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$$$ Marks the Spot

carnies
Robert Scheer

Basket Case: For a buck or two, fairgoers can try out their hoop skills and maybe take home a teddy bear or any of a hundred other stuffed toys.

Carnies are the true victors in summer's battle of the midway

By Kelly Luker

It's hot -- really hot -- today. Barely noon and already the air is undulating like a belly dancer, rising up in lazy waves off the asphalt, filtering the harlequin background at the Santa Clara County fairgrounds. Pennant flags droop listlessly from nearby poles, signaling an exit lane from the quilt displays and sheep stalls to the heart of the action--the midway.

Dennis Babb is hunched over the counter, bushel baskets yawning up invitingly behind him. Bonk! Bonk! He bounces a baseball on the Astroturfed counter, scoping and barking out to the meager passersby. "Give it a try. C'mon, check it out," Babb beseeches a couple and their two children.

It's still early and the oven-like temperatures are keeping most sane folks away until the cool of the evening. But the tattooed man needs those bucks and can't afford to wait until then. For him, it's a way of life. Babb's been workin' the joints--games--for a long time now, moving from town to town 10 months out of the year. Like it or not, he is keeper of the flame to this particular piece of Americana known as the carnie.

The strip, with its rinky-dink rides and games of chance, isn't the heart of the fair so much as its adrenal glands. While the rest of the week-long tribute to shiny apples, perfect jam and plump porkers would be garbed in crinoline and gingham, the conceptual artist would most likely clothe the midway in leopard print and stiletto heels. By evening, this piece of turf will be pulsing with kids screaming for another ride, teen libidos strutting their stuff, cholos and gangbangers mad-doggin' each other. In fact, the rest of the attractions--well--aren't.

Most visitors take a quick spin, if at all, through the halls and tents extolling the virtues of rural life before making a beeline to the overpriced food and lose-your-lunch rides. What was once a celebration, a can-you-top-this of harvest delights, has become anachronistic to a generation who sees no connection between McDonald's and a blue-ribbon steer or between a jar of Smucker's and a tangled brush of blackberries.

But chance and luck, courage and fear--those attributes are timeless and will be challenged again and again on the Mad Mouse, Tilt-a-Whirl or ring toss. In the oldest dating ritual, a shining knight will slay a dragon to win his beloved's hand. Okay, it's more like slam dunking three basketballs in a row and walking off with a giant stuffed Tweety Bird, but the effect is the same in the eyes of his damsel. But more likely, Shining Knight will lose, and then be known by a more familiar name to carnies--a mark.

The mark is what keeps the midway alive and keeps the lights burning. His foolish bets with chance keep the stalls stocked with K-mart glassware and sickly goldfish and every stuffed creature imaginable. He also pays the meal ticket for working folks like Babb.

carnies
Robert Scheer

Bad Boys and Rebels

If the fair has been burnished to a rosy glow through novels, songs and musicals, then the ride jockeys and the barkers, who are the grease that keeps the midway moving, have been cast from a mythology decidedly darker. They are hucksters and hustlers, flim-flam artists and grifters--if one is to believe Hollywood. Or purveyors of clearly rigged games and poorly rigged rides, if one follows Dateline or 20/20. And sex gods, if we are to believe Zalman King, producer of Two Moon Junction (a soft porn confection from the man who brought us the fem-cult erotica Red Shoes Diaries series).

In Two Moon, the now-forgotten Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks) plays a wealthy and soon-to-be-married Southern ingénue attracted--no, addicted--to the testosterone-dripping charms of Richard Tyson, a brawny carnie and roustabout drunk. A landmark movie for those whose only date is with themselves, it nevertheless perpetuates the reigning image--carnies as bad boys and rebels.

There may be something to that, concedes Butch Butler, owner of Butler Amusements, one of the larger carnival companies on the West Coast. His rides, games and food concessions are found in county and state fairs, school fund-raisers and events like the Salinas Rodeo. His company's motto is "The Cleanest Show in the West," a testament to Butler's single-minded drive to change the carnie's image. Joint workers like Babb are expected to wear a company dress shirt and tie, while ride jockeys wear sky-blue polo shirts.

But Butler has few illusions about who will work in an industry that does not even pay minimum wage for days often 12 hours long, and expects its employees to pick up and move every week or two, then fend for themselves in the off season. "A lot of them are kids from broken homes, the ones that never fit in," Butler observes. "We have a 30 percent turnover every year."

But that leaves others who do stick around, men--and they are almost always men--like Babb.

Babb doesn't offer much about those early years or broken homes, but he will admit that the carnival seemed like a good temporary gig after getting out of the Marines. That was 19 years ago, though. He shrugs, "You get caught up in a rut." Playing the romantic, he manages a long face and alludes to a "broken heart" that drove him into the wandering life.

Tight red curls lie close to Babb's head and girls' names, insignias and a small swastika blanket his arms and hands. Each finger is crested with gaudy, cheap rings. Asked about his industry's soiled image, Babb gets indignant. "The bad few gave us the reputation," he says.

Co-worker Tom Beatty chimes in. "They call us dirty, that we're gypsies," he sniffs. Beatty, who's been following the show for 18 years, is hoping Babb won't say much more, because "every article I've ever seen comes out bad against us." Beatty loves this life, so much that he's written a poem about it, which he pulls from his wallet. Unfolding a well-worn, crumpled piece of notebook paper, Beatty begins to read the uneven verse.

Babb steps a few feet away and continues talking, his eyes constantly flicking to the few people who straggle by. It's getting old, this life on the move. "The first four, five years, it was all fun," Babb says.

So, why doesn't he move on?

"The establishment expects something of you--education, a car," he says, two things that Babb admits he's short of right now. Like many carnies, Babb has no wheels. He relies on friends, Greyhound or the train to stay on the fair circuit.

carnies
Robert Scheer

Got 'Em by the Balls: Sherry Goodman, co-owner of the Shoot Out the Happy Face game, has been working carnival joints for 12 years.

On Your Marks

Knowing how to work a route can make the difference in how hard carnies must work in the off months. According to Babb, Butler Amusements has various routes planned for different sets of workers each season, but smart guys like Babb will jump from one fair route to another. Otherwise, each route is set up, says Babb, with "one good, two bad locations." Meaning?

"Well, check it out," Babb gestures to the giant stuffed pandas hanging overhead. "We're pretty flashed up--well decorated--here." He's right. The booth is colorful and dead center of the midway, sure to pull in the marks.

The career carnie also knows his mark. "I've got a master's degree in social science," Babb drawls in a deep Texas accent. "I can look at your arms, your shoes, your haircut and know what you do, how much you gonna spend." He looks me up and down and explains why the barkers ignore me today. "You don't belong here," he figures. "You're by yourself, so you either lookin' fer your kids or husband or you married to one of the bosses here."

For those who do get drawn into the game, Babb says what virtually every carnie will repeat, almost word for word. "There's no trickery or deceit to these games," he says. "They're games of skill--difficult, but not impossible."

Speaking of trickery, he and the boys got a few up their sleeve to pull in the marks when they tire of barkin'. "Check this out," Babb chortles, pulling out a fishing pole with a $20-dollar bill pasted to the hook. He casts out to the midway and slowly reels it in. Sure enough, a young man bends down to grab the greenback before it disappears over the counter. Momentarily perplexed, the man then laughs and saunters over to the bushel basket game.

After Babb has relieved the man of a buck or two, he laughs about another favorite, where a wallet with a corner of a $20 peeking out is nailed down in front of the booth. "You wouldn't believe how many guys stand there, spending more and more money to play the game, while they try to think of a way to sneak off with that wallet," Babb laughs.

The days are long--Babb and his co-workers will be on their feet from 11am until after midnight. Asked if those hours wouldn't require at least some pharmaceutical help, Babb points out that Butler Amusements has fallen in line with most other businesses, springing random drug testing on its employees. "Butler runs a class act," he admits.

That's what Butch Butler is shooting for, at least. The son of a Midwest food store owner, Butler explains, "Coming from the grocery store background, I've always put the customer first." Just as Las Vegas discovered a bigger market when it learned to be family-friendly, Butler figured that cleaning up the carnie's image would only help the bottom line. He's had some time to practice at it, too, building the business from three rides run by a generator to $20 million in ride sales a year.

"I've seen the industry change a lot," Butler says. "It used to be the rides were put up by big brawny guys with more muscle than brains, but now they're put up by hydraulics and many are run by a computer."

Bill Hollingshead has also watched the industry change. The Orange County resident now produces musical acts, but got his start in show biz working the carnival when he and his wife had a vaudeville act while in their early 20s. "It gave us a sense of being a free spirit," Hollingshead recalls. Like any culture, he explains, carnies have their own social hierarchy. "The ride and show folks are equal, but the jointees are lower," he says.

Of course, Hollingshead was around during the heyday of carnival entertainment, when they featured girlie shows, geek shows and what the old time carnies used to call the "pickled punk" shows--deformed babies in formaldehyde jars. But Little Sheba and the World's Fattest Twins have long since fallen victim to more politically correct times and remanded to little more than footnotes in history.

"There's been a major change in image," admits Hollingshead, and he is not merely referring to the upgrade in cultural awareness. "[The carnival has traditionally been] thought of as hoboes and derelicts, and they now have to compete with Disneyland, Six Flags, Great America," he notes. "Also, insurance rates are skyrocketing, putting shows out of business."

carnies
Robert Scheer

Armed and Dangerous: Richard LeTourneau, who has been working the carnivals for decades, points out the loot that sharpshooters can win.

Animal Kingdom

That means folks like Babb, Beatty and Gary Wright--"Call me G.W.," he says jovially--gotta work hard for that money. "You gotta entertain," explains G.W., who is working the Winner's Circle horse race, those cardboard thoroughbreds that are moved along the track by water pistols or, in this case, baseballs. He's just wrapped up a heat, calling the paper steeds' action in a sing-song lilt.

G.W.'s joint is down a ways from Babb's, about 800 stuffed toys away. Stuffed Dalmatians, and bulldogs, pigs, monkeys and dragons, Simba the Lion King and his sidekick Timon, and, of course, teddy bears. Lime green teddy bears, Kool-aid purple pandas, neon-yellow Kodiaks. If businesses want to stay successful, they stick with the tried-and-true gimmicks.

One look down the midway is evidence that for the carnival, triumph is to be found in the fuzzy acrylic animal kingdom. But, why? Sure, they're a pull for the kids, but look at all the teens and young men trying to score one.

Hollingshead has a few theories. "The smart joint owner puts 75 percent of their money into flashing their front," he explains. "And stuffed animals, because of their size, really flash up the joints."

"They're soft and cuddly," figures G.W. "And, you can't get 'em every day." Or, for that matter, want to.

An African-American, G.W. also represents the changing face of carnies. Although still the turf of white men, the midway is giving way to more Hispanics and blacks. The numbers of women remain few, and are rarely in the life by themselves. Sherry Goodman, who leans by the Shoot Out the Happy Face game, says she has been doing this for 12 years. Higher up on the carnie food chain, Goodman and common-law husband Bob Ellis own this joint.

Staring into Goodman's happy faces is Richard LeTourneau, trying to get folks to shoot out the bullseye on his targets instead. Like Goodman, G.W. and Babb, LeTourneau's biggest problem right now is boredom. The 51-year-old has been doing this since he was a teenager and echoes Babb's burnout. "I'm tired of this," he admits. "It used to be in my blood, it used to be fun."

LeTourneau could be a poster boy for voluntary simplicity, the '90s movement where less is more. "I don't own nothin'," he says--no car, no house, no family. The stuff he has accumulated in this lifetime fits in two bags. But the unburdened life is a double-edged sword, as LeTourneau's is discovering. Now that the magic is gone, he's thinking about settling down, maybe being a breakfast cook somewhere. But "try getting a job with carnie as your résumé," LeTourneau snorts.

It's midafternoon and the relentless heat seems to have hexed this fair crowd, but good. Within days, Babb will move on, jumping fair routes to Sonoma, Grass Valley, Santa Cruz. His disappearance creates barely a ripple as his joint quickly fills with another carnie to assist Beatty. The sugary fumes of cotton candy and caramel apples beckon as a few more stragglers pass the last few joints in the midway before grabbing a bite to eat.

A barrel-chested carnie, his shaved head resembling a bullet, makes a feeble attempt to pull in their money before they're gone. "You wanna try? You wanna try?" he pleads with their disappearing backs, but they just keep walking. "It don' matter," he mutters, mostly to himself. "It's a hunnert degrees, we'll still be here."

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From the September 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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