Hamilton County Wrap-Up Mayhem

by Travis Fessler


The Pickled Brothers Sideshow was working with a few other performers to put on a sideshow at the Hamilton County Fair in Ohio (Hamilton County is the county that Cincinnati is in).  The show was a joint production of the Pickled Brothers and a guy I’m only going to call “the magician”. 


The week had a lot of ups and downs.  We started off with 9 people working on the show, and for various reasons by the last day it was down to just 5, my wife Susan, my brother Erik, Frack, Frack’s girlfriend “Wizzle” and myself.  The magician decided to book himself another gig that day in a city a couple hours away.  Other performers had other obligations and dropped out earlier in the week.  The original outside talker disappeared mysteriously after going to get a corn dog, never to return.  The snake picture ding wasn’t doing as well as expected, and our snake man took his pythons to a new venue.  And a kid the magician had recruited to help out left, probably after his mother found out what kind of madness he had signed up for.


This left us with Erik on the bally doing some juggling, Susan taking tickets and pictures, and Frack and I as performers, with Wizzle doing the human blockhead (the only stunt she did).  We had no outside talker.  At the last minute, my friend Doug agreed to help out in that capacity.  He had never done anything like that, but he is an excellent salesman, so he caught on quick.  After a couple hours, Wizzle had to leave.  So we were down to a 2-man show on the inside.  We managed to get by.  Sunday was a light day at this fair, so our crowds weren’t overwhelming like they had been previous days, but we did ok. 


We also found out that the generator truck that we used for power that was parked behind our tent for the whole week was gone.  Eventually we strung extension cords halfway across the midway to another power source, but this also meant that at various times during a show, one of us would have to run out and find out where someone had kicked the extension cord out and plug it back in.  One thing I learned is that kids at fairs LOVE to kick extension cords that are duct-taped to the ground.


Towards the end of the day, Doug had to leave too.  We did 1 or 2 more shows, but without an outside talker, (I filled in, but I could only do so much with being inside too) and with the crowds thinning rapidly we decided to tear down and pack up after that.  While we were still in the process doing that, a guy came to the tent flap.  He had on a shirt signifying he worked for the amusement company running the midway. 


“Who is in charge here?” he barked.  I was hesitant at first to speak up since this guy looked like a shaved gorilla, probably outweighed me by about 200 pounds, most of it muscle, and didn’t seem happy to be there.  If we were in trouble, and all I had for backup was Frack, I was in for a world of hurt. 


“I am,” I said, “kind of.”


“I told you to come see the boss when the fair closed,” he grunted. 


No one told me anything of the sort, but he didn’t seem pleased that he had to repeat himself, so I didn’t argue.  “Ok, I’ll come now,” I said.


“Bring the ticket money,” he said.


A chill ran down my spine.  This was a big problem.  The magician was keeping track of the ticket money, and had everything but the money we made from the current day with him in the city 2 hours away.  I had no way of knowing how much longer he would be.  I explained this to the talking gorilla. 


“Boss isn’t gonna like that,” he replied, “You guys were supposed to be settling up at the end of every night.  The boss told the magician that.”


Now I was REALLY worried for my safety.  I thought fast, “We don’t get paid either.  We’re just employees here.  Our boss is off in some other city with the money doing another show. We’re waiting to get paid too.” 


He didn’t want to hear it, “Tell him, not me.”


I made a mental note to yell at the magician for not settling up every night.   He later claimed they didn’t tell him that.


Frack and I started walking towards the management trailers, but the gorilla offered us a ride on his golf cart.  I sat in the seat next to him, but Frack was in the cargo area.  The management office was up a steep hill, and the gorilla felt the need for speed.  I thought for sure that Frack was going to go flying back down the hill after a few bumps.  But he held on like a trouper.


We got to the management trailer.  The gorilla waited outside.  This was bad.  If even he was afraid of the boss, I didn’t know what to expect.  I went in and tried my best to explain that the magician was the guy running the show, and he had only left me in charge for the day.  I told him that he had promised that he would be back with the money at the end of the day, but that he thought the fair closed 3 hours later than it did, at the same time it had closed every other night.  I offered up the entire take from that day, which I knew wouldn’t be nearly enough to cover their cut (I had questioned doing the fair at all based on what they were asking, but the magician assured me we’d make it up in volume and I foolishly gave in).


The boss was even less happy than the gorilla.  “I’m very disappointed.  Tell Mr. Magician that this is no way to do business!”


“I understand,” I replied as respectfully as I could, “we’re not happy either; we need to get paid too.  Let me give you his phone number, I haven’t been able to get a hold of him all day.”


This both made him angrier and somewhat placated him at the same time.


“Fine, leave the money and get out of here. I have work to do!”


He didn’t have to tell me twice.


Outside, the gorilla actually seemed like he was on our side, feeling sorry for us after the lecture we got from the boss (which he could hear through the open window of the trailer, I’m assuming) and because our pay was in doubt too.  He gave us a ride back down to the tent on his golf cart.


“I really hope he doesn’t try to screw the boss and you guys over and not show back up,” he said with less edge to his voice than before.


“I don’t think he will.  He’s not dishonest, he’s just naïve.  This is only his second fair and his first on the midway, and not in with the locals.  He thought he could meet with your boss tomorrow and pay him then with a check.  I had to convince him he needed to be here tonight with cash,” I told him. 


“You going to be around 'til he gets here?” he asked. Probably making sure we weren’t going to split on him.


“Yeah, we’ve got a lot of stuff to tear down and load up,” I said.  In my head, I was cataloging what gear was mine.  I planned on loading everything of mine up and leaving the magician’s gear in neat piles to offer up for the amusement boss to hock if it came to that.  I didn’t think it would, but I really didn’t totally know what to expect before the night was over. He had some juggling equipment and a sound system that would probably buy us out of the fairgrounds if worse came to worse.  “We’ll probably send the first load home with someone, but Frack and I will be here until the magician shows.”


We got to the tent, “Ok, well, if you need anything have someone call on the radio for Bill.”  He had actually softened up a lot and was sympathetic to our plight.  He wasn’t a bad guy at all.  Though I wondered what his demeanor would be if the magician never showed and his boss was convinced we were holding out on him.


“Thanks.  I’ll send the magician up as soon as he gets here.  It shouldn’t be much longer now.”


Once he was gone, Frack and I devised the plan.  I had Susan pull up onto the site in her car (a small SUV) and we loaded everything and anything that was worth more than $20 in that.  After about 20 minutes we had all cameras, swords, bullwhips, audio equipment, banners, my generator, lights, a fan, extension cords, all of Erik’s juggling gear and other miscellaneous valuables into the SUV.  It was crammed to the gills, but it only had to have room for my wife and Erik to sit.  I told them to go so if the worst happened, they wouldn’t be around to be involved. I promised I’d keep in touch with her via cell phone, and told her to call me as soon as she got home.


After they were gone, Frack and I started loading everything else into my van.  Mostly stuff like rope, zip-ties, nails, cinder blocks, and other stuff that could easily and cheaply be replaced.  10 minutes into this, the power to the midway was cut.  We took the walls of the tent down to let some light in from the streetlights that were around the midway, which was not much.  Eventually we got everything that was mine into my van, and everything else stacked and ready to be loaded up in the magician’s van.  I finally got the magician on his cell phone.  He was still 45 minutes away if he drove fast.


That didn’t sound good.  Frack and I got into my van, started the engine, locked the doors, and waited.  We got to see how some rides, including the Ring of Fire and the Mixer were tore down to be moved to the next location.  Finally the magician arrived, later than he had said on the phone.


“Ok, do you want to start loading up?” he asked.


“Pull your van up and unlock it.  Frack and I will start loading stuff up, and you go see the boss now.  He’s pretty impatient over getting his money.”


“Gee, I don’t know why.  I explained to him what was going on, and he still seemed perturbed,” he said naively and without a hint of sarcasm.


I just shook my head and started grabbing things to load up.  Since he had a show somewhere else and had come straight to the fair after that, this was going to be even more challenging.  The stage folded down, and just BARELY fit in his van with nothing else.  Now we were going to have to get it in there, along with his sound system, the bally stage and some other things while he had all of his magic show gear.  But I would have gladly done that a dozen times before going up that hill to the management trailer with him.   He came back down about 20 minutes later.  I could tell the boss had yelled at him too.  Good.


“Well, I think he actually might have taken more than what we agreed on, but I didn’t get a beginning count on the tickets from the start of the week to be sure.”


I bit my tongue.  This was inconceivable.  How on Earth did he expect to run this show without doing that?  The amusement company could have thrown any amount at all out and we would be legally liable for it because he signed a contract.  He helped us load the last of the gear up into his van.  We agreed to meet back at his place to unload.


Pulling out of that lot was the sweetest feeling in the world.  If I never got paid for this week, I still escaped unscathed and with my gear intact, and that was a huge victory.  We drove onto the highway, and didn’t look back.


Epilogue: After unloading the magician’s gear, he claimed he didn’t have all of his expense receipts in order, so we couldn’t split up the money that night.  He also was out of town for gigs most of the week.  We finally did get together over a week later so we could get paid, and he said he “forgot” about some money I had fronted him for supplies.  I finally convinced him by recalling the exact time and place I had given it to him.  After leaving that day, I was convinced that it was the last time I would do business with the magician.


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