobacco-spitting contests, and root for their favorite pigs in a series of pig races. Last year, about 50,000 people attended the four-day event.

Thursday night marked the return of the Beautiful Baby Contest, which had been suspended for several years because of logistical problems. For most of the young participants, it also marked their stage debut.

Like the majority of the little girls, Tabitha Dickinson, 3, of Cheltenham, was decked out in frothy fineness -- crinolines, patent leather shoes, a pink dress with embroidery and lace. She wore a faux pearl necklace with matching bracelet and dangly earrings; her hair was arranged in a curled pouf. While most of the other participants entered simply to win a little money and add a page or two to the family picture album, however, Tabitha's involvement had a more far-reaching and ambitious purpose.

"I spent $40 on her dress and accessories, just for this," said Tabitha's mother, Tina. "I want to put her in modeling and she needs to get used to the stage. She loves to pose."

"Smile, Tabitha," she said to her daughter, and like a light switch, Tabitha fixed on the visitor a radiant, if somewhat exaggerated, grin.

The male entrants in the pageant showed more variety in their attire. Redskin outfits were popular, as were "The Little Slugger" and "The Little Gentleman" in bow tie and spiffed hair. One tiny trend setter swaggered out in a yellow and black karate outfit, drawing the emcee's inevitable comparisons to actor Chuck Norris. Another debonair young fellow strolled out in a navy blazer, hands casually stuffed in the pockets of his white slacks.

Some of the children relished the spotlight; others apparently wished fervently to be elsewhere. The cash prizes went to the youngsters who displayed the most "personality," which generally meant smiling instead of scowling at the judges.

For her part, Tabitha certainly tried to charm her audience. She confidently walked onto the stage, turned to the judges, and with gentle maternal prodding, bowed graciously -- something no one else had attempted to do. Alas, when the winners in her category were announced, Tabitha's name was not among them.

"Oh, well," she said softly, briefly burying her head in her mother's shoulder. Then, brightening, she left to ride a pony.