A Fair Business

The faces of carnival workers belong to those who live different and interesting lives.
Sunday, August 22, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:03 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SEDALIA — Some kids threaten it after forced consumption of brussels sprouts, broccoli or a boring lecture about a grade card. Some might even go so far as to disappear for a couple of days, just to make their parents relieved upon their return.

Only a small number, though, carries through with the life-changing pilgrimage into a world turned upside down. It’s a world of late bedtimes, all-day play, cotton candy and funnel cakes. It is the world of the carnival.

Carnies are a mystery to most. They are the weathered men and women vapidly pulling levers on the Tilt-a-Whirl or tirelessly hawking softballs for people to throw at milk bottles. And even though they might work 13 hours a day on the midway, there is a life behind that guise.

It is a life of business as they try to make a living at fairs around the country. It is a life of frustration, constantly dealing with strangers who gripe about the $25 they wound up paying for a stuffed Shrek doll.

In the end, though, most carnies will say it’s a good life that provides opportunities and income they otherwise might never have had.

Joining up

Tony Leath, from the state of Louisiana, is proud of his 22 years in the business. Leath got on the job early.

“I ran away from home when I was 12,” Leath said in his raspy voice. “I lived every boy’s dream. I ran away and joined the circus.”

With sun glinting off his blade glasses, he allowed a grin beneath his mustache as he recalled his first taste of carny life. A.J. Norris, another Louisiana native who works with Leath for Lowery Carnival Co., stepped up to hear his story.

“I turned 13 on the road and had a keg of beer for my birthday,” Leath said to skeptical listeners. “I’m serious!”

That first summer was a bit scary for Leath. Being away from his parents was difficult, but he worked with kids and said it was a blast. He would stay in a bunkhouse and goof around all day.

Leath didn’t stay away from home for long. He returned to attend school after his first adventure but spent every summer afterward traveling with the carnival.

A lifetime’s work of “making other people happy” fosters Leath’s boyish enthusiasm. Sitting on the counter and swinging his feet, he tried to persuade people to take a stab at the wall of balloons behind him while he laughed and joked with friends.

Leath keeps a carefree attitude through almost everything. Like any carnival worker, he deals with upset customers, cheap customers and sometimes no customers, but everyone has limits. Maintaining a semblance of tact in the midst of an awful day is part of the carny lifestyle. After all, carnies still have to make money.

Making bank

Norris shook his head in frustration while brandishing one of his booth’s cork- shooting rifles as the throng of fairgoers passed by. Too few were choosing to play. The Missouri State Fair, Norris said, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“People come up to me, and they’re like, ‘Two dollars a game?’ They act like it’s their life savings. It’s just two dollars.”

Although Norris can make as much as $400 a day at other fairs, he’s lucky to make $200 in Missouri. Despite the money-conscious crowds, Norris treats everyone as a potential player.

As a group of kids intrigued by his arsenal approached, Norris amped up the showmanship.

“All right, are you ready to play?” he asked, stuffing a cork into the tip of the gun and cocking it.

“How much is it?” one inquired.

“You get one game for $2 or three games for $5.”

His prospects unconvinced, Norris leaned in with a special offer.

“All right, all right. Listen to this.,” he said, his hand over his mouth as if he were revealing a great secret. “Play the game, and even if you lose, I’ll give her a prize,” he said, gesturing toward the only girl in the foursome. “What? I’m serious.”

The boy reluctantly reached into his pocket and produced $2. He leveled the rifle toward the yellow plastic cups and unleashed the cork with a decidedly anti-climatic “pop.” The glancing blow wasn’t enough to topple the cup.

Norris slapped the counter and looked at the girl “All right, pick something out. … You won it, he done it.”

The girl demurely selected a small plush toy. Norris watched as they walked away, obviously proud of his ability to recruit a player.

Sometimes carnies will give away toys if people have paid enough. That way they don’t go home angry. Other carnies, however, try to squeeze every cent out of patrons. Norris dislikes that approach.

“I’m from the Dirty South,” he said. “We’re all about hustling. I hustled the illegal way, now I hustle the legal way.”

Glib talk is only half the business. Sometimes carnies have to improvise.

Gary Leach, another Louisiana Lowery worker, sat at his booth with rolls and rolls of toilet paper in front of him, open toilet seats hanging behind him. The object of the game was to throw the rolls of toilet paper through the empty toilet seats. He smiled away the absurdity of the situation.

“I never thought I’d be making a living rolling toilet paper in tape,” Leach said.

The remains of a balloon-popping game stood behind the toilet seats, hundreds of rubbery remnants scattering the ground. Leach said the 18 balloon games at the carnival were too many. The crowd needed something new. Leach had to change his plans to stay on top.

“Before I give up a blue ribbon for a red ribbon, I’ll roll up toilet paper,” Leach said.

Starting out with kiddie rides and unpopular games, some carnies work up to running their own attractions. That’s where the real money is.

Major carnival companies book events like the Missouri State Fair. In this case, it was Murphy Brothers Expositions and Lowery. Private game owners then rent midway sites. At the Missouri State Fair, it costs $100 for each foot of midway frontage.

Potter Davis, who has helped run games for five years, said people with multiple games can make up to $20,000 during a large event.

Carnie crises

Denise George, a 22-year veteran carny, owns two games with her boyfriend. She said it’s becoming harder to make money.

“Carnival business is going down,” George said. “Rents are higher, gas is higher, stock is higher and the money’s not there. We make the same gross, but we’re paying out more.”

Problems like that can make older carnies “crusty,” George said.

“Most of them are into alcohol or drugs,” George said. “It’s very stressful. Many of them die early from heart attacks or alcoholism.”

George said some carnies smoke a little pot to mellow out at the end of the day. Others opt for a few beers before bed.

Leach said there isn’t much drug use beyond that. Carnies might use drugs if they’re available in the host town but normally don’t carry drugs with them.

Dealing with employees can be difficult for managers. Norris said homeless people or those running from police sometimes join the carnival, making for some less-than-reliable help.

Bobby Shrock of Florida, a carny of 26 years, said it doesn’t matter what the challenge, the show must go on. Shrock used to own games and rides but gave them up because of all the headaches. Now he works for one of his friends.

Working a pool game that challenges customers to make four balls without missing, Shrock has to deal with the public all day, every day, for nine months of the year. He said one challenge is to put up with obnoxious drunks without being submissive. He sometimes has to put them in their place.

“You can’t let the public get your goat,” Shrock said. “When they find out they can get to you, they’ll drive you down.”

The good life

Even after a hard day of placating patrons on five hours of sleep, most carnies will say it’s a good life.

Norris said he makes good money and has traveled throughout Florida, Texas, Missouri and his native Louisiana. He hopes this winter to hook up with a carnival that tours California. Others go even farther. When Shrock was an independent carnie, for example, he took his ride to Mexico and Venezuela.

The highlight for Norris thus far has been his trip through Florida.

“Port St. Lucie, Florida: There was this beach — that was the most beautiful beach,” Norris said, shaking his head with amazement. “Clean sand, beautiful women.

“I grew up in Louisiana, swimming in the muddy Gulf water. This had beautiful green waters just washing up on the beach.”

Tranquility is a treat for carnival workers. Shrock stood by his pool table as the night wound down. Whirling rides stirred the din of the midway into a churning sea of squeals, laughter and conversation, creating an odd lullaby that bid the midway goodnight.

As the crowd moved on, leaving Shrock alone with his pool table, he let out a sigh.

“It’s not a bad life,” he said.

Sometimes, though, he simply wants to get away. At the end of the carnival season, he’ll be ready for a break. He’ll recede from the clamor. He’ll neither take nor make any phone calls for 30 days. He’ll retreat to a place that’s silent and peaceful and let the months of carnival work leave his body.

The location is anyone’s guess.

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