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Living the carnival life

Travelling lifestyle endures despite changing times

By: Viola Pruss

  |  Posted: Friday, May 23, 2014 02:00 pm

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  • SETTING UP –Carnival worker Dallas Smith sets up the Sizzler ride at the Kinsmen rodeo grounds on Thursday afternoon. Smith says he's worked with West Coast Amusements for 15 years.
    SETTING UP –Carnival worker Dallas Smith sets up the Sizzler ride at the Kinsmen rodeo grounds on Thursday afternoon. Smith says he's worked with West Coast Amusements for 15 years.
    APRIL BARTLETT/St. Albert Gazette
  • NEW GUY  Nigel Cherewko, a first-year carnival worker, sets up the Charlie Chopper ride in preparation for rodeo weekend in St. Albert.
    NEW GUY Nigel Cherewko, a first-year carnival worker, sets up the Charlie Chopper ride in preparation for rodeo weekend in St. Albert.

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Good weather?

Rodeo organizers expect about 40,000 people to come out to this year's Rainmaker Rodeo, thanks to a weather forecast that's predicting highs of 19 degrees on Saturday and 20 degrees on Sunday. Rodeo chairman Chris Tremblay said they may even have to change the name of the rodeo due to the good weather.
“I've been getting a lot of flak for that one,” he said.
Organizers are eager to unveil some new attractions this year, such as a circus and new food vendors that include a gourmet burger place and a barbecue truck, he said.
This year's rodeo is also expected to attract more visitors from Edmonton and surrounding communities, he said.
“I think the weather will be great and I hope to see lots of people out here,” he said. “It should be great.”
For a complete schedule of events visit the Rainmaker Rodeo website at stalbertkinsmen.ca.

Justin Games leans against a concession stand, sucks on a blue icicle and flashes a joyful, tooth-challenged smile.

“I was a bum on the streets in Winnipeg. I saw a hustler at a gas station and thought that was kind of cool,” the carnival worker says.

“I asked him, ‘hey, what do you do for a living? I am a carnie. Well what's that?' And he says, ‘oh, do you want a job?'”

That was many, many years ago.

Now Games, who preferred not to give his real last name (he works in games at the carnival), travels around Western Canada with West Coast Amusements, sets up the stands and helps out with handy work.

On Thursday the carnival set up its tents, concession stands and rides at the St. Albert Kinsmen rodeo grounds in preparation for Rainmaker weekend.

The carnival will remain until Sunday night, when Games and about 100 other workers will take everything down, pack it into large trucks, and set off into the night.

Years ago, the team would follow this routine of setting up and tearing down three times a week, but life has slowed down. They'll do it about 30 times throughout the summer, says Games.

“If we need to, we are down in three hours and up in four,” says Games.

A big family

West Coast Amusements has been a family business for almost 60 years. It was founded by Bingo Hauser, who grew up in Brandon, Man. next to the fairgrounds, says his son Bob, who now runs the carnival.

When Bingo finished school, he looked for work with the carnival and “next thing you know, that was it,” Hauser says.

At 19 or 20 years old, Bingo moved west to start an animal show. He had everything from lions, to bears, snakes and monkeys, showing them in tents around the country.

“There was no Calgary Zoo, there was no Stanley Park, there was no Winnipeg Zoo,” says Hauser. “People didn't travel so the (travelling) zoo was a good deal.”

Hauser says his parents met while his mother's family worked a candy and food stand at a carnival in British Columbia. The couple later got married.

Times changed and so did the business. As interest in animal attractions slowed, the couple started their own amusement park, with games and rides, while working with another carnival. When the relationship soured, they each went solo, he says.

In remembrance of its origins, West Coast still has lion heads painted on its carnival trucks.

Now Hauser's parents each manage one carnival show in B.C., while Hauser and his wife Wendy travel with a third throughout western and central Canada.

One son-in-law manages a fourth carnival, now stationed in Brandon, while Hauser's son works with his mother. Another married daughter, her husband and their children come out in the summer to help out.

“All my kids worked out here or at various parts of the business, and their significant others are out here and they are out for the entire summer,” Hauser says. “It's a big family, it really is.”

Sharing and caring

The carnival travels from spring to October. Then it settles down for the winter, with only a few of the workers staying on to maintain the machinery. The rest of them wait for the spring.

Hauser says the employees share all the work: driving the trucks, setting up and repairing the stands, and selling concessions.

A lot of them have been with him for 15-plus years, some even 35 or 40 years, he says. Only five per cent are new.

As in any other business, it's getting tougher to find dedicated staff, he says, adding that this is the best group he's ever worked with.

“I work well beside them, the work ethic, and everybody is just so happy, they work well together,” he says.

They're like a big, travelling family, says Randall Dueck, another carnival worker.

Eleven years ago, he was fired from a job and went to find work for the weekend. The carnival happened to be in town, so he helped out for a few hours. At the end of the day, he was offered a job.

Dueck doesn't like to call himself a lifer at the carnival, but his friends say he is. He's an electrician, a mechanic, a teddy bear salesman, a driver and a showman.

The job can pay well, he says. But they also do a lot of volunteer work.

When they manage the stands, they get paid on commission. The rest of the work is pro-bono. Only the workers operating the rides get paid a fixed salary, he says.

But Hauser looks after them, he adds. There is always money for food and a place to sleep. If you ask him what keeps them here, it's their boss and the people.

“Some of the best people I met in my life work at the carnival,” he says. “The nicest, kindest, give-you-the-shirt-off-their-back kind of people.”

Changing times

Today, many travelling carnivals are disappearing and West Coast Amusements is now one of the oldest, says Hauser.

In an age of large, stationary amusement parks, travelling fairs must appear wholesome to compete, so Hauser drives around on a golf cart checking that everything appears neat and clean, among other things.

And Hauser is strict on the rules. If you climb up a ride without a harness twice, you're gone.

“Let the labour board deal with that,” he says.

Working a carnival for a long time takes the type of person who can't sit still, says Hauser.

He employs everyone from well-educated technicians and mechanics to basic labourers looking for a job. Because repair shops are too expensive, the carnival brings along its own.

The workers live and breathe the carnival during its travels. That can get lonely, especially at night when everything's quiet, he says.

But then, that's part of the job.

“You set up, you tear down. It's a unique business because you travel,” he says. “You're in a different town every week. Every week you meet a new city, new people.”


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