As I began to write this, I was vividly reminded of how resilient most people in the carnival and fair business are, and what a great sense of humor most have; and if you think I'm being careful with my words, it's because they represent just about every walk of life.
I hesitate to attach a label since perception is a problem with most who never get to know this decent, hardworking group. The lifestyle is different since they move around so much, but the hopes and desires are the same as they are for coal miners, bankers, etc.
The resiliency comes to mind at the Oct. 9-20 South Carolina State Fair, Columbia, where there was plenty of rain, but the ride gross for North American Midway Entertainment actually rose by one per cent. According to Nancy Smith, general manager and chief financial officer of the 150th annual fair, attendance was 416,320. That was down six per cent from last year's 443,712. Concessions revenue was down by 4.5 per cent.
“We had rain the first Sunday and had to close the midway at 8 p.m. We had more rain on Tuesday, and it was overcast Wednesday. It rained the last Saturday and instead of the 56,000 who turned out in good weather last year, we had only 11,000 brave souls,” said Smith.
Like many, I happened to be watching the Florida-South Carolina football game on television, which was played in a driving rain in a stadium directly across the street from the fair. The TV cameras often zeroed in on the almost empty midway. Earl (Louisville Junior Junior) Scheler, who has Aunt Martha's Concessions, even posted a picture on Facebook of a virtually empty midway.
Before I forget the sense of humor statement, my wife, Christine, read something to me off Facebook as I headed to the computer. Leah O'Neil, a well-known food concessionaire from St. Paul, asked if anybody else was having problems with Coca-Cola. Before the ink had dried, as we used to say, Candy Anderson, who has Coca-Cola Bottle Up games, answered, “It doesn't go good with vodka.” I can remember when Coke's Joe Oblander was everywhere promoting his product, while John Frank did the same for Pepsi after Sam Nattis, with his one arm, retired.
Smith pointed out that the fair had lots of changes. Instead of booking talent in the grandstand, as had been done for many years through Jimmy Jay of Jayson Promotions, Hendersonville, Tenn., the fair featured a circus. Three free shows a day were done in a tent that seated 1,300. It was promoted by John Juliano of Mellowship Entertainment, who booked the talent for many years at The Big E (Eastern States Exposition), West Springfield, Mass., and veteran circus operator Ian Garden of Canada. A smaller 1,000-seat Pepsi Place Arena featured local and regional artists. New was a Heritage Village, featuring all kinds of crafts, and a popular attraction was Zach Johnson's Swify Swine Racing Pigs.
Smith said a highlight for her was having her 103-year-old mother, Mary Smith, ride NAME's new 150 feet high Ferris Wheel. Scooter Korek of NAME accompanied her on the ride.
Asked about NAME's contract, Smith said that will be decided soon. The Midway contract went out to bid this year and Smith said there were six carnival companies submitting bids.
The top 10 grossing food operators were Butch, Ann, Ronnie and Kim Netterfield's Popcorn and Floss Concessions, with eight stands, followed by Cheryl Reas's Carousel Foods; Jerry Price's Fisk French Fries; Lou Pacifico's Meatball Factory; Earl (Junior Junior) Scheler's Aunt Martha's; Daley's, Carolina Fine Foods; Mr. Kim's Oriental Foods; Rusty Groscurth's Super Dogs, and Little Richard Thomas.
I just found out that the Oct. 17-27 North Carolina State Fair, Raleigh, had its lowest attendance in five years, 938,029. In a way, that's good and bad for Powers Great American Midways, which has the contract, in collaboration with Frank Zaitshik's Wade Shows, which pays the fair a per cap, based on how many attend.
I was once told the North Carolina Fair is one where everybody makes money, and I've never heard anything to the contrary. Attendance last year was 977,256, and it was 1,014,487 in 2017. The record of 1,091,887 was established in 2010. The best day this year was the second Saturday when a whopping 136,448 turned out. I'll have more on this fair, where Ken Yelverton is GM next week.
Danny Huston, chairman of the board for NAME, said it has been a very good season, and cited several examples, besides South Carolina. The Sept. 26-Oct. 6 Tulsa, Oklahoma State Fair, drew estimated attendance of 1,040,000, according to Amanda Blair, chief operating officer. The ride gross, including Mega Ride Passes, was $3,595,337. A total of 17,523 Mega Bands were purchased. The top three of 65 rides were the Starship, Polar Express, and Giant Wheel. The fair's Sky Ride had 31,201 passengers.
PRCA Rodeo had a sellout performance of 6,292. Ten shows of Disney on Ice Mickey’s Search Party had attendance of 16,489. The food and beverage gross for ExpoServe was $1,409,601.
Entertainers included Ben and Noel Haggard, Aaron Watson, Genuwine, For King & Country, Lovelytheband, Lanco, Bone Thugs N' Harmony, Rival Sons, Chris Janson, Whiskey Myers, and La Fiera De Ojinaga.
The 106th annual Kansas State Fair, Hutchinson, which was held Sept. 6-15, had attendance of 337,400, up from 328,000 last year. Pat Repp, who was in charge for NAME, with Tom Thebault said, “It was the best fair we ever had.” Robin Jennison finished a second year as general manager. Booking in were Jeremy Floyd with four rides, Joe Clair and Chris Atkins, with three food and four rides, and Sue McDaniel, with a back end piece.
From there, Repp and Thebault went to the East Texas State Fair, Tyler, where John Sykes is GM. “We had an all-time record high gross there,” said Repp. Among those booked in was Nick Konkey.
Grandstand entertainment at Kansas included Bobby Bones and the Raging Idiots, Billy Currington, Francesca Battistelli and Zach Williams, Lauren Alain, Hanson, Lindsay Ell with Madison Kozak, and Mason Ramsey, known as the 12-year-old Little Hank Williams. Also, Hypnotist Ron Diamond, the Fearless Flores Thrill Show, Bandaloni, Jason D'Vaude, and Strong Man John Beatty.
The Sept. 20-28 Bloomsburg, Pa. Fair had great weather and posted attendance of 411,869. Paul Reichert has been president for many years. Since Bloomsburg is only 69 miles from my hometown of Scranton, I visited this great fair many times. I recall when Pat Patterson was manager, and then Fred Trump. I always saw a lot of familiar faces, including vendors Pierogi Joe Stanavage, Tony Thomas, Pretzel Man Paul Heck, and visitors from the area.
Amusements of America has the midway now and the Vivona family had a successful year. They wind up their season at the Coastal Carolina Fair, Ladson, S. C., which is always right after the South Carolina State Fair. I often visited the late Bill Lordy and his elephant ear operation at both of those tremendous events.
Always noted for a solid talent lineup (Bloomsburg had Garth Brooks when nobody else did), this year didn't disappoint, with Toby Keith, Old Dominion, Cheap Trick, and Amy Grant. The best day at the 164th annual fair was the closing Sunday, with 68,652 on the grounds.
I was sorry to hear of the death of Bob Driskill, the epitome of a friendly, smiling Irishman, who was 76. His son, Robby has been doing an excellent job of running Smokey's Greater Shows in Maine, formerly owned by George (Bud) and Jeanette Gilmore.
Bob owned McDermott's Amusements, and later, Spectacular Attractions in the Chicago area. The guy was a former detective and marine. My best memory is when he booked in with whoever had the Tennessee State Fair in Nashville around 1976 or that time period. After talking for a while, I found out he was either without electricity in his trailer, or something. Anyway, I offered to let him come to my apartment to take a shower. He was very grateful. Small gestures often make big differences in people's lives.
Bill Blake constantly amazes me. The owner of what he calls the Great European Slide in Olympia, Washington, traveled as a manager for many years with Ron and Bev Burback's Funtastic Shows. Always laconic, and to the point, he e-mailed me: “It is great reading articles about the outdoor business that are expressly written by someone who likes and knows about our business. Keep the good work up. From your friend in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, Bill.” Thanks!
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Have all great days, and God Bless!