Even Guy and Charlene Leavitt of Ray Cammack Shows marveled at the fact that the Feb. 25-March 17 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo drew a whopping attendance of 2,506,263, despite plenty of bad weather that included 10 days of rain and two with below freezing temperatures.
“We were rained out on the second Wednesday, which was the biggest day we had last year. It would have been ridiculous if we had two weeks of Spring Break, instead of one. That will change for the good next year when we don't open until March 3,” said Guy.
Dates for 2020 are March 3-22, and for 2021, March 2-21. The show debuted its new Titan ride from Fabbri of Italy. “It's the only one of its kind in the U. S. It is 17 stories tall, and travels at 60 miles an hour. The crowds loved it,” said Leavitt, adding that the Titan weighs 200,000 pounds, is portable, and moves on three heavy duty trucks. “Joel Cowley (president and CEO of the event) rode it six times on opening day. I got on it once with him,” said Guy, noting, “He does something like that every year.”
Another new ride, the Ice Jet, proved to be the third most popular, behind the La Grande R50XL, which is the tallest portable Wheel in North America, and the Dopplemeyer Sky Ride.
Booked in with RCS were Scott MacNeill of Deggeller Attractions with a Looping Roller Coaster, Andy Schoendienst of Luehrs Ideal Rides, with a couple rides and an ice cream stand, and show regulars Ernie and Jim Bishop, who have been an integral part of the carnival since 1980.
The top grossing food stands were the Big Barbecue of Shawn and Don McKinney and their cousin, Billy, and Dominic Palmieri's Midway Gourmet. Palmieri also garnered a lot of television exposure, as he appeared regularly on various networks. I asked about longtime executive Cliff Kunkle and found out he is retired and living in Prescott, Arizona. Annie Kastl is on the executive staff and is very important in the implementation of the H-2B Visa program, and her husband, Joe Kastl, had a cookie stand, and he is in charge of moving the Giant Wheel.
Managing the show's fantastic games operation are the same Annie Kastl and Steve Charleston. Leavitt stated, “As everybody knows, we have a very strong Sunday School operation, and we set up 62 games. We move 70 truckloads loaded with prizes. Some shows don't do that much in a lifetime. My parents had a 12-ride carnival. We had 82 rides set up in Houston.”
Asked if he took time off to see the George Strait concert, which drew a record 80,108 spectators, Leavitt said he did not, but Charlene purchased 16 tickets and raffled them off to employees and staff. Appearing with Strait were Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. The attendance broke the record Strait had set in his last appearance at the event seven years ago. Strait is still managed by Erv Woolsey, who is also one of his best friends. I remember when Buddy Lee brought Strait to Nashville and urged me to go and watch him in a performance at the Radisson Hotel. He was good, but we had no inkling he would become the star he turned out to be. Woolsey had a keen eye for talent and was working for Buddy Lee Attractions at the time. If you Google George Strait's manager, you will hear, “E. R. V.” (not Erv) Woolsey, his longtime friend and manager. Back then we always knew when Woolsey was at Johnny Hobbs' Nashville Palace. He would have the only Rolls Royce in the parking lot.
I've told the story before, but it's worth repeating. Of Strait's 22 performances at the Houston Rodeo, the first almost didn't happen. I was attending the Midwest Fair Managers convention in Houston when Dan Gattis, then president and CEO of the Livestock Show, interrupted and asked for help.
Gattis, now deceased, had received word that due to illness, Eddie Rabbit had to cancel his show that was scheduled that evening. Tony Conway, who later became president of Buddy Lee Attractions, and is now managing Alabama, left the room and made a phone call to Strait. He got on his own plane, flew to Houston and performed what turned out to be his first of 30 sellouts in 22 years there. Ironically, it also transpired that the fathers of Strait and Gattis had been college roommates. Eddie Who?
Both Woolsey and Strait are great guys. One night while we were partying in Los Angeles prior to an awards show, Hobbs and I were with Bob Smith, also now deceased, who was vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers for about 35 years. I figured Smith might want to book Strait into the stadium some time, and Strait might want to play there, so took I a picture of both and used it in AB.
On what was the busiest Saturday at Houston this year, RCS conducted a Jamboree fundraiser for OABA’s H-2B initiatives that raised more than $50,000. Conducting it were OABA’s Second Vice Chair, Andy Deggeller of Deggeller Attractions, and another OABA Director and food concessionaire, Nate Janousek of Fun Biz Concessions. A great effort by all to help the seasonal labor crisis.
Of the 39 food stands set up, Vivian Leavitt, Guy's sister-in-law, had the cookhouse which not only catered to show workers, but 4-H exhibitors and others. Mark Leavitt, Vivian's husband, is the show's director of operations. “We're blessed to have a lot of family involved in our operations,” said Guy. He and Charlene have six children, 26 grandchildren, three great grandchildren, “and one on call.”
Upcoming is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, featuring top name talent, where the R50XL La Grande Wheel will be set up April 12-14, and April 19-21. The show plays the 46th annual Spring Fling, largest student run event involving a carnival in the nation, April 12-14 at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the Pima County Fair, Tucson, April 18-28, where Jon Baker is executive director. The talent lineup there includes Shaggy, Seether, Carly Pearce, Frankie Ballard, Rich The Kid, Mark Farner's American Band, MJ Live, Newsboys, TLC, P.O.D., Buckcherry, Adelitas Way, Chris Janson, and Dia de la Banda.
I received word the other day that Tommy LaMotta, a tremendous games concessionaire, artist, and good guy, passed away. I first met Tommy when he and his brother, Joe, who was president of the Gibtown Club in 1982, and their brother-in-law, Gaspare Mistretta, were booked with Rod Link Shows. During the trade show, he would take my camera, snap pictures of beautiful women and tell them we were going to put their pictures in an international publication (Amusement Business) and make them stars. Thaxter Trafton, manager of the Arizona State Fair, Phoenix, at the time, always joined in the fun.
At some point later, LaMotta asked if I could help get him booked into Phoenix. Through the efforts of Buddy Lee and myself, we convinced Trafton we would be doing a favor for both, since LaMotta had a first-class operation. Lo and behold, Tommy didn't show up, for whatever reason. We went through the process again the next year and Trafton reluctantly booked him. It worked out well for both.
A New Yorker from birth, Tommy was born with an affliction that caused him to always be moving his head. It never slowed him down, nor took away from his incredible talent. He booked with Ray Cammack Shows and others, and independently, with his son-in-law, Michael Winchester, running his Diversified Amusements. The last time I saw Tommy was at the Minnesota State Fair. He was on a golf cart. When he saw me, he smiled and invited me to dinner. I wish I had gone, but I didn't.
Sid Karmia, owner of The Toy Factory, San Antonio, was the one who sent me an e-mail on March 28, stating, “The amusement industry lost one of the greatest concessionaires of all time yesterday morning. Tommy LaMotta passed away.” Anybody who knew Tommy will agree with what Sid said.
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