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Rick Smith

Ottawa, Tuesday, 23 August 2005

Nobody believes the stories you tell them anyway. Scooter and I, we used to curl together. We’d sit down with some of these guys and tell them some of the things that go on around here, and they’d think we were full of shit. So we stopped telling them.

In 1979, I went down to the east coast with John Drummey and worked in the office with Bill Lynch Shows. The next year, they threw me over on a show to look after it myself. I used to have to do the advertising, the payroll, laying out, everything. So you learned in a hurry how to do things. They didn’t train me, I didn’t know anything about the business. But you learn in a hurry. Drummey was a great teacher, too, he taught me how to do the office stuff. He made it a little simplistic for me so that it took less time to do. He was quite a guy, Drummey.

I went down there until 1990, when I started here. I was with Bill Lynch Shows for about 12 years, until I got involved here. Conklin’s in their heyday, I used to lease them all their vehicles when things were good. That’s how I got to know a lot of these people in this business. I was in a car dealership before ’79. Then in ’79–’80, the interest rates were up around 20, 24%, you couldn’t sell any cars, so John said, “Come on down here for summer, and you’ll save money because you’re working all the time, you don’t have time to spend.” And I’ve been at it ever since.

You learn a lot, that old saying, Jack of all trades, master of none. You do want has to be done to get it done. I ended up getting married in 1990, came up here, I’m from Brantford. So I was able to hook up with these guys when they started that third unit, that Supershows. So I did that for two years and then came over here with Barry on the big unit, been here since ’92, I guess, since the start of World’s Finest. I own a couple of rides, a couple of games, the Magic Bus in Kiddieland, and then that kite flyer that you lay down on, and the machine guns and another game. That keeps your interest, too. It’s a nice thing really, because you have to be here anyways, so why not have something working for you.

Who knows how long you’re going to do it, it gets harder every year. They say, the more you do something, the easier it gets, but it doesn’t, it gets harder. Most of your problems are your staffing and whatnot, you’re always taking on new kids, and they don’t know how to work, they don’t want to work. “How little do I have to do, and how much do I get paid?” We keep a core staff, 75, 80% of the people come back year after year, and it sure helps. They know what it’s all about, and they can teach the younger ones on what it takes to get it done. There might be 15% locals, and then another 10% come on for the first year. They’re looking to travel. Start out on a new kind of life, I guess.

When I lay out the lot, I don’t let people decide for me where they go, or I’d be foolish out here, I’d be nuts. Laying out the lot is fun. You can’t keep everybody happy. If the guy has four games, he may end up with two, two and a half, three real good ones, but then he has to take a lumpy location, that’s just the way it is. I’m not going around getting paid in my back pocket for putting guys in good spots. I don’t operate like that, some people do.

They tell me years ago, that they’d get up in the morning and the games here would be moved around over there. Guys would just give the lot man dough, and he’d move them. I think we’re a little more aboveboard than that. I know we are, or I wouldn’t work here, that’s for sure, I’m not that kind of person. Mind you, being in car sales and then the carnival, there’s not much to choose between the two. You get lumped into the same category all the time, too, that you’re out beating the public all the time. Not the case here, anyway. We try to make it with these guys that they’ve got to give away 25, 30% of their stock, or we don’t want you.

I think our whole idea in the future is to have less games, and therefore you have better operators, a little more competition between them, and they’ll be working harder. It’s just a sign of the times. The expendable dollar isn’t always there. They’ll ride the rides, and you can go into a parking lot, put 50 rides up and make money, but you couldn’t go into a parking lot and put 50 games up. Games need the rides. You still get people asking for those shows, you still do.

When I worked down east we had a guy that used to work with Conklin, a fellow by the name of Sam Alexander. He had a banner line of stuff, and it was a nice attraction for awhile, but boy oh boy did it take up a lot of room. It was like 100 feet of the midway, and it might be $.25, to go in and see the rubber lady or the guy put a nail in his nose with a hammer. It just started taking up too much room, it was pretty valuable real estate that you could probably make more money off from the rides. This fellow had a veil on his face, he had a propane tank blow up in his face. He operated with a veil on, poor bugger, nice man. It was neat to see for a little while, but then it got kind of repetitious, not something that you could bring back every year. Same acts all the time. You know with rides, you can change them around when you make a purchase, more spectacular things, different things. That kind of stuff stays pretty constant, so you couldn’t use it all the time.

I think Mr. Conklin still has all that kind of stuff in a trailer somewhere, the month-old baby and all that stuff. I think he’s got all that stuff still. It would be frightening to see, I would think. He’s got so much stuff, I don’t know if he knows what he’s got, actually. He’s not a guy to throw anything out. When they did that Life and Times show on Patty, and they were talking with Jim, all the things that he still had. You know, even the old videos or 8 mm or 16 mm films, Patty Conklin in the hospital. It was a pretty interesting show. That would be the valuable stuff to somebody someday, whether it be a museum or the archives, or something, it would be pretty neat to see. We used to have a lot of those pictures too, when we’d go to a fair, it’s there 150th or whatever, in some places we’d put a tent up and show that kind of stuff. It was interesting.

As in any business, you have to change, if you stand still, you’re never going to get ahead. Just the colors of things, and the food in trailers, instead of in tents, the flags, all that stuff. It all adds to it, I think. That’s my job is to carry on with that kind of stuff, the colors, the flags, the uniforms, the color coordinated canvas and all that business. It looks a little smarter, to me. We’ve gone through the blue and white, and the red and white, and red is a color that’s getting hard on the eyes, so when Barry gets new rides, the trailers are turquoise or yellow or pink or whatever, and it brightens up. The public’s tastes change.

The day of the agent in the game extracting a couple of hundred dollars from a person’s pocket at a time, that’s going by the boards, too. People are more interested in, let’s say, at water racer, where you’re racing against 12 other people, and you win something when you win. You’re not being alibied or anything. We don’t have too many agents who can play it strong. Over the last few years, we’ve tried to weed them out. You know who they are, because we’d get complaints. I’d spend $500, and win this $10 toy. And those kind of guys all got habits too, so they’re trying to feed their habit. I couldn’t go and point one out right now, there’s guys that try to be, but they get stopped in a hurry, told to take a couple of weeks off, the rest of the year off. Barry’s favorite line to them, “You’ve got a great future in this business, but it’s not here.”

Unfortunately, all the shows are lumped into the same category, regardless of what you’re trying to do here. Everybody thinks you must spend six or seven months in Florida. Well, it wouldn’t look like this, if you did that. It’s nice working here really, because you’re comfortable. I am anyway, with the right operators, the programs we have for them, the look of the equipment, the safety. And I’m very comfortable; with some carnivals I wouldn’t be.

Lynch Shows was tough. Soggy owned it all. He’d be like me, really know nothing about the maintenance of rides. He was at the mercy of the guys working for him. It started to get a little tough. They talk about how nice the people in the east are, but boy oh boy, when you make them mad, they aren’t very nice people. Then John bought that show, but I don’t know if John wanted to get out of it too. He knew he didn’t have qualified people to maintain the show. I can’t say that for sure, but maybe in the back of his mind, there was something of that too. Plus a guy from Ontario, going down there and trying to take the spots, it was getting tough on him. He got out, he got out. He’s still with them this year, helping and whatnot, I think he has a two-year scenario that he has to kind of hang out, to try to make sure everything is all right.

Soggy sold out one of the units to a guy that worked for him. John bought another one. There used to be five units down there. Dennis Arsenault looked after a little five or six ride thing, I went down with him in ’79. John had been there since ’77, I think, ’78. He got sent down there to the States to look after the Deggeller unit. John is a pretty straight up guy, and when he had to start paying people under the table, fair boards and that, to get spots, I don’t think John thought a lot of that. He got out, then went down there to help Soggy out. But Soggy, nothing with taxes, money ended up in a bag, you take the whole bag to the bank. So John got him straightened around tax wise, and everything else, got it up and running properly. I think Soggy appreciated that. The help down there didn’t like anybody from Ontario. But if you go down there with the attitude that you’re no better than they are you get along just fine. I didn’t know anything, so I couldn’t act any other way. I just learned on site.

It’s just common sense stuff, what you can do and what you can’t do, and what you can get away with. You want to treat them like you want to be treated. You go around, and you look and you watch, I must do 10 miles a day around here. People think I’m not doing anything, but then at the end of the day, I’ll take a guy aside, “Maybe you could have handled it this way, maybe they’d appreciate it more if you told them this, instead of that.” Meanwhile, they think you’re not seeing anything, but I do.

Simcoe, I don’t know what you’d call it, kings for a week or they think they own everything. They’re roaring around on the golf carts, a lady had it in reverse, instead of forward and banged into the cotton candy, pinned a child against the fence. It used to happen here, but we just don’t allow it and the fair knows, after we open, no carts. We don’t even bring one with us anymore. I’ve been here since a week ago Wednesday, marking this thing out, and I borrow a golf cart from the fair board. I’m here by myself, and it’s a big area, so it really helps me out, but we don’t carry them anymore. Just for that reason, to me it looks like hell, driving around, taking away from the tip over here at this game when you’re going by.

Long days, we’re out here at 8, 9, it’s a 15 hour day, it’s a lot of hours. We get in a year’s worth of work in six months time.

I got run over by an oxen once. Yeah, we were playing a fair, and the only water was through our midway, and they’d walk the oxen through. Something spooked it, and it just ran me right over. They’re pretty strong, I’m not going to win that battle. Just shook me up a bit. To think of weird things, I’d have to sit and think, cause there’s been a million of them, but sometimes you draw a blank.

We had some people getting married here on the wheel. Right here at this fair about three or four years ago. They had the minister come in and marry them on the Century wheel. At one fair, we actually had two people married that weren’t carnival people, on the wheel. I think we’ve had two sets of people married that work here, on a ride. To a lot of them, this is their family, this is their life, this is all they know. We had the media there, the press, Cheryl, the fair board. It was pretty neat. So that’s kind of unique.

Our closing party for these folks, when we hand out awards at the end of the year, funny awards, things have happened over the year. We try to come up with a gimmick that pertains to what happened to them, whether they fell out of the bunk, or whatever it may be. It’s a real fun night. We do that in Simcoe. We have a big dinner and a dance, and a costume party. They let us use one of their barns on a Thursday night, after we close, we have this party. We hand out the real good awards too, the employee of the year, ride operator, concession operator, rookie and all that. And then we have a bunch of these funny ones, they’re good, they’re priceless.

I guess one of the funniest things would be when we arranged for a fella to ride a donkey in the middle of the party dressed as a cowboy. Art Pegley, he come in riding this donkey, we borrowed from Wally Townsend’s petting zoo, came waltzing in with this thing and the place went nuts. Well, the donkey had shit on the way in, the donkey got excited by something, threw him right off, and the guy ended up right in the shit. So somebody was dressed up at this party as Art Pegley, had a mask made with fake nose and all that stuff. Art’s job was clean up, he was in the garbage end of it. This guy came running out with the sweeping broom and everything, cleaning everything up.

Same guy the next year, we had to bail him out of jail. We got him dressed up as Elvis and he went up on stage and sang a bunch of songs as Elvis. He was sitting in Tim Horton’s, and the police were in there, about three in the morning, after we closed one night. And he said, I’ll bet you don’t have my name on your computer anymore. Sure, as shit, they ran his name, and there was a warrant for him in Kitchener. So they put him in the car and took it to Kitchener. So we had to drive to Kitchener the next morning and get him to come to work. It was just some silly thing, a domestic dispute. I already had it all geared up, he was going to be Elvis. So I had to go get him, or we wouldn’t have had our main entertainer. He’s been a guy who’s been around Barry for 30 or 40 years, Art Pegley, used to run the Scrambler, a guy who can’t read or write.

We look after some of those guys, they haven’t got anything, this is what they’ve got. Through the Patty Conklin Fund and money we’ve raised at these bingos and things, Barry has replaced some of these guys’ teeth for them, he looks after some of them. Guys that can’t look after themselves, or don’t know how to look after themselves, but they’re loyal as loyal can be to this company. He’s put teeth in a lot of mouths here.

We have a charity bingo tomorrow night, here we probably raise three or four thousand dollars in one night. A lot of concessionaires donate money or something, we have 50-50 tickets, we send out here, we buy TVs for them and whatnot, and raffle them, and half of the money for the bingo every game goes to the Patty Conklin Fund and the other half goes to the winner. This thing here tomorrow night will be packed. After closing, we’ll run until about two o’clock in the morning, and they love it, they appreciate it. They bring their own beer or whatever, and it’s a fun night. The fund sets up scholarships, $1,000 here and there, to go to school.

It’s not all bad out here. But people don’t know some of that stuff. A lot of that just stays in house, so to speak, that’s what we do. That’s why I enjoy working here anyway. It’s like a notch above some other carnival companies, that’s what I like. I think we do set some standards, and it’s been going under the Conklin name for years. We’re always thinking of things that we can do different or better, better for the public as well as the guy that’s working here. We can’t go out and set up and run all these rides by ourselves, so we need these fellas. You appreciate them, they appreciate you, and you’re willing to do things for ‘em.

I get people coming to me every day, saying, “Jesus, I need an extra $40 for this and that.” I’ve heard all the stories of what people need extra money for; I mean, grandmother’s died six times, in a year. I offer them $1,000 if they can come up with an excuse that I’ve never heard before. I haven’t been at it long, but maybe 28 years, and nobody’s been able to come up with it yet. But to help them out, they’ve got to get by, they need a sleeping bag or a blanket, it’s not just to go buy beer. If they need clothes, I make them bring the receipt back to me, to know that’s what they spent the money on, they’ll pay me back. I very seldom have I ever got stiffed that way. You get to know them, you watch them, some guys you wouldn’t give five cents, other guys you’d give the shirt off your back.

So you help them out with stuff like that, especially at the beginning of the year, when they’re just getting started, all they’ve been on is unemployment insurance through the winter, and they need a little kick in the pants to get going. So you help them. I get so much money a week taken off their pay. A guy gets that paid up, then he’ll come to me in a month’s time, and he’ll say, “Jesus, I need $100 for new pair of shoes, my sneakers blew out,” or something, so you don’t mind, because he’s paid you back. Anybody that hasn’t, you’d never do it again. You learn by your mistakes, like in anything.

I don’t have a whole lot of things happen to me, but you see a lot when you’re out here. It would be nice to have a tape recorder—that something happened or you remembered something, and you could just click it on and talk into it, and then you could transfer it to somebody who needs that information. We should do that because there are things that happen every day, and then it just becomes the norm. I know, when Scooter and I were doing that curling, we’d sit and tell people stuff, and they’d say, “You’re full of shit, that could never happen.” In your own mind, it happened because you were there, but they couldn’t believe it.

It’s not a real normal world we’re living in here in this business, but were trying to make it as normal as we can. I think years ago, these fellows used to sleep in the trucks and under the rides, and all that doesn’t happen anymore. They’ve got pretty nice accommodations now. We build four more bunkhouses for them this winter, showers and everything. Barry’s put things on the back of them, that one there says Caesars Palace, another says Las Vegas Hilton, MGM Grand, Trump Towers, and they’re nice units. Drummey, when he started in the food business with Bert Murray, he slept on the counter. It has come a long way, you just can’t treat people that way anymore. Years ago, guys would work the whole 12 hours, without a break. Now you’ve got to let these people have their own life, too.

We used to have a guy that worked in the french fry booth, we could never understand how he got drunk as the day went on. He never left his booth. You’d look in the trailer and couldn’t find a bottle. Finally, after about three years of looking, we found out he kept his bottle of rye in a deep fryer. He wouldn’t turn it on, he’d leave it in there. So everybody would think he stepped up, busy, but he was working out of one fryer. He had oil in the fryer but not heated. One of the best workers we ever had, a pretty loyal guy, but he would never get out of the booth, never. By the end of the day he’s pissed and we can’t figure it out. There was his bottle of rye in the oil. He had it figured out. But a great worker, a guy you’d never want to get rid of. He and his wife split up and they both got out of the business, she was a ticket seller.

It’s a business where you do what you gotta do to get by and survive. Everybody pulls together. We don’t have a lot of the ride versus the concession act anymore. I’ve seen it where the concessions will help set the rides up when they got a day off, because they’re bored and looking for something to do and they need a few extra dollars. The rides years ago used to take 7, 8, 9 hours to get down. Now, this show here, come Sunday night, everything will be down in four hours. The rides are all hydraulic, trailer mounted, it’s not lugging steel, except for the Tilt, the Scrambler, the Polar Express. Other than that a lot of these rides are mounted on trailers and its hydraulics, and computers that run them.

It’s like cars, backyard mechanics used to be able to fix cars, and these guys used to be able to fix the rides, and now you need engineers, you need a computer geniuses to come in and figure out the programming. You open up the control panel on that ride there, and it’s all circuit boards, and you need somebody who knows how to troubleshoot computers. Being out on the road, moisture will stop them, a hair dryer is a big thing in this business. You have $1 million worth of equipment, and you need a hair dryer to fix it. Moving over the road, the wires loosen a little bit over time, and you’re trying to figure out what happened, now you bring in some wizard.

Just stupid stuff, I’ve had that problem with my own ride, the last two years, big-time. It’s an Italian ride, and they close down during the month of August, so there’s no support. When they do support you, they talk to you in Italian or send you directions in Italian. When I first got one of the rides I had to go to Mohawk College and get a guy who teaches Italian to decipher the whole book, it came in Italian. He had to do the whole thing in English, cost me 5 or $600. It never operated here the whole two weeks it was set up in Ottawa last year. We went about six or seven weeks last year that it didn’t work, and it was about five weeks this year. You’re still hauling it around from spot to spot, hoping it’ll work, you’re still paying your guy. I lost a lot of money on that ordeal.

You gotta keep trying, and eventually it’s all okay now, cause almost everything has been replaced, through trial and error. We have a guy that works at Stelco, who comes, and he knows all this stuff pretty well, and he helps us. It’s come to the point where the computer end of it is above and beyond us, and that’s when you really need support from the manufacturer.

The trailer mount act is very helpful when you’re going over the road, less fuel if you can put two together. These are things you’ve got to think of for the bottom line, not just the revenue, but what you hold on to, what’s the net. Like that Polar ride, it’s two trailers, this is only the second spot we’ve used it. We put it up last week in Peterborough, before we got here to get it inspected by TSSA, to get the bugs all worked out of it. That’s just one example of how you’ve got to try to save some money. Barry and these guys get in the shop in the winter, and think about, “How do we make this ride into a 28-foot pup, so we can put it with this 28-foot pup, instead of having one great big 53 foot ride.” And they’ve accomplished a lot of that and they’ve made life a lot easier. So now we can take two rides in one load.

We have a lot of our own tractors and drivers, but we have to have a guy come and do 15, 20 loads out of here, pay him by the kilometer. It’s the same guy it has been for years and, he pays guys to drive for him, they drive our trucks. Gone are the days when you can just throw anybody in the truck and go down the road. He gets into an incident, and you’re not covered by insurance if the guy doesn’t have the right license, could lose the show.

On the east coast, Soggy would bring a guy in, in the spring, that looks after all the scales in Nova Scotia. That guy’s car would be loaded down with stuffed animals, free tickets and everything else. And our stuff would just go through the scales like nothing, and eventually people started to get hurt, including our own staff. So all that had to stop and now they’re on the up and up, but that’s how it used to be in. Now you can’t do that, you don’t want to do that, we don’t do that anyway.

Then we get into this special-needs scenario that were into here. If the manufacturer tells us they can’t ride and the insurance won’t cover you if they do ride, then what are we going to do? Lose the show? You love to please them, and we do the best we can, but now it’s come to the point of how far can we go with this. We can’t go real far or somebody gets hurt. It’s a thing we’ve been looking into for a little while, just to cover our ass, because if we’re not being covered, then these people own the show I guess, they’ll sue you. They say they won’t, but they will.

So we have to watch. It was a little overboard the first day, where it was just, “No, you’re not going to ride.” We kind of softened the stance a little bit, where you take each person on an individual basis. What you can do is ask the chaperone, “Are you comfortable in putting this child on this ride?” You get a waiver signed but waivers don’t always hold up. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. What happens if somebody gets hurt, and you’re not covered?

You know, sometimes an accident sensationalizes a ride, people want to go on it. It can have the reverse effect. That old saying, any kind of advertising is good advertising, whether bad or good. But I’ve seen it happen, and where they want to know, “Is that the ride that had the accident? Oh, we want to go on that.” I would think that I’d try to find a thrill another way.

We had a call from a radio station in Simcoe yesterday about the incident at the CNE. “Is that the Zipper that’s coming to the Simcoe fair?” A boy fell out of the bucket, as it was going up, and he was about 5 feet off the ground. Our way of thinking, is that the guy operating the controls was not in sync with the guy locking the gate. So he sent the thing up after he thought the buckets were locked. We’re not sure exactly what happened, we haven’t been told. There’s three locks on it, so the public can’t get out. It’s under investigation. The kid chipped a tooth and grazed his chin a little bit. Our first news of it was that he lost all his teeth, his face was ripped off. Then we heard the real story.

I learned from Alf along time ago, say as little as possible. Don’t look for things to say. Answer the questions as best you can. Alf was always a spokesman before, but I don’t know who is now with the new company. Barry tells me that these new guys are kind of pushing him aside, and that’s an awful thing. He’s the guy who got all those contracts out west, and now they’re not including him. I think it’s a mistake. They all love him, what a great man, they love him. Now all of a sudden these same guys will come and ask Alf something, and he’ll have to say, “Well, I don’t know.” He always knew.

I’ve learned from Alf, just from watching him on TV. When he does conduct these interviews about what’s happened. He’s so good at it, just says very little. You can talk too much, and then you talk yourself into a corner. These media guys are good at trying to extract information out of you that they don’t need to know. When it all gets solved, then you can make a statement, once you know everything.

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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