In June 9 IssueBy John ThompsonTimes Journal Reporter
Every year the trucks role into town, and seemingly magically overnight the empty space of the Jaycee's Fairgrounds transforms into a magical bazarr of lights and colors, sights and sounds; the carnival is in town.
The Russell County Fair is like fairs across the Southeast. There are two distinct happenings. The locals have pageants, run races, judge jellies and display the best traditions of life in a small rural community.
And then there's the carnival.
The carnival is full of those folks we don't know: people of different backgrounds, with different accents, and different looks. We are simultaneously intrigued by what their life might be like but suspicious. Oh we've all grown up on the stories of disrepute of carneys, living the life of nomadic gypsies, doing who knows what.
Like most contemporary myths, the truth is often much simpler and not nearly as nefarious.
James works the balloon pop game. It's Monday morning and Belle City Amusements, the midway carnival providers, overnight have transformed the fairgrounds into a playground waiting to happen. The rides are up or are in the finishing stages of being erected. Here and there, the ride operators, mechanics and assistants are spraying down the rides, cleaning off the mud and muck, replacing bulbs, and generally preparing the rides for the throngs that will begin appearing later that day. Right now there's sort of a ghost town feel to the lack of fairgoers.
James blows up his balloons. "If you pop a balloon, you get a prize," he said. "You get a chance to win anything you see here." He indicates the prizes that line the board of balloons and frame his game of chance and sounds like he's practicing his pitch.
Ruddy complected and stoop shouldered, James, like many of the carnival workers, are at least hesitant to have their picture taken, "I'm pretty dirty right now from working," he said. Later he, like the others, will clean themselves up to be presentable as they try to entice passersby to try their luck.
"I like it," James says of the work, "You get to travel, meet people, and make a little money. It's not a bad gig." He's from Indiana and says he's been in the game for just a few years. He said he can definitely tell the economy is affecting things. "The games are the last on the list of things people do," he explained, "First it's the rides, then the food, then if there's any money left they'll play a game or two."
It was Peter, who runs the "Lucky Duck" game who explained how the game operators make their pay. As it turns out, the parent outfit runs some of their own games, then leases out spaces to independents. Peter works for his brother-in-law who has three game outfits set up this year. "I've been doing this 15 years now," Peter said. "I can run really any of the games. They usually just put me where they need me." He said his favorites are the Frog Bog or the Pool Table stand.
Today he's cleaning ducks individually and placing them in the pond preparing for another week in another town; one of 45 or so he'll see in a year.
"We get paid a commission," Peter says, "Between 15 and 25 percent…depends. But out of that you have to pay rent, utilities, and bunk fees."
Bunk fees are often a carney’s rent. travel trailers, between 20 and 44 foot long, follow the rides from town to town. Renters pay between $10 and $100, 10 or more to a trailer. "You can get singles or double rooms," Peter said.
This is a life he says best fits him, "I've done a lot of jobs. Before this I was an assistant manager with Sears and Roebuck," he said. as he finishes scrubbing one duck and picks up another out of a large mesh tote, "I've been a hot walker groom for a race track and I've worked for a newspaper printer."
He looks at me a little on the sligh, saying, "I was also a petroleum dispension engineer," and when I showed interest, a slight smile began to creep across his lips, "I pumped gas at a gas station," he said as we both had a chuckle.
At first he says he began doing this because he had a nervous breakdown, but later clarifies that he just wasn't cut out for the day to day work life, "really I was just extremely depressed and hated life. This kind of work better suits me," though he preferred travelling the Alaska carnival route with the cooler weather, "I've had two heat strokes. They say after you have the first one then you're going to have more."
Most of the travelling carnival workers were reluctant to speak, and even more reluctant to have their picture taken, but not Peter. "I've done a lot of these interviews with newspapers and television," he tells me, and it's understandable, he's open and willing to tell how it is on the road, "Basically I live the life of a gypsy," he says.
As it turns out, the life of travelling has been his life from the time he was a child when he travelled the dog show circuits with his dog breeding and training mother. Amiable and easygoing, he knows difficult times. Multiple seizures as a child, along with terrible accidents that seem to gravitate toward to the left side of his face led to reconstructive surgery and a glass eye; a fact he demonstrates by removing his glasses and tapping his eye with the earpiece. Tap tap tap.
The talking and openness must come natural, because he tells me that he, and his cohorts he describes as "like a big family" are often unjustly maligned in the media, "they sometimes take what you say and twist it all around and make you look bad," he says.
The dark reputation that follows "carney's" he tells me, is undeserved these days. "I know that it used to be bad but it isn't now. The people I work for, if anybody even shows a sign of having done drugs they would be out," he tells me.
The economy has been tough, he assures me, and how much he makes is a real crapshoot. "I guess the most I've made, I came out of Tulsa, Oklahoma with $2000 in 14 days, and I guess the worst was when I made $30 while we were set up in Gainesville, Florida."
It's reaching mid-day as I leave Peter, still cleaning what seems to be an endless supply of ducks. There's one more stop to make; to see the operator of Belle City Amusements.
Walking to the front of the fairgrounds I see what was somehow missed upon driving in, a small caravan of large and very nice travel trailers. I've come to speak with Charles Panacek, President of Belle City Amusements and along with his wife oversee the daily operations. They too live a life on the road, making sure that each town gets the best presentation of a midway event they can muster.
They've just come in from Muhlenberg County where they provided the midway entertainment for their county fair and a little over a week from now they'll be packing up to move on to Clarksville, Tennessee to do it all over again.
Belle City Amusements was started by Panecek's father 63 years ago, the son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, Charles Panecek Senior started pony rides on the farm as a teenager after seeing it done at the local fair, and thus began his lifelong career in the outdoor entertainment industry.
As I approached his trailer, Panacek is talking with three people and it's obvious they're coordinating something, making sure whatever is being done is done correctly. He separates himself to talk to me, as he motions me toward one of the four lawn chairs sitting in the shade of his trailer.
I get the feeling he's been through this countless times, and he's willing to let me lead the discussion as I assure him that the aim is to write a nice article that will get the county interested in heading to the fair this year.
"It's a great family bargain to come out to the fair," Panecek tells me, "for $8 or $10 you get to do all these things for a reasonable price." In recent years the price of admission allows free rides for the visit. "They pay one price to get in, and once they pay that get everything inside for that one price, all the rides, all the grandstand entertainment, everything."
Panecek points out that they have rides that no other outfit has in the state, including a few new additions. "The drop zone is very popular," he says of the ride that takes an increasingly anxious but willing participant up 120 feet before free fall dropping them to a fast, but steady deceleration and stop, "it's the only one in the state playing county fairs."
New this year is "The Nitro."
"It's the only one east of the Mississippi," he assures me, "This is the first time it's been here this year. It's a giant pendulum that swings the riders back and forth and spins the riders around at the same time."
Like many industries throughout the country, the amusement industry is not immune to the harsh economy, but lack of customers or dollars spent wasn't the first thing Panecek spoke of, "yeah, it's tough right now, especially with the price of diesel fuel." Consider that not only is fuel used to move a massive operation, but also to continuously keep dozens of generators pumping, it's easy to see that a small increase in fuel prices can have a detrimental effect, and even worse so when prices have been increasing rapidly. Financial headaches all outdoor amusement industries have to deal with, but the message Panecek wanted to end with was the economical value of a visit to the fair, "It's very reasonable pricing and a very good use of the entertainment dollar. We have a lot to offer for such a low price."
Leaving Mr. Panecek I walk toward the far end of the midway, to where The Nitro is located. Assembly and cleaning continues as I see workers with backs and chests almost unimaginably darkened by the sun, the shade of a dark wood stain.
The operator puts the ride into motion, going through an inspection routine to make sure it's working properly. Three workers lean against the fence, looking at the job they've not long completed putting together a massive behemoth of a ride, cleaning it to a sparkle shine. "People love this ride," says another James, "They're always taking pictures of this ride. It's the greatest ride out there."
He's trying to sell me on the ride and how the kids will be lined up to the road just to get a chance to ride it. He's a salesman, this James. He may have been putting this ride together this particular morning, but I expect to see him in a dual role as barker come that evening.