Life of a carnie

It’s an organization just like any other Main Street American business. They have conventions, pay taxes, and have even flourished in the economic downturn. The name of this growing industry is carnival amusements. Companies that specialize in the entertainment of county fairs have evolved from the notorious small vagabond groups of sideshow characters to a well-organized, multi-million dollar industry. Instead of acts featuring the bearded lady or two-headed animals, modern day carnivals consist of diesel fueled rides and token taking games manned by trained employees. The stigma of the carnival lifestyle being an undesirable profession is like a stubborn leech, refusing to let go despite the industry’s best efforts. William Guillispie is one of the hundred full time employees with Brown’s Amusements, the company that brings the carnival to the Cache County Fair. He runs the mini-ball game for the carnivals. “Two tokens for one shot, five tokens for three,” he rattles off without hesitation. He explains the business’s bad name is rooted in history. “Back in the day the carnival used to rob people,” says Guillispie. “The customers used to be called marks because when they went in through the entrance to pay the entrance fee the guy at the door would mark them with chalk so they knew who had a lot of money. They just had a bad reputation in the old days.” Despite this, jobs as a carnie are being snatched up faster than ever due to the economy. Guillispie found the open position with Brown’s Amusements on the online classifieds website Craigslist. After some safety training he’s been on the job for five weeks. He says the work pays off when they stop in a ‘good’ city. “There are some towns that are slow but if you get the right town you make a lot of money,” Guillispie explains. “I just get 20% commission of whatever I make and I have the potential to make a lot of money here.” For 10 months out of the year the carnies of Brown’s Amusements, many of them documented workers from Mexico, travel across the western United States staying in one place no longer than a week at a time. “We joke we’re not homeless, we’re yard less,” says Brown’s Amusements Promotions Manager John Macallum. The company starts their journey in Arizona, working their way north to Colorado, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. The company’s band of trailers, with everything from rides to employee housing, resemble a long metal centipede on the highway as they trek to the next city. Days are long when you’re a carnival worker. After reaching their destination, the first three days are dedicated to setting up the rides and booths for the fairs. “We take our time a little bit setting up to make sure everything is good,” says Tami Duckworth, Brown’s Amusements Promotions Operator. “They do a lot of safety checks and wash everything and really make sure everything looks great for the opening. Our guys are so well trained that they really have it down to a science now. They can get it up and down pretty quick.” Once everything is set up and ready for opening day, the carnival workers man the booths and keep everything in order so their customers stay entertained. A typical day is 12 hours or more depending on the city the company is in. “Here in Logan the fairs opened from 11 to 11, it’s a 12 hour day,” she says. “It’s long hours and it’s hard work and it’s not for everyone. It really isn’t. It takes a special person to be in this business.” Duckworth oversees the hiring of locals to work a few of the carnivals games for the duration of the fair. “They think it’s going to be all fun and everything but it’s hard work,” she says. “One guy quit yesterday after 3 hours, he decided it wasn’t for him.” Because of the time they spend on the road, the carnival workers live in RV’s with typically 10 other people. Each is equipped with a shower, toilet and sink, and electricity. Some, like Guillispie, live in smaller, more private trailers. “My girlfriend and I just moved out of a smaller one into a bigger one,” he says. “The bigger ones are a bit better but, you know, one person it’s okay but two people in one of those small trailers is not enough room. But it’s free. They don’t really charge you for it so you can’t complain.” Employees do have to pay for food expenses, bathroom supplies, and laundry costs. Everything else is provided. Duckworth likes to think of the company as a city on wheels. “We’re pretty self-sufficient,” she says. “All we need is water. We have our own power. We can set up pretty much anywhere.” Many employees return year after year and have formed their own community. “We’re like a family out here,” says Duckworth. The carnie lifestyle does have its benefits. Take John Macallum for instance. He started out as a game operator in the 1970’s and has since worked his way up the ranks. As Promotions Manager for Brown’s Amusements he oversees the set up and take down of the carnival and plans the route for next year. Not only does he get his own trailer, but he also gets to travel to places like China and Venezuela in addition to the Western America cities. “We get to go and visit these nice little towns for a week or 10 days at a time,” he says. “We enjoy what the local community has to offer and earn a living too.” Does he like his job? “I’ve been doing it for over 30 years. I think I would have done something else if I didn’t like it!” Recently, Brown’s Amusements was awarded with the Circle of Excellence plaque for safety and customer service. They are only one of four carnival companies to receive the distinction in the west coast. “Obviously, we are excited about it,” says Duckworth. “It’s a lot of team effort and it just goes to show we love what we do.”

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