The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Ever wonder what it's like? Life of a "carny" is more than just fun and games


July 18, 2018

Jake Satterwhite and Carter Krei, both mechanics with Dreamland Carnival, pose next to the Rock 'em Sock 'em game on the midway. Per the pair a ride is "something you play that you can't control," while a game is "something you play and have some control over the outcome." Carnival employees are paid differently depending if they operate a ride or a game. The Rock 'em Sock 'em is a game because players have hand controls that determine how the robots perform.

By Steve Edwards

BCJ News

Reporters note: During the recent Blaine County Fair I was working at the Lions' Club pronto pup food booth. The booth was just across from where the Dreamland Carnival was set up. During a break in the pronto pup trade I was watching the carnival workers prepare to open, shining their rides, organizing their game booths, preparing fair food and getting ready to welcome customers.

One of my co-volunteers wondered aloud, "What do you suppose it's like to be a carny?" For the uninitiated, 'carny' is a slang word used to describe someone who works with a carnival. I'd not heard the word in a while and wondered right away, in this age of political correctness, if we should still say carny. And I, too, often had wondered what it was like to work at a carnival. I decided to ask what it was like to be a carny.

My thoughts were interrupted when a young man and girl, he in a green shirt I recognized as part of the uniform of the Dreamland employees, walked by. I called them over to the food booth and asked them if they would talk to me about what it's like working for a carnival. They shared lots of info and I later connected with other carnival workers and managers for more discussions. Here's some of what I learned about being a carny.

First, a little history about

carnies and carnivals

The term carnival described a "time of merrymaking before Lent" and was first used in the mid-1500's in Europe. Immigrants brought the idea of carnivals with them to the New World and those early celebrations eventually became our modern fairs and carnivals. The term carny, used to describe anyone who works at a carnival, is believed to have first appeared in the U.S. in the early 1930's. Carny is a general term. There are more specific names for people who operate the rides, run the game booths, etc.

I asked several Dreamland employees if they were offended by the term carny. Carter Krei, a mechanic for Dreamland and son of the ride supervisor, grew up with carnivals. He said, "I'm not offended by the term but understand why sometimes it has a negative meaning. In the past carnivals often picked up workers wherever they could without much checking on backgrounds or giving them training. Back in the day some unsavory people were with carnivals." Krei explained carnivals now are more careful about hiring as carnival operators recognize customers have higher expectations about the carnival workers they encounter.

The term midway is used to describe that part of a fair where the rides, games and food booths are typically clustered (separate from livestock barns, grandstands and other exhibition areas). Midways began to appear in the U.S. after the 1893 World's Fair held in Chicago. That fair had an avenue called the Midway Plaisance which was lined with games of chance as well as wild west and burlesque shows. After the fair closed an enterprising performer took a few acts from

the world's fair and began traveling around the country performing. Those acts became known as the midway, a term we still use.

The life of a modern carny

There are currently an estimated 200 traveling carnivals in the U.S. There are both family-owned and corporate-owned carnivals. Carnivals are typically organized as units. At the recent county fair, Dreamland had one of its two units. I was told later in the summer for some larger fairs in Missoula, Kalispell and Coeur d'Alene, both units would combine.

A couple of carnies told they preferred to work for the smaller, family-owned carnivals because, "If there is a problem from an employee or a customer, it's much easier to get it resolved because the owner is usually with the carnival." The unit that played Blaine County actually was two organizations with two owners. The games and food booths are out of Arizona and the rides are based in Wyoming.

Within the organization of a carnival there are different jobs to be filled and how employees are paid depends on their job. People who operate the rides are referred to as "ride jocks" and are paid a flat rate. The game operators are called "joinies," "gamers" or "splinterheads." The latter, not commonly used, is a negative reference to someone who uses less than honest tactics to trick people in carnival games. Game operators receive a commission on what their game earns during a carnival. There are also mechanics who keep the machinery running are paid a salary.

The length of time a carny works each season depends on the schedule of the carnival. Dreamland, only in its third year, has steadily lengthened its season. This year the carnival started in early May and will eventually end up its season in Arizona in January. Carter Krei said, "The ride portion of the carnival keeps about four or five employees on year round. During the winter we repair and maintain the rides." Ride operators and gamers typically return home until the next season begins. Krei added, "This outfit is very good about taking care of people, we don't just leave them stranded at the end of a season but try to help them prepare to get back home when the work ends."

During the season the Dreamland employees are provided housing. Jake Satterwhite said, "You can either live in one of the portable bunkhouses or stay in a semi-trailer." Asked about the difference he explained, "The bunkhouses are air conditioned, the trailers are not air conditioned but are more private." Food is not included but I did see an employee get food from the a carnival food booth and the operator made a note, suggesting employees could run a tab for a time. Caiya Krei, daughter of the ride supervisor said, "I enjoy the Chinook fair because of all the different food booths. Not all fairs have such good choices."

The carnies I visited with said they enjoyed working with the carnival, saw it as a kind of adventure. But they also noted, "It's not the kind of life everyone can handle." Two gamers said,

"The employees become like a family, we live and work together for weeks at a time and really get to know each other." They said this year there was a larger than usual number of new employees and, "It takes a while for a newcomer to fit in, but if they want to become a part of the group they can."

Changes in carnivals

Readers of a certain age will recall how carnivals have changed. As a kid I remember when the fair came to town it always had a number of side shows with everything from burlesque shows to displays with midgets, bearded ladies and other human wonders. The modern carnivals are certainly more "family-friendly" than some of the ones of a half century ago.

Technology has also changed carnivals. The first carnival rides were homemade contraptions that were, like the first carousel, originally operated by manpower. And living conditions for the carnies have also improved, with portable bunkhouses, showers and places to get in from the heat to sleep. Originally the carnivals moved from town to town by train. With a modern interstate system and reliable trucks carnivals can move more miles in shorter times to meet more varied schedules.

But, the carnies have not changed so much. They still have to love to travel, have a sense of adventure and be able to work and live, at times, in some harsh and demanding conditions. Dick Whelan, a writer for an Ontario newspaper, took his granddaughter to a carnival. After the visit he wrote this salute to carnies: "I'd like to salute the carnies of the world. They are the last of the rough-and-ready individuals who work hard and no doubt play hard and whose choice of lifestyle makes our fairs possible." Thank you carnies with Dreamland for another great midway at the Blaine County Fair.


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