Carnival workers share stories, experiences

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Gavin Swihart, 6, wraps his arms in protection around his sister Avert Swihart, 3, while riding the Crazy Daisy Cup. Avert said she just wanted to get off the ride while Gavin got back on without her.  Photo by Gwendolyn Garcia

Gavin Swihart, 6, wraps his arms in protection around his sister Avert Swihart, 3, while riding the Crazy Daisy Cup. Avert said she just wanted to get off the ride while Gavin got back on without her. Photo by Gwendolyn Garcia

Anthony Willis of Kingsville helps sisters Sage Donahue, 6, and Emma Donahue, 5, out of the Tea Cup ride. Willis is a former truck driver and helps with a drug and alcohol outreach ministry.  Photo by Pam Paz

Anthony Willis of Kingsville helps sisters Sage Donahue, 6, and Emma Donahue, 5, out of the Tea Cup ride. Willis is a former truck driver and helps with a drug and alcohol outreach ministry. Photo by Pam Paz

Don’t judge a carnival worker by common misconceptions.

By Pam Paz

ppaz2@student.alamo.edu

Carnival workers, or “carnys,” as they are commonly referred to, often get a bad rap.

The stereotype is dirty, tattooed outcasts whose sole purpose is to rig games to cheat people out of their money.

The media is a huge contributor to the stereotypes associated with carnival workers. An article published through Warren Wilson College titled “Examining Stereotypes, Discrimination and Self-Identity of Carnival Workers” states the media represents such workers as “cigarette smoking, illiterate, mean, cat-calling, crazy, nomadic outsiders who have no place in our real society.”

Hannah Hagan, 14, screams with excitement and stepsister Courtney Rhoden, 13, holds on while riding the Super Slide Saturday. Heather attends Dobie Junior High and Courtney attends Driscoll Middle School.  Photo by Pam Paz

Hannah Hagan, 14, screams with excitement and stepsister Courtney Rhoden, 13, holds on while riding the Super Slide Saturday. Heather attends Dobie Junior High and Courtney attends Driscoll Middle School. Photo by Pam Paz

The song “Carney Man” by Cross Canadian Ragweed plays up this stereotype well with lyrics describing the job as low-paying with no future prospects. It also describes drug use.

Every year, the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo brings in carnival workers from all over the country. Wade Shows Inc. is the contractor for the carnival.

According to wadeshows.com, the company has been around since 1912 and owns more than 100 amusement rides and attractions.

The company reports it provides entertainment to more than 15 million people each year and attributes its success to employees, who are screened through background checks and pre-employment drug tests.

Unlike the “carnys” portrayed in films and shows, the carnival workers at the rodeo debunk many common misconceptions.

Mike Hoover’s primary job for five years has been the carnival. Hoover said he loves meeting new people. He operates the game Spill the Milk, where patrons try to knock over bottles with baseballs.

Hoover said working for the carnivals has given him the chance to travel. This was his first time working in San Antonio. The hardest part of his job is being away from his family in Indiana for months at a time, but he talks to them every day.

Hoover said he is often stereotyped because of what he does. He said many carnival workers these days are judged based on how the general public has perceived them.

“It’s all crap; we’re not here to harm anybody,” he said. “We’re clean, we have a strict drug and alcohol policy, and if you’re found positive for either, you’re out the door.”

Operating the Vertigo ride was Davis “Shorty Shorty” Lowery from southern Louisiana.

Lowery has worked in carnivals for two years. Prior to this, he worked in the cement business, he said.

Lowery said he has family in Louisiana and is usually gone eight to nine months out of the year.

“I miss being home, but this is like another home to me … family,” he said.

Making people smile is the best part of his job, he said.

Samuel Griffin of Antlers, Ok., stood in an open area attracting customers to the basketball booth. Griffin and his wife got into the business after their house burned down. Down on their luck and with few job prospects, they decided to join their friends working in the carnival.

“People are out to have fun, so I make sure they have a good time,” he said.

Griffin said making people happy is the best part of his job, but he doesn’t like seeing adults drinking alcohol around children.

“It’s not right; people should not be drinking around their kids, especially at a carnival,” he said.

Abel Hernandez of Mexico City has been to 45 U.S. states with the carnival.

“The only states I haven’t been to are Massachusetts, Hawaii, Alabama, Alaska and Maine,” he said.

Hernandez has been in the carnival business for about 10 years and has come to the San Antonio rodeo every year since 2005. He said he enjoys making people happy.

He usually stays in Mexico City from November through January to tend to his holiday toy business.

San Antonian Lawrence Alexander sat in the shade near the Original Fun House. Alexander has worked the rodeo for 38 years.

Alexander makes his living with the carnivals; he likes the nice people and the different cultures, he said.

“I’ve been in the carnivals since Fiesta was in the streets,” he said.

Another native Texan working the carnival was Anthony Willis of Kingsville.

He operated the Tea Cups and has worked in the carnival business off and on for 20 years. Prior to this, he worked as a truck driver and some years as a NASCAR mechanic.

Willis also is involved in the Restoration House Ministry.

Willis said the ministry helps individuals who suffer from drug and alcohol dependency and operates throughout Texas and Louisiana.

The people working at the rodeo’s carnival are not mirror images of the stereotypes presented in television and on the radio.

Like most people, they are hard-working family folks. Beyond that, they share a joy in travel and adventure.

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