It can be strange to remember that carnival workers are real people who exist today. Mainly I think of “carnies” as being characters in indie films featuring Kristen Stewart or figures who exist only in popular imagination and distant history, like boxcar children or old-timey circus workers.
My personal exposure to carnies was limited to about zero to two times a year, depending on whether I went to Toad Suck Daze or the county fair. When I try to recall them, I can only imagine a wizened, long-haired man who I probably made up, securing the bar over my lap in the Tilt-A-Whirl.
But carnies are definitely real, and they live in modern times. Of those interviewed by Nancy Rommelmann for LA Weekly in 2005 and Justin Pittman for The Daily News in 2014, many talked about what drew them to carny life: the community found among carnival workers, the kids’ smiles, the freedom, and the evolving safety and hiring standards that are creating better experiences for both employees and carnival-goers.
“Behind the twinkling machinery, giant stuffed animals and cotton-candy concession stands of a carnival lies a generations-old lifestyle of camaraderie and adventure,” as Pittman puts it. “It is the life of … people who work in difficult conditions, who are often stereotyped as a kind of modern gypsy and who are the backbone of carnivals across the America. It’s a life dedicated to one task — making kids smile.”
Of course, the kids can’t always be smiling—and despite their upsides, carnies’ lives are not all fun and games. Read on for behind-the-scenes truths revealed by the workers themselves.
Carnies don’t get much pay or privacy.
Though a constant sense of community is what draws many to join the carnival, the total lack of privacy can start to wear on a person. “During the nine-month season, if a carny does not splurge on a motel, there is zero solitude; there are always people on the other side of the bunkhouse wall, or waiting their turn in the john,” writes Rommelmann.
“We have ‘condos’ that are 5th wheels that are split up into sections, showers, and such. A lot of people who can’t afford trailers also choose to set up tents,” writes one Redditor, pasam743, who did an AMA (ask me anything) session five years ago. The born-and-raised carny claims that it simply has to do with where workers want to spend their money. “They get paid pretty decently, and some just choose to spend it on [drinking] instead of better housing,” she writes.
But, as Rommelmann points out, “Ride jocks earn between $150 and $250 a week; and renting a bunkhouse — the sort of portable dressing rooms actors use on location — will eat through $200 of that a month.”
Though Rommelmann’s piece was written in 2005, the born-and-raised carny from the 2012 Reddit thread said ride operators were making about $300 a week, which still isn’t much. “But the pay system is different than normal life, because living and other expenses are all tied into it,” she says.
A 2013 Reddit thread, from the user leftyatbest, says that “jointies”—presumably the employees running the games—are paid on commission, but ride jocks get a flat amount every week, around $300. “A lot of the pay is more about how much money you save rather than how much you make,” he writes. “On the road you don’t have to pay rent, utilities, gas, insurance, all you have to spend money on is food and [clothes].”
Reading this, I can’t help but wonder about how these folks are getting health care, but that doesn’t appear to be on their minds—or mentioned in any of the threads that I read. “All the money you make goes right in your pocket,” leftyatbest gushes. “Imagine all the freedom in the world and no bills.”
Many carnies come from checkered pasts.
As is true of any population comprised largely of people trying to escape themselves—backpackers, expat communities on tropical islands, people living in New York City—carnies often come with troubled backstories. Sometimes the carnival is what saves them from those lives, and sometimes it’s just a distraction, or an enabler.
Brenda had only been with the carnival for 10 days when Rommelmann interviewed her. She’s described as “in her 40s, bony, with sun-leathered skin and twitchy eyes behind tinted plastic sunglasses.” She has “bleached hair [that] is striated brass, gold and platinum,” smokes a lot, and “gnaws at the inside of her mouth.”
“I was a dental assistant, and I had a good life, good life,” she tells Rommelmann. “I hope to get back some day. I just slipped a little bit, now I’m coming back on track.”
Carnies get a bad rap, but according to one unit manager for Butler Amusements, Kelsey, it’s an unfair one. “Everybody — well, not everybody, but a lot of the public — thinks carnival people are scum; they’re all … addicts, the whole thing,” he says. “But it’s not that way at all. They’re just people who want to work. And a lot of these people out here, they can’t handle a 9-to-5 job. If I had to work in an office, forget it, I’d go nuts!”
Based on the workers’ own accounts in LA Weekly and The Daily News, it would seem that carnies are now required to submit to background checks and testing for being under the influence. But, according to the Reddit user and former carny leftyatbest, this isn’t always the case.
“That depends on the carnival. There are good ones and bad ones. But yes, there are a lot of ex-cons, … addicts, and generally bad people who work for [carnivals] mostly because they can’t get any other job,” he wrote four years ago. “It can be a dangerous profession.”
Building rides is dangerous.
It’s easy to forget that the rides people look forward to at carnivals have to be built by hand. It isn’t an easy task. “Typically rides take three to six hours to set up, and a crew of about seven carnies can erect the more than 300-piece roller coaster in about seven hours,” Pittman writes. “The track sections are lifted into place by hand and held together by pins. Some weigh more than 300 pounds.” He’s talking, specifically, about the most complex ride at Davis Amusements Cascadia: the roller coaster.
“You’ve got to watch every little thing all the time, and you’ve got to be able to move, because that ride’s a big ride,” Ronnie Bridges, who’s been with Davis Amusements for 15 years, tells Pittman. “It’s very dangerous, not everybody can do this stuff.”
Apparently, there’s not much for carnival goers to worry about, however. “Safety is a HUGE concern to all ride jocks,” leftyatbest assures Reddit. “The rides are very safe.”
That said, it’s best to pay attention to how well-maintained everything looks as an indicator of how sound the carnival workers are. “If all the lights work on the rides, they have good paint jobs, fancy games and nice food joints and candy poppers, odds are its a good show with clean workers,” he writes. “Don’t go to a show where the rides look shabby and old, or the food joints look dirty.”