In last week's column, I used that old cliché of the fact that no matter who is right or wrong, you simply can't beat City Hall, but a friend of mine whom I've known since we were both in diapers in Scranton, Pa., Bob Regan, who now resides in Mechanicsburg, Pa., with his wife, Pat, called me out on that.
No sooner than the ink had literally dried, which it did during many years as a member of The Fourth Estate, a vernacular term for members of the Press, Regan sent an email that stated, “Tom, you can't fight City Hall??? Sometimes you can. The mayor of our beloved hometown of Scranton resigned a few days ago. The Feds caught him in a pay-to-play scheme that apparently started as soon as he took office. Ah, the politicians 'keep on keepin on.'”
Mike Heffron, retired manager of the Minnesota State Fair, St. Paul, would often refer to me, lovingly, I'm presuming, as an ink-stained wretch during Midwest Fair Manager Association meetings. What Regan didn't say was that Bill Courtright is the third current or former Mayor from Eastern Pennsylvania to plead guilty to be convicted of federal charges in the last 17 months. He joins the Mayor of Allentown and the former Mayor of Reading. Growing up, we didn't have that problem, as Jim Hanlon, known as the Friendly Mayor, lived a block away from me and on the same street with Regan, whose father, Frank, was a funeral director.
When we wanted bats or balls, we simply knocked on his door and asked him for them. The Spoils System was working well in those days, and if you were raised in the section of Bellevue where Regan and I were, you could easily get a job as a fireman, policeman or garbage collector. One of my best recollections of Mayor Hanlon is on one election day when he asked if I needed a ride to the University of Scranton where I was attending as a freshman. I said I did and he told me to hop in.
On the way with only him, his chauffeur and me in the limousine, he stated “They've been trying to get something on me for 20 years (he was elected for five full terms), but they're never going to get anything. Do you know why?” Without me having time to answer, he said “Because there's nothing to get.” His influence was so great that when his right hand man, Puddy Keegan, slipped the answers to the fireman's test to a friend named Louie Sasso and he failed, Hanlon still got him the job.
Times have changed, but it was a big Fourth of July weekend for old friends Billy and Sue Clark, former owners of Smokey Mountain Amusements. Billy, who is the President of the Shriner's Club in Robbinsville, North Carolina, said he helped raise $11,000 for the Shriners’ crippled children's hospitals from the raffle of a four-wheeler. “We got $14,000 last year when we gave away a lawnmower,” said Clark who is enjoying retirement.
Speaking of former employees, Brian (Beaver) Bitner, who was general manager, and Katie Wilson, office manager, who bought the show five years ago, he said “They've been doing great. They have never missed a payment and eight more payments and it's theirs.” Clark said he and Sue, who worked hard for most of their lives, are really taking advantage of the time off. He said they have been to the Holy Land three times and are going back for a fourth, October 30 through November 10. “We've been to Austria, Hungary, Germany, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Puerto Rico and some other small islands. We want to come back and visit with you and Christine again in Nashville. We hate that we didn't get to see John Hobbs again before he passed away.” The Clarks will celebrate their 58th wedding anniversary October 1.
Before buying Smokey Mountain Amusements with major help from the late David Smith of Allied Specialty Insurance, to whom Clark always gave credit, he spent time with Sheila and Jon Stine on Stine Amusements, Reithoffer Shows, Bob Childress Amusements, Charles Panacek's Belle City Amusements, and he was chief electrician for five years for James E. Strates Shows. Clark actually started off as a very young man with W.H. (Doc) Hardin and Honest Homer Scott on Georgia Amusement Company, which later became Homer Scott Shows. Clark was known for his employment wanted ads in Amusement Business which lured workers with the promise of hot biscuits and warm beds. I later spoke to Bitner, who said, “We've been doing real good.” I told him that Clark told me that he and Katie had been together for 22 years but never married. I was quickly corrected when he said, “It's really been 24 or 25.” When I asked if he planned to get married, he replied quickly “Hell no. We'll spend that money where it's needed.”
Asked what his major challenge has been since taking over ownership, Bitner didn't hesitate, “The damn help. Everything else is Cadillac, pretty nice.” Bitner is from Northeast Ohio, the town of Middlefield in Geauga County, and Katie is from Ashtabula County. “She moved around a lot before we met.” The show is now based in Gresham, South Carolina. Since taking over Smokey Mountain, Bitner has kept basically the same route, but cut the units from two to one since Billy and Sue had run one and he and Katie the other. “I picked and chose the rides I wanted to keep and Billy sold the rest. I kept the cream of the crop on the spots we play and eliminated some we had played in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Our route is much tighter now with dates in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. It really helps with fuel costs.”
After the purchase, Bitner changed the name to B & K Carnival Company, added a Childress Expo Wheel and Orbiter, some trucks and generators. The show now travels with between 20 to 28 rides, four food stands and 15 to 18 games. Key people are Alicia Daugherty and Tim Bennett, who have games and food. Asked if he used H-2B foreign Visa labor, Bitner said, “This is our second year to do it. We should have done it 10 years ago. We asked for 18 workers this year, not really expecting to get them, but we took 11, leaving the rest for somebody else who might need them more. They're really good workers. All of ours are from Vera Cruz, Mexico.”
The show opened its season the third week of March around Charlotte, North Carolina. “We do a lot of festivals in North Carolina and South Carolina. The fair route has stayed pretty much the same as it was. We're at a spot in Franklin, North Carolina, for the Shriners next week. We play the Georgia Mountain Fair in Hiawassee July 18 through the 27, where Hilda Thomason is still the General Manager.” Christine and I visited that spot several times and enjoyed major cookouts where Billy and Sue treated us to steaks, lobster tails and our favorite beverages. Old friend Jimmy Jay of Jayson Promotions, Hendersonville, Tennessee, always books a solid lineup of Country music acts there.
Attendance has continued to slide in recent years at Hiawassee, which used to be a very good spot, and I asked Bitner his theory on why that has happened. He said, “During the economic bust several years ago, the demographics totally changed. People used to go to that fair from Atlanta, Chattanooga and even Knoxville. You'd have people coming to the mountains to enjoy the cooler weather, but now it's mostly retired people living around that area from Florida and Canada.”
Asked if he ever booked with other shows, Bitner said, “We do four, five or six weeks with Bobby Brinkley of Brinkley Entertainment, who is based in Walnut Cove, North Carolina. We help each other wherever needed, depending on the size of the spots. I sent a couple of rides with Big A (Amusements of America) to Charleston (the Coastal Carolina Fair in Ladson, South Carolina) last year.”
Asked if Billy and Sue still come to visit, Bitner said, “They did, especially at Hiawassee every year but haven't since he sold their bus.” Bitner admitted he's excited about the fact that pretty soon he and Katie will completely own the show. “We've been lucky this year with weather. When it hits us, it happens on the right days, Mondays or Tuesdays. We haven't lost any of the good days, weekends. I can't complain about anything. Having this show has not been a struggle since Day One.”
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Have a great week and God Bless!!