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John Gallant

Toronto, Wednesday, 31 August 2005

I started in June of 1976 in Winnipeg. I’m originally from Winnipeg. It was kind of an interesting thing. I needed a job. I was 15 and they were picking people out of a line-up. I just followed a line of people over to another office where they were being signed and I got a job. I didn’t get picked, but I just saw that big line of people going to another office and I tagged along. That’s how I got my first job.

I was working for Dwayne Steck on his Monster ride: bucking tubs. He’d had that piece of equipment for a few years, but it was in tremendously good shape at the time. I did the western tour and returned to the CNE, and that was fulfillment for that year for them. The following season, Mr. Conklin had bought a Monster from Dwayne. So when that rolled into Winnipeg, I immediately went to work on it because I had some experience.

During set up in Calgary, the crew decided that there were bigger things to do and left. All of sudden here I am, a 16-year old kid, moving a big piece. I was the only one that knew how to do it. So I did that for a year. I actually had to set it. We had set the centre piece on the ground and went home that evening, and that’s when the shit hit the fan with the rest of the crew. I came in the next morning and I was all that was there, so I had to go find some guys and finish the ride. It’s a fairly simple piece. There’s probably a total of 75 pieces to the whole ride that you’ve got to put in. The inspector never found out that a 16-year old kid had set it up. The show management by that time had done their thing. The Monster came back the next season and I moved it again.

After that piece of equipment, I moved a park-model bumper car, a Conklin Skooter. That was huge. So I moved that the following year for a year. Everything on that was hand-bombed. There were no winches, no nothing. We had to pick the cars up, the plates up, all the steel. It was 100 percent manual labour. Those plates were big. There were 99 plates on that floor altogether. There were 95 full-size plates, which were 10 X 4, and there were four half plates to fit in the corners. It was quite the deal. It was a park-model Skooter, it wasn’t made to travel, but we did her.

At that time it was Jim Conklin, in the latter part of the ’70s. Frank was pretty close to my age at that time and having a ball of fun too. I think he was moving the Jet Star II. Maybe it was the Enterprise at that time. I can’t remember. That’s so long ago; those years kind of … You know all the things that happened but you can’t pinpoint the year when they happened. I moved on to a few other pieces. I moved their Scrambler for them for a year, I moved the Zipper for a year. Those are the pieces that I moved for Frank’s father.

It was the winter of ’80, a friend of mine and myself flew to Fort Lauderdale and started with the US unit. I started on the Polar Express that winter in Orlando, Florida, was the first fair. Up until then, it had been the west and the CNE. I moved the Polar, that’s another fun story. I started on it in the south, in Orlando. We played a few fairs in the US and then we came up for the Canadian tour. That season, teardown morning of Edmonton, the Polar Express crew mutinied and took off. I had become the foreman of the Polar Express, that day. Dumb luck, I never really thought about it. It’s funny that that happened. I tore the ride down, moved it into Regina and, from what I was told, I was one of the few people that ever made opening in Regina on one of their Himalaya rides. I thought that I was supposed to make opening, so I did. I remember Frank telling me I did a good job and I went to get paid that day, and I got a $100 raise that week. I moved that piece for about 10 years. That was the year I became full-time staff and played the entire season from start to finish. Did some of the winter quarters work down there. At that point in time it was West Palm Beach is where the shop was.

Around then I was having too much fun to think about a career. It was a great job, I was getting paid good money, and I was having a whole bunch of fun, and the world was at my fingertips. I was just travelling and having a great time. You couldn’t trade it in for any money in the world. It was just an experience that you had to do. It was just a wonderful thing. No worries in the world. A huge family of people that you worked with, so you had no problems there.

Once you become a full-time member of the carnival business, and you’ve been around for a couple of years, it’s an unwritten thing, you know. Doesn’t matter what kind of person you are, or what you’ve done in your past, where you came from, once you’ve been recognized being with the show for two, three, four years, the people tend to have a watchful eye for you. I don’t if you’d call it a brotherhood, a family, a unity, or what you’d call it, it’s just an unwritten thing, it just kind of falls in. I find that happening now too. There’s some kids out there that have been around for a while, and after you start to notice them, you could be casually doing something and notice something out of the corner of your eye that’s not right. You don’t think, you just instinctively walk over and stick up for your fellow worker. Weird shit like that happens all the time.

Many heat scores for many moments; it was a crazy time. The biggest one that I recall was here at the CNE. They had a roller rink set up on the fair grounds, a big roller derby rink. At that time I was moving the Scrambler. I might have been on the Tidal Wave, I forgot about that, I worked on the Tidal Wave. The guy who was running the Monster—his name was Tom, we called him Monster Tom—his sister got into a big beef with somebody in the roller rink. A huge Hey Rube came down the midway; a bunch of people chasing her and a bunch of carnival people chasing those people. It just wound up in this big ugly schmoz. It was during the middle of the fair, not Labour Day. There’re certain flash points that you can’t forget.

I got arrested and spent four hours in the lockup here on the CNE grounds. They charged me with possession of weapons dangerous to the public peace. I had a screwdriver. I hadn’t used it. I ran to see what was going on. I wasn’t big enough to fight any of those people. I was a little punk back then. They picked me out because I was standing up on a concrete embankment watching in and the police came in with six-eight police cars and they just started grabbing everybody and throwing them into the police cars. I was one of the unfortunates. It was funny. In the long run it cost me $1,200 for a lawyer and all the charges were dropped. They couldn’t prove anything. No permanent record. The show didn’t cover my costs. It was one of those things, your father grabs you by the ear and says, “You need to take care of this,” and he steers you in that direction. You follow the course because dad’s leading you down the road. That’s really the biggest event but there are many small things that happen. There’s no one thing that can outweigh that particular moment because of what directly happened to me.

One practical joke I was involved in was sticking a siren underneath the bunkhouse, waking the staff up who were sleeping in. They didn’t make it to the ride, so I sent the boys to get the siren from the Polar and put it under their room, crank it up and watch them come running out of that bedroom. It worked.

I’ve been in this business 28 years now and all of the rowdy days are long since past, for me personally. I’ve done a lot of settling. I’ve been a member of management now for 10, 15 years. I did Guest Relations for ten years, after the Polar. From there, I moved into electronic tickets and I’ve been there ever since. I’m the system administrator now.

I don’t have any computer background; it’s all hands-on. I left school early. I knew what was going on with mathematics, sciences, electronics and automotive. I excelled in those fields. Basic things in school that you’re supposed to take—English, geography, history and French, all those other courses—they didn’t appeal to me. Those were my downfalls. I had a good hands-one experience in electronic things and I excelled in those fields, so that kind of carried me along with the carnival business because everything is hands-on and it’s either mechanical or electrical, or something that combines the two of them. I had a great understanding of the basics and I just kept putting it together, so experience just kept building and building.

I was not in on the ground floor of e-tickets. I was in Guest Relations when they first broke it out. They tried it in Kiddieland with very limited success. It was not a successful thing at all. They were just not doing things the right way. They didn’t know what to do. They bought all this equipment and tried to put it out and do what they wanted it to do. They weren’t on the right track 100%. They had some of the things right and some of them were all wrong. Originally it was designed for permanent arcades. Disneyland uses this system in their arcades. Scooter went to the manufacturers and proposed this idea to bring it out here to the carnival business and had them customize completely, the original application. It needed to do much more than just count coins and that’s what it was originally designed for, to swipe a bar-coded card and act as a coin counter; to turn an electronic device on after swiping a card. Scooter took it way past those dreams.

The point that I got involved, I tried to help them with their radio network, tried to do it wirelessly. They were not doing good. They had great intentions but they didn’t have any of the basic elements implemented correctly. I tried to steer them down the straight-and-narrow path. I had quite a bit of experience with two-way radios. They failed with the two-way and they daisy-chained it all together and created this huge Ethernet loop in Kiddieland. They had it working to some extent but the public had no knowledge of this, so it was a test pilot with them to try to get them to accept it.

The next season they tried some different radio gear and it went a little bit better, but again they had some radio problems, and they had some design problems in their portable units. They tried to take a 120-volt device and put it on batteries and make it last the whole day. Their theory was right, but their application was very ambitious. From a building standpoint it was a disaster. They had the basics, but it just was ugly. It worked, to a certain degree of reliability.

After that second year, Frank Conklin had told me that he’d like to move me on into another position and he wanted me to go with the e-ticket crew, so I’ve been there ever since. Some of my building skills have paid off in that department and some of my radio network skills have paid off, and e-tickets is on a very good path at the moment. There’s eight different wireless networks running out there, just to run the rides and the games.

Here at the CNE, there’s a whole other network surrounding the outside of the park making all the gate system work. That’s an entirely separate network. There’s 53 card readers around the perimeter of this fair grounds to credit people entrance to the CNE. There’s two separate and complete e-ticket systems running at this site. We provide all the equipment. I don’t know how they’ve billed it, but I’m in charge of that system as well. They’ve been doing it for a few years. It’s working really well this year, really well. You’ve got live data, real, actual, to the second, live data. We know how many people have come into the grounds to that second, from location, per card reader, however you want to cut it up; how many people on that type of entitlement.

So that’s kind of where I’m at now. It’s fun, but it’s stressful. If something isn’t right, they kind of look at me, “Why?” I can’t always give them the right answer. Wireless is a very unpredictable field. The designers and the engineers say it works like this. The textbook says do this. I can prove probably nine out of ten wireless laws or rules aren’t exactly true. Things that aren’t supposed to work, work great; things that are supposed to work, are very difficult. A lot of it’s been trial and error. You try something, it doesn’t work, you move on to what you think might work.

It’s pretty rock solid now. Now it’s just a matter of boxing it up and packaging it and making it a plug-and-play pretty package to market. That’s what we’re in the process of doing now. With the merger, there’s three other units that are going to get this system, Farrow, Astro and Allstar. From my understanding, the corporate people in Los Angeles would like me to help implement some of that, so we’ll see how it goes. They keep telling me there’s opportunity there. “This is the carnival business, there’s always opportunity, son.” You gotta put that line at the back of it.

I’ll definitely have a lot of input on how they design it over the next three years. We’re very close to packaging it. We’re revision four or five with what we’re doing out here. If I was to go and build one from scratch, it would be revision six and I would do a whole bunch of things different because we’re starting from scratch. We’re not rebuilding this component and then rebuilding that component again. It’s evolving, but we would start from its latest evolution point.

That about sums it up for me. I’ve been around many, many people. There was Gordie Brebner, he was a carpenter; Gordie Banks, he was a ride supervisor, used to be school teacher; there was Stan Airdrie, his brother was Russell Airdrie, who was a carpenter, Stan was a ride supervisor. A long, long list of people.

The time Stan Airdrie hit the moose coming across the west, I remember the incident, but I can’t give you detail about it. That’s 20, 25 years ago maybe. A few people have hit moose between then and now. I know one poor guy has hit two of them, two different trucks, always in northern Ontario. I think he hit one in a big truck and one in a pickup truck. Another friend, Al Rankin, he hit a bear and totalled the house trailer. It ripped the trailer right out of the hitch, right out of the back of the truck. This was only a couple of years ago on the way to Thunder Bay. It messed his back up pretty good. The truck and the trailer were a total right off. Northern Ontario has some pretty big creatures growing wild out there. That’s their natural habitat. You’re doing 60, 70 miles an hour, with 80,000 pounds, and a six or seven hundred pound animal is in the middle your travel lane, something’s going to give and it’s usually not pretty.

I’ve seen a few myself. One instance, there was a moose and its baby, and I didn’t actually see it until it was almost too late. I heard the hoof prints because I had the window open, and I glanced to the side and saw the mother and the calf turning and running off the road as I buzzed by them. I didn’t see them coming up. I heard them and turned sideways, looking out the window, and that’s when I saw the two animals turning away from the vehicle. I was in a daze. It was about three o’clock in the morning and it was northern Ontario, on the way to Winnipeg. It was early in the spring. I never did see them face-to-face. I kept on going and found the next place to stop and shut it down. Thanked my lucky stars. Got up the next day and finished it off.

It’s difficult times in this industry right now. Transportation, fuel, maintenance, insurance, rules and regulations, they’re all hammering at the poor carnival owner. For Frank to do what he did, to join a large corporation, I think was a good move on his part. He’s noticeably more relaxed and calmer. There was a lot of stress that was going on. It was just a never-ending uphill battle. Like a pickup truck pulling a big trailer up a hill. It’s either going to keep going or it’s going to quit somewhere up that hill. If the road’s too steep for the engine, it fails.

Frank was fortunate that Mr. Rosen wanted to do what he’s doing right now at the time that he did, and it’s looking good for Frank. More power to him; he’s got a wife and kids. My understanding is that he’s bought a house in Hawaii. This business, people go away, but they never go away. He’s got a lot of power, a lot of knowledge, and a lot of friends, so it’s only a matter of time, should he choose to or should somebody else choose to convince him into spearheading something. It’s like a poker hand. You can always draw another card. Frank is an interesting person. He’s got very good poker eyes. You can’t tell what he’s holding in his hand, you can never tell. I would hate, personally, to sit down at a table and play cards against the man. He would clean my clock because I can’t read him for the life of me, unless he wants me to.

This e-ticket thing is up and coming, and there’s plenty of opportunity and I was in on the ground floor of it. So we’ll see how it all plays out. As far as for me, I think I’m in a comfortable place because I was part of the first successful e-ticket operation. Other people are trying to do the same thing. We are to my knowledge the only portable, successful e-ticket operation. A few others have tried it, but it was too slow or it was unreliable. A lot of people in this industry know my name and know what I’ve done, so actually I’m sitting quite comfortable. If it all fell apart and came to shit, I’m sure I could pick up a telephone and be employed within a week.

Anything can happen at any given point in time. I’ve been in this industry for so long. How much can you really take? Or how much can you really give? There are limits that some people do have and I don’t know if I’ve reached mine yet, or if I’m even close to it yet. But at this point in time, yeah, I’m still going to be in this business. But like I said, anything can change. As you get older, the quality of life becomes more important than the quantity. One of the things that’s now heavily on my mind is enjoying life a little bit more, instead of working 16 hours a day, three or four months straight. Over the last six or eight years, we’ve been going pretty strong, with a small amount of downtime. Over the last four years for sure, it’s only been a month that we’ve had for downtime.

We’d start at the shop in winter quarters and do six weeks of work there before we played our first fair. We were coming right bang into a fair, West Palm, the first week back to work. There was no build-up. My understanding is they gave that fair up. We played it this year. It came up for bid and they didn’t bid to win on it because they were asking too high a percentage for the return. We were paying too much to begin with is my understanding. We were breaking even, after all that work. Your shop is two blocks away, it should be a huge return. I hate to see whose going in there, what their return’s going to be. If they have a huge return, they’ve buried a lot of money.

One of the things I can say about this particular show is its honesty and its accountability were right there. They didn’t hide nothing. Everything was straight up and on the books. That’s not the same with every show. I believe that is going to be the downfall of a lot of shows in the near future. With everything that’s happening today with the insurance and the inspections and the rules and the regulations, more people are becoming aware of the carnival industry. They’re saying you’ve got to follow these rules, these regulations, we need to look at this. They’re going to have to account for every dollar and once they start doing that, some of that hidden money that’s been the nest egg is all of a sudden going for expenses. It’s now part of a percentage that somebody else has got a piece of. That’s just a well-known thing, unfortunately not a good thing to be well known. That’s one of the things that Conklin Shows was successful in doing was changing the reputation of the carnival industry. I feel proud to part of that. The wild west has been tamed.

Frank did it all right and he was fighting an uphill battle, so you have to cut back on what you can do. Now, instead of what you would like to do, it’s more what you absolutely have to do. It’s not even what can you do to get away with it, you boil it down to the absolute necessities, what do we have to do this year to the equipment to take it out on the road. Well we don’t have to do that, we can’t afford it, let’s not do that. If it was a safety issue, it took precedent over anything. As far as beautification, it took a back seat.

That’s sort of where Frank was when all this thing came to a head. He’s not there now. He’s relaxed. Corporate’s got lots of money, they’re fixing a lot of stuff now, a lot of cosmetic stuff as well. We’re getting a good start at it. We have a long way to go. It’s too many years behind the eight ball. It’s one thing about the carnival; we’ll get it done. It’s well known and proven. We have five days, we’ll do it in five days. We’ve got 24 hours, we’re ready. We’ll get it done.

The longer time in winter quarters without West Palm will be very beneficial to the equipment, to the mechanics and the aesthetics, the visual part of it, as well as the staff. You run hard for 11 months, you go home, you’re done. So now, it’s going to be running hard for 10 months, 8 months, whatever. It’s back to the way we were in an earlier point in this company’s history. They had to book more fairs, they had to keep the money coming in because there wasn’t enough of it to keep afloat. So now that a corporation with lots of money is involved here, we can now start talking about the quality instead of the quantity.

It was a very hard season. This unit that’s with us now from Farrow Shows, they’re showing the wear. They didn’t think it was like this. They are learning first-hand that this is not a picnic. Conklin Shows has been busting their ass from the moment they started doing this. This Canadian tour will either make you or break you: big fairs back to back, and big distances. Farrell’s from somewhere down in Mississippi. I don’t know what their route was but it was sort of southeast, central; maybe a little bit of Texas and then across over to Florida. I don’t know how far north they went but I think up to Louisiana, but I’m not sure. This was their B unit that used to play the smaller fairs. They have a few rides that are all very easy to move. The distance to the next fair is very short. Now, the small rides with the big distance and the non-stop back to back, it’s putting a strain on their back, so to speak.

Usually what happens is that once somebody comes and plays the Canadian route with us for one season, their opinion of this show seems to change quite a bit. Cumberland Valley used to send a couple of smaller rides and one major ride with Jane Baxter. She’s done it twice. She likes it. Now that the Canadian dollar is close to par, it’s pretty good for her. Jane Baxter is the only one from Cumberland Valley that comes up here. She came up this year too. Cumberland Valley played West Palm Beach with us and that was it. Jane Baxter’s with us the whole way up till the CNE. Her last fair was Regina. She goes to Minnesota out of Regina. We might see her again in Columbia. Big piece of equipment, the Space Roller, it’s huge, it’s a really nice piece, a gorgeous ride.

Note: There are over 200 pages of interviews here, mostly verbatim and unedited. If you find spelling mistakes or typos, or want to add something, contact me at john [dot] thurston [at] sympatico [dot] ca. Thank you!


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