The Carnival Business:
1965 to 1995
' The Elephant in the Room '
Above picture is Playland Amusement Park
Vancouver, B.C. CanadaFriends, I have to tell you that the ' Elephant in the Room ' for me is the carnival business. Here I am over five years into my blog and I have not detailed for you any serious information at all about the carnival business. This was my first job as a teenager, but it was to become much more than that because this is the business that carried me through my teenage years and forward into many of my adult years as well. This occupation would extend into over thirty years of my life in fact, but mostly it was concentrated in the sixties and the seventies and into the early 1980's as well. It bought me my motorcycles and my cars and it paid for my university education and it kept me going while I tried to to get a full time job after completing university; it was always my insurance or backup job. It provided me with a unique education in the business of life and laid the groundwork for my business background as well. After my initial employment at the Amusement Park I would travel a great deal throughout the western provinces of Canada, working with various carnival companies ' playing ' small towns and the large urban centers as well.
The picture above is Playland Amusement Park in Vancouver, B. C. This is what it looked like in 1965 and this is what it looks like today as well. The midway had partially burned down just about the time I started working there. Once restored and put back to life they called it ' The Million Dollar Midway ' I am not sure if that was meant to be a joke or not. I started off my working career as a ' ball boy ' in the ' One Ball ' concession. I did mention this detail of my life briefly in a previous post. I was a very energetic teenager and eager to perform in my job. I was physically very fit and quick at my new job. I was proud to be ' the fastest ball boy that Playland ever saw ' ( my interpretation ) and that is in spite of the fact that I was now quite a heavy smoker. In the photo above the last concession or ' joint ' at the end of the midway was mine. ( After a couple of years as a ball boy I would graduate and become another ' agent ' or concessionaire and being in charge of the management and operation of an individual store. ) That is where I operated the ' slingshot ' joint. I worked in other locations on the midway, but this was to become my concession when Playland opened up in the Springtime. I worked here on the weekends while I was still attending school.
The carnival business was different back in those days, when I first entered the business, that is. It has matured as a business of course, but I was lucky I suppose because I experienced the real thing back in 1965; real carnival action, that is. That's right. At the very beginning of my career as a ball boy I was learning that people could be conned and they wouldn't even know that it was happening to them. Even a simple carnival concession such as the One Ball had a ' gaffe ' to it. People are throwing a soft ball trying to tip over three milk bottles. The configuration is that one bottle is sitting atop two on the bottom; the two bottles underneath are filled with lead and the one on top is much lighter and very easy to knock over; they are all painted the same white colour and appear to be identical. Most people cannot tip these bottles over unless they are a very good shot and are able to put some strength into their efforts. The point is of course that we could let people win when we wanted to. And, that was part of my job description as a ball boy. When the ' agent ' or concessionaire in charge of the joint wanted to let someone win so as to encourage him or her to spend more money, he would simply yell out to me: " set em up. " And, that would be my directive of course to place one of the heavier bottles on top so as to make the game much easier for the ' mark ' or ' mooch ' throwing the balls. And, this was my introduction to the wonderful world of the carnival business as a young teenage boy.
Lots of the other games had gaffs too, and I worked in many of them. The whole idea of the carnival business was to gain the confidence of the customer. You were dealing with people and you wanted them to spend as much of their money as possible. I worked in the ' Hanky Panks ' or the stores that gave away plush toys and other smaller toys. But, later on I would work in the ' PC ' or percentage joints as well. These are the gambling joints and they are a very big deal in Vancouver and all over Canada in fact. I remember looking forward to the summer fair or the PNE ( Pacific National Exhibition ) This was always the most exciting time in the business because this when most of the money came in. Anyhow, our amusement park was run by Americans and every year many Americans travelled up from the States to work the Fair. I worked with many of these Americans and became their friends in fact. I learned a great deal by working with some of these individuals. They were very good concessionaires and they were very smooth operators indeed. This is not to say that our own Canadians were not excellent operators because many were just as good as anybody else. But, I remember one of the gambling operations that came up for the Fair. In particular, I remember the team that came up and operated the ' Pea Game '. This is a table game enclosed under canvas ( a stick joint ) and it is set up right on the midway across from the concessions themselves. There were a number of these joints situated in different parts of the park during the PNE. This is when I learned about the concept of ' shills ' or as we called them ' sticks '. During the early opening hours when things were slow each joint would have people who were pretending to play the game. They were called ' sticks ' because they stuck to the joint and they made out like real players. Nobody knew any different of course and once a ' tip ' or crowd built up then the sticks could gradually quit playing the game. It was all fascinating to me of course and there were many other wonderful discoveries and insights just waiting to be uncovered....
....to be continued
photo of Playland Amusement Park
found in Wikimedia