Behind the twinkling machinery, giant stuffed animals and cotton-candy concession stands of a carnival lies a generations-old lifestyle of camaraderie and adventure.
It is the life of “carnies,” people who work in difficult conditions, who are often stereotyped as a kind of modern gypsy and who are the backbone of carnivals across the America. It’s a life dedicated to one task — making kids smile.
It’s become an established way of life for Clatskanie’s Robin Miller, a carney who travels with Davis Amusements Cascadia shows during their eight-month season and who will be working at the Cowlitz County Fair later this week.
Miller doubts she could find comparable long-term employment in Clatskanie.
“I doubt very much that there are really any full-time jobs, so to speak, there,” Miller said. She thinks her only options would be service jobs at a handful of grocery stores and restaurants.
“I’d rather work out here than say, ‘Would you like fries with that?’” Miller said while Davis Amusements passed through Woodland’s Planters Day Festival last month.
Many carnies say they make more money at the carnival than they could otherwise. One of them, Pahrump, Nev., native Isaac Shook, travels with the carnival in the summer and uses his salary — $375 to $600 each week for most workers — to help pay his way through college at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., where he studies industrial psychology.
Ronnie Bridges, a 15-year veteran of Davis Amusements, said kids’ smiles keep him coming back every summer.
“Just watching them, you know, the anticipation getting started, then when you’re running (the ride) they’re just all smiles,” was how Bridges described his favorite part of the carnival while nursing a morning cup of gas station coffee in the quiet before gates opened. “It’s fun watching kids’ faces on the roller coaster. You can’t get that nowhere (else), and that’s free.”
Bridges, 57, is wiry with scruffy, grayed facial hair and tattoos plastered across his leathery forearms. He began his carnival career working with live ponies when they were a part of the traveling show. Now, Bridges operates the roller coaster, which he enthusiastically reminds carnival-goers is Davis Amusements’ most complex ride.
Typically rides take three to six hours to set up, and a crew of about seven carnies can erect the more than 300-piece roller coaster in about seven hours. The track sections are lifted into place by hand and held together by pins. Some weigh more than 300 pounds.
“You’ve got to watch every little thing all the time, and you’ve got to be able to move, because that ride’s a big ride,” Bridges said. “It’s very dangerous, not everybody can do this stuff.”
Davis Amusements’ two carnivals usually travel with about 60 employees at any given time, but crews can swell to as many as 200 for large events. When the company needs to increase its workforce, it scours Internet job sites and unemployment offices in the towns it visits for temporary help. Managers then try to convince new employees to sign on full-time and travel with the carnival.
“We’re always trying to recruit them into doing that,” explains Davis Cascadia manager “Magic” Mike Davis, who estimates 10 to 15 percent of his hires become travelling carnies.
Carnies tend to work 16-hour days, Davis said. When they’re not operating rides or luring people to games, workers spend much of the time making sure concession stands have hot dogs, generators have fuel and simply “putting out fires,” Davis said.
Carnivals often operate until midnight, even on their last day at an event, Bridges said. The next day, workers typically begin tearing down rides by 8 a.m. and don’t finish until 10 p.m. The carnival and its workers then travel to their next destination, usually hours away.
“We don’t get days off. There’s no sleep,” Bridges said.
When carnies find time to crash, they often share cramped rooms in bunkhouse trailers or camp in tents. The close quarters sometimes cause drama, says Bridges, but they also foster camaraderie.
Davis says some people thrive on the carny lifestyle.
“For some people, it’s an appealing thing to be on the road, join the circus or the carnival, and go give that whole travelling thing a shot.”
Davis was born into the carnival lifestyle. His grandfather founded Davis Amusements in the mid-1940s. By the time he could run, Davis says, he was following behind his dad while the carnival veteran helped set up and tear down machinery.
Today, Davis and his wife, Celeste Davis, work side by side and bring their two children on the road after school ends for the summer.
“That’s pretty cool stuff,” said Davis, who spends every day with his family. “Most people don’t get to do that.”
Davis acknowledges that carnies have a less than savory reputation. In the past, he said, carnivals were staffed by rough people doing rough things in rough environments. He’s heard older carnies recall working away winters in Nevada pool halls and parking lots for just a few bucks and then gambling it all away. Some would even stake an entire summer’s wages on 18 holes of golf.
But times are changing, says Davis. Safety standards have become more stringent and carnies often wear hard hats and harnesses as they set up rides. Davis said he and other carnival operators conduct background checks and drug tests on potential employees before hiring.
“Nobody wants a pedophile working at the carnival,” Davis said.
In Woodland, a ride operator said he was still nursing a “wicked” hangover from a night out at a nearby biker bar, and didn’t want to talk to a reporter as he prepared for work.
But Bridges says the carnival now hires employees who actually enjoy their job and want to have fun with kids.
“If you don’t like it, you‘ve got no business out here,” Bridges said. “We’re straightening it up to give people a better outlook on ourselves. All the idiots we used to have, they’re gone.”
Carnies have to work as a team and develop bonds that resemble family, which helps some of them endure, Bridges said.
“You’ve gotta’ get along,” said Bridges. “It’s really hard. People leave a lot behind to come out here.”