Monday, September 30, 2013

The Carnival Series ~ Chapter III: The layout

The layout is carny lingo for the time-tested pattern of a typical full-featured carnival designed to draw crowds all the way through the entire carnival and maximize their spending. The carnival was always laid out in the shape of a horseshoe. The crowd would enter the gate, and by natural instinct would proceed up the right leg. Games were the first joints they would encounter along the outside of the right leg of the horseshoe. Rides would be located down the center column, with the carousel always being the first ride beyond the front gate. After the games the crowd would find the shows and the the penny arcade. Across the back of the horseshoe would be the major rides, including one or more Ferris wheels. Then along the left leg of the horseshoe-shaped map, other shows and then more sales joints and games all the way to the front gate.

Ready to set up our joints (carny lingo for any carnival midway concession. Described by their layout for placement purposes; line-up joints fit with others in a row, center joints attract customers to all four sides and need to be in the middle of an open area. You could have a stick joint (built of wood and situated on the ground) or a trailer joint.), we owned a total of three line-up joints and two center joints by the end of year two - Wax hands, Monster paintball, Rope ladder, Ping pong toss and Gone fishing., you must first wait for the lot man or lot manager (carny lingo for the guy you need to be very nice to, and pay (sometimes as much as 10% of your gross) because he decides where your joint is placed on the lot. Joints can make thousands of dollars in one large engagement like a State Fair. Pay him well and stay on his good side and you get a good location; cross him and you won't make a dime.) to give you your joint location.  Since everyone else also needs to know where they are setting up, the wait can be half the day - hence, setup can last well into nightfall.

While we waited for JB to talk to the lot man, I enjoyed watching others setup their food joints and game joints.  The most entertaining of all was watching the ride operators setting up the rides.  Rides are held together with different sizes of R-keys (carny lingo for a cotter pin, much used in assembling rides.) I called it a cotter pin at my first show and was quickly corrected, I guess being a girl, all the guys wanted me to not look like a first of May (carny lingo for a novice performer or worker in his first season. Shows usually play the season's opening spot on the first of May, so the term means someone "green" who is new to carnival life.)   I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that the rides are held together with a bunch of pins, ahem, R-keys that come in many sizes and thicknesses.  I mentioned to ride operator once, about the safety of the rides, being held together with little pieces of metal and he told me the carnival rides are safer than those at the big box amusement parks.  The carnival rides are inspected before operation, after setup at every show.  One particular ride operator actually gave me an R-key and told me to always wear it on my pants belt loop in the very back and they would always know I was one of their own.  I still have it in my jewelry box if my memory still serves me.

One particular lot, we were waiting to setup our game joints and behind us a guy had TIGER cubs!!!  He was charging people to have their picture taken with them.  Of course being a cat lover, this particular joint was very attractive and I couldn't keep my eyes off these adorable tigers!!!  My first free moment and when there was nobody waiting for a photo (very hard to do because this guy was drawing large crowds, great for my game as well), I waltzed over there and had my photo taken with the tiger cubs.  While it was the coolest thing I have ever done - holding a tiger cub on my lap, it was equally scary and terrifying.  The owner would hand a bottle of milk to you to feed the cub,  you are holding the cub in your lap and then the owner would snap the photo, while the cub is busily drinking the milk.  Not in my case, my experience went like this - I sit down, am handed the bottle of milk, then handed the tiger cub, then the owner discovers he is out of film and leaves me ALONE with a very large tiger cub, who is almost finished drinking the milk.  Now the cub IS finished and is started to make roaring noises and growling, like a tiger, not a cute little meow like a domestic cat,  the cub is getting very bored and squirming A LOT.  The owner took FOREVER to return with film!  Finally after at least five minutes - seemed like fifteen minutes - he handed me a new bottle of milk, apologized profusely and I got several photos of me and the tiger cub.  I was a bit relieved to be finished and probably won't ever volunteer for a photo with a wild animal ever again.  But it was an awesome experience that I wouldn't trade for anything.  Me, in the photo below in 1999 with the tiger cub.

sorry, the picture is a bit grainy and already framed on my wall

After setting up and getting to know the ride operators, food joints and other game joints surrounding us, I enjoyed the food and conversation daily.  I fondly remember one show, a greek food joint was located across from me and I ate so much Baklava that I NEVER have to taste it again, as long as I live.  I have eaten so much pizza, corn dogs, cotton candy, candy apples, popcorn, cheese steaks and cheese burgers to last a lifetime.  At some of the shows, there is a cook house (carny lingo for a large eating establishment open to the public, like a restaurant or cafeteria. More often, the place where personnel eat, not open to the public.) available to the carnival employees only.  When you saw or heard, "the flags up" it meant the cook house was open.  It was the coolest thing ever, it was a large, elongated trailer with windows the entire length and a small shelf, you get in line at the front and tell the cooks what you want to eat!  They will make just about anything for you, I ordered creamed chipped beef over home fries once and they told me that was Yankee food and they didn't serve it - while they laughed up a storm (we were in the southern end of the United States).  I apologized and stated that I was in fact a Yankee and ordered pancakes.  You collect your food somewhere at the end and pay the cashier.  Tasty, home cooked food to order, hot, delicious, served with a smile most days and sometimes over priced, but better than lot food everyday.  There were picnic tables to sit at and plenty of conversation (more on that later) to share.

After the day is over most carnies are headed back to the living lot (carny lingo for the private area not open to the public, used for storage and living quarters) to get changed, sleep, rest awhile or hang out.  It is usually pretty late by the time the carnival shuts down for the night.  They stay open as late as 2 A.M. sometimes, depending on the flow of patrons.  The living lot is full of RVs, tents and other assorted trailers used for storage.  It wasn't hard to see who was who, the showmen (carny lingo for the preferred title of many proud lifelong outdoor amusement entrepreneurs, who would be very unhappy to be called "carnies." There is a firm social division between jointees and showmen, and no one gives much respect to ride operators.) had the largest and fanciest RVs, decorations outside and were also parked away from everyone else.  Every show location has public restrooms available, but not all have a bath house available.  Besides gym class in high school, I had never used a bath house before.  Taking showers with other people was interesting and I hope I never have to share my shower with strangers again, but I was thankful for being able to shower.  Often times when the lot did not have a bath house we took showers at JB's hotel room if possible and a few times we went without.  We had befriended some fellow carnies and were having a few drinks and conversation after shutdown, we were invited back to their trailer and discovered they were staying in a bunkhouse (carny lingo for a trailer providing extremely spare housing. The owner rents space to workers who don't own personal trailers and who don't make enough to afford a motel. The trailer is split down the middle, on each side are closet-sized cubicles big enough for a mattress and about 18" to move around. Some "rooms" have one bed, some have bunks and others in the "fifth wheel" section have an elevated bunk with a little more elbow room.).  Fully carpeted or had linoleum flooring, cozy but claustrophobic at the same time. Most interesting thing I have ever seen, before I discovered a bath house trailer.  It was the same as the bunkhouse except had less divisions and behind each door contained a small shower, sink and a toilet.  At one show, JB befriended a showman that let us use this wonderful bath house trailer when there were no bath houses available.  A Godsend I tell you. 

Next morning would be wake up after 10 AM, get cleaned up, eat or head over to the cook house.  The show lot opened at 3 or 4 PM, closed after 11 PM and repeat.

Read more about my travels with the carnival:
Chapter IV: Carnival rides, games, other unique attractions and Mark, who is Mark???


  1. How cool. This was interesting. I always wondered how it was all done.

    1. Thank you! I had never spoken of my experiences to anyone before these blog posts, people can be so judgmental, but a good friend requested to hear more about this particular time in my life. I finally broke my silence. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Great post! People can be pretty snotty about carnie workers; good for you on sharing. This was really interesting and I has wondered about some of things before. I had the same question about the rides being safe too and a friend that had been a carny in the past told me the same thing. Made a lot sense actually.


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