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Fair Opens Today : Carny Life: Drifters on the Midway

September 12, 1985|PAT BRENNAN | Times Staff Writer

POMONA — They are travel-stained magicians who show up once a year to build dreams with their rough hands, take in some money and have a few nights on the town. Then they pack up the dreams and move on.

They are the carnies, the horse trainers, the concessionaires, the trinket sellers and the fortune-tellers. Together they help create the Los Angeles County Fair.

"You build it up and you take it down," said Lillian Majel, who helped build the game booth she will work in during the fair. "That's my favorite part. That's when everybody gets together."

The scene was one of controlled chaos earlier this week as carnival workers hurried to erect game booths, Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and a host of other stomach-churning rides before the fair's opening today. Feeders, riders and trainers worked to prepare their horses to run on the fairgrounds race track each day at 12:30 p.m. Craftsmen hurried to finish art, floral, commercial and agricultural displays in the fair's cavernous exhibit halls.

Haven for Drifters

Located on a 480-acre lot between White Street and Ganesha Boulevard in north Pomona, the fair will run through Sept. 29. It opens at 10 a.m. on weekdays, 9 a.m. on weekends, and closes at 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

The carnival, one of the most exotic facets of the fair, is really a small, self-contained world on the fair lot where drifters who are shunned by most of society can take refuge. It is made up of those who build and run the rides, and game masters who try to entice "marks" (customers) to spend money playing the "joints" (game booths).

"It's a miniature town; a town overnight," said Earl Butler, part owner of Butler Amusements Inc. The company runs 27 of the 162 rides and games that will make up the amusement midway at this year's fair.

As the games and rides were being erected this week, Butler could often be seen driving his battery-powered cart around the premises, giving orders over a walkie-talkie to teams of carnival workers and their supervisors.

Butler hires, fires and disciplines his staff of carnival workers, which he said may number in the hundreds by the time the fair ends. Many others will not get hired, despite their desperate petitions to Butler, because there are more applicants than jobs.

"I usually try to see who's on the ball," Butler said. "They have to be able to stand long hours."

Nomadic Life

The carnies usually live and work on the lot, staying in their own trailers, tents and cars or simply moving their sleeping bags from one dwelling to the next. They move between two-week dates when carnivals are in season and fend for themselves the rest of the year. Most of those in Pomona are working the California circuit this time of year.

They acknowledge that the hours are long, the pay sometimes dependent on the number of customers and the work often dusty, hot and thankless. But all seem to share a passion for life on the road and the world of colored lights and cotton candy.

"It's a trip traveling around," said Ferris wheel operator David Walton, 25. "It's nice to see all different places and live like a hobo with money in your pocket."

There are those who have been at it a few years and like it. And then there is the "green help," the "40-milers."

"They call them 40-milers because they make it 40 miles down the road and then they're gone," Walton said.

One of those who made it farther was Curly Wagner, 43. Wagner, whose son and daughter have been brought up in the carnival world, said he got into the carnival business to help support his family when he was 12. "I ran away and joined the carnival," he said with a grin.

He'll Guess Your Age

Wagner, whose good-humored face is dominated by searing blue eyes, said he runs a game called tic-tac-toe. He also said that for a nominal fee he can tell you a thing or two about yourself.

"I'll guess your age within two years, your weight within three pounds, the number of years you've been married, how many years you wish you were--anything you want.

"Hustle is the name of the game in this business," he said. "I been all the way to the top in this business and right back down to the bottom. People rip you off."

Wagner explained that he once owned a stable of concession stands, but that employees he thought he could trust took so much of his merchandise that he had to give it up. Now his wife, son and daughter help him do what he has done most of his life--make "pitches" to "marks."

But Wagner said the old ways are beginning to disappear among carnies.

"It used to be if you were hungry carnies would always feed you and take care of you," he said. "But the people that work here now are a pretty wild bunch. Most are people you would call 'would-be' carnies. The would-be's will just tell you to go your own way."

Hard Work Earns Respect

Still, some of the younger carnies speak fondly of the sense of community Wagner says is disappearing.

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