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Muscle Makes the Midway Move : Carnival's Fantasy Is Built on a Gritty Reality

February 23, 1986|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

CERRITOS — Amusement rides were going up, turning a parking lot into a fantasy land. The Rock-o Plane, Sizzler, Paratrooper and Loop all reached for the sky and waited to whirl, spin, gyrate and thrill.

They sat with great intimidation, smug in their bright paint and the knowledge that they were irresistible, ready to stand hair on end and turn stomachs queasy.

Workers with tattoos on their arms and grease on their hands were preparing for a weekend carnival at Richard Gahr High School that would benefit the school band. For years these men, who work for Covina-based Stark & Sons Shows Inc., have been coming to the Southeast area.

"Bobby, see all those bolts, you got to tighten them up," a man ordered.

Huge wrenches were lugged across the midway's asphalt, on which black cables snaked like fire hoses from the rides to a generator truck. The smell of motor oil, not cotton candy, was in the air.

Getting Filthy

Some of the men still had a little boy inside them, although for others the little boy has vanished, driven out by the sheer grind of setting up and tearing down heavy equipment, and not getting paid much to get filthy every day.

"When I first started you couldn't keep me off them (the rides)," said Bob Ellis, 47, who puffed a Lucky Strike. A slender man with a lined face and a snake tattooed on his arm, he wore a T-shirt that had started the day white.

Ellis, who has been with Stark & Sons for 17 years, is the company's electrician. "I get shocked once a week," he said.

But the romance with the midway has faded for Ellis. It has been a long time since the carnival first seeped into his blood when he was a boy living near Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y. Now he dismisses the life as "the same old garbage."

But, trying to think of some of his job's redeeming qualities, he said, "It's outdoor work, you travel around."

Stark & Sons puts on a show every weekend for 10 months each year. The owners are two muscular men of 25, Richard Stark, grandson of the man who originated the company 30 years ago, and Robert Centeno.

'A Clean Organization'

"We don't stay out here at night, we don't sleep under our rides," said Centeno. "This is a clean organization."

And Stark added: "This is a legitimate business. It's not like we come here and rip people off and go home. Next week we'll be down the street. We've played the same spots for 20 years."

They charge 60 cents for the kiddie rides and 90 cents for three hectic minutes on the big ones. They also have novelty and food booths.

"They (the Gahr band) get 20% of what we make," said Stark, who is satisfied when a weekend grosses $15,000. Big-money weekends are a necessity--Stark said he pays $60,000 a year for insurance.

"We've never had a major accident in all 30 years," Stark said, "but we get sued every week. One lady said she fell off steps (leading to a ride) and broke her leg. But she didn't call us until a month later."

The foreman, Mike Luces, a veteran of 14 years with Stark & Sons, said: "If we see something wrong (with a ride), boom, we're right on it. You've got to have experienced people. We never hire off the street. We train people. They start on kiddie rides, then work up to something bigger."

Inspected by State

Luces said the rides are inspected by the state each weekend.

Ellis' son, Bobby, 20, carried painted cast-aluminum horses from a tractor-trailer truck to the merry-go-round. Bobby had blond hair and wore a greasy Madonna T-shirt. He then attached the horses--wide-eyed, open-mouthed and in a prancing pose--to poles.

"When I first started working here, I couldn't lift them at all," said Bobby, remembering six years ago.

Bobby, who lives in a trailer on the company lot in Covina, has run the merry-go-round for four years. Now they've got him working the booths.

"I've met a lot of people and got to go places," he said. "I used to live in Arizona, but there was nothing up there."

The little boy has left him already.

"I used to ride them all the time," he said of the attractions.

'It Gets Old'

He has no desire to take another free whirl on the Rock-o Plane.

"It (the carnival life) gets old, and I'm getting older now," remarked Bobby, who said he dropped out of high school when he was a sophomore. "When I was 14 there were a lot of girls out here to meet. Now you got to look for a better future. I can see this is not a future. It's a job, you just get tired of it. All you look forward to is tearing down and getting paid."

And that's not much.

"You make $130 week and you've got bills to pay," said Bobby before securing the last horse on its pole and heading home to get clean.

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