Life As A Carnival Worker


They don't like to be called "carnies" or "drifters" and they resent the negative image that seems to hang onto the carnival like the ever present dust.

"We have to live the reputation down that we're bad people, that we're troublemakers.  It's just not true.  We're the same as everybody else, just holding down a steady job and trying to make ends meet," explains the man known only as "Whitey" who operates and repairs the pint sized rides that bring delight to youngsters visiting the fair.


The SJM Fiesta carnival rolled into town Monday night, and the crew of over 150 "regulars" began the familiar task of setting up the rides and amusements for the 15th time this season.  By November they will have assembled and torn down the whole show 35 times in cities from 29 Palms in the Southern California desert to Medford, Ore. north and Phoenix, Ariz. to the east.  Time spent in any one town varies from two days to two weeks and the schedule is always a hectic one with a massive amount of machinery and people to coordinate and transport.

Come November some go back to other jobs, but many stay on the remainder of the year at the Southern California winter quarters in Fontana to repair and refurbish the well-used amusements.


It's a life that wouldn't appeal to everyone, Whitey admits, but says emphatically that "once it gets in your blood, you're hooked."

His sentiment was echoed by another worker, John Friberg, known to his co-workers as  "Snoopy."  "Anybody who comes to a carnival and stays one season will always come back to it," he claims.

Friberg, like many of the regulars, started young,  He left home at 13 and has worked on and off on the carnival circuit for the past 14 years.

"Nothing can keep me away," he boasts, telling of the accident last year at the Phoenix State Fair that put him in the hospital for six months.  Pinned between two cars on one of the rides, he was told he'd never walk again.  "I'm back," he says proudly.


Sixteen-year-old Jim Shannon began life even younger on the carnival circuit than most - as an infant.  "My dad's been a maintenance man here for 40 years.  I've been with the carnival all my life and I'll probably never leave it," he says.  Out of a family of 12 brought up in trailers rolling from city to city at least half the year, he's the only one who chose to stay on.

Romance lured "Little Bit" back into the carnival after several years absence.  The  SJM Fiesta show arrived in 29 Palms in April and when it left a few days later Little Bit and Whitey were riding side by side in the front of one of the semi-trucks.  "I'd worked with a show back east, so I know the life," she notes.


The reasons for making the carnival a life vary, but the rewards seem to receive unanimous agreement. Freedom, travel, a steady paycheck and friendship.

"We're like one big family." Whitey offers.  "We stick together more between ourselves than on most other kinds of jobs."

"You never stay in one place too long and you can travel around the world." Snoopy adds.

In spite of the continuing romance and appeal of the life on the road, less and less people stick with it and make it their life's work,  Jack Waller, owner of the circus sideshow observes.  Waller, who began his career as an acrobat, clown and magician in a circus he joined at 17, moved on to fire eating as he completed a master's degree in drama, and finally acquired his own show.

"Sure people think it's exciting to travel around all the time, but most people lack the discipline needed to learn the trade," he explains.

Circuses, carnivals and sideshows, in face, are all diminishing slowly.  "it's a dying business." he laments.

But there's a new generation undaunted by the decline of the traveling show.  To them it's alive and well.  Vonni Merten, 8, and Tina Hartman, 10, who travel in the summer with their parents, are emphatic about their futures.  "I'm always going to work in the carnival,"
Vonni says.  "Me too," echoes Tina.


by Adria-Ann McMurray Staff Writer Argus-Courier,


Article submitted by Linda Casey (aka Mandy Lynn) One of “Jack’s Girls”  Petaluma, Calif.  Friday, June 16, 1978

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