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David Minton

Life on the road holds lures for some

Profile image for By Christian McPhate
By Christian McPhate

A grizzled carnival worker hollered at North Texas Fair and Rodeo attendees as they walked past his booth, hoping to tempt one or two to try their hand at tossing beanbags at colorful balloons.

“Oh, come on, sir, step right up, you know you’ve got this,” he yelled, wearing a red uniform shirt with a patch advertising “Talley Amusements.”

He gave his name as George but didn’t offer a last name. He looked like a stereotypical carnival worker: colorful tattoos, missing teeth and a dark past. He’s been working fairs for so long now that he “can’t get a real job.” He started out working part time when he was between brick-laying jobs and enjoyed the outlaw aspect of living the “carney life,” moving from town to town like a gypsy.

But now, the carney life is changing. Talley Amusements and other midway operators have weeded out the outlaw aspect of carnival life, turning fairgrounds into a family-friendly environment by cleaning up the carnival workers, rides and games.

“Back then, it was the real thing,” George said. “The things they had back then, they just don't have no more.”

He recalled game prizes that used to include framed mirrors imprinted with images of marijuana leaves, busty babes and Jack Daniel’s whiskey, skull-and-crossbones bandannas, rebel flags and posters of attractive models.

“Ah, Farrah Fawcett,” the old carney said, shaking his head. “Those were the days.”

Talley Amusements has been bringing carnivals to North Texas for more than 40 years, providing Denton fairgoers with rides such as a Ferris wheel, a tilt-a-whirl and the Zipper, a thrill ride that defies explanation.

Talley is a family-owned operation that promotes safety first and foremost, according to its website. In addition to inspecting each ride at the beginning of each season, Talley requires carnival workers to keep their hair short, remove any earrings and nose rings and take random drug tests.

“Nowadays, we even have to pay taxes,” George said.

At one time, carnivals showcased circus performers, burlesque dancers, magicians and a vaudeville show. Strange attractions like the bearded woman, the strong man and dwarfs dressed as clowns were crowd pleasers.

Carnivals now offer variations of old fair rides such as bumper cars, the magic mirror house and the octopus, a ride with eight legs zooming through the air. The darts have been replaced by beanbags, outlaw memorabilia traded in for foreign-made stuffed animals.

“I see you lookin’, so come on over,” George said to another attendee walking past his booth, the S’s whistling out of his mouth because of missing front teeth. “Don’t make me chase you.”

In a dark alley, his words and his look might make someone run toward a streetlight, screaming for help. In this family-friendly environment, his tone bordered the “hey man, I’m just joshing you” frame of mind, especially when he smiled and tried to entice another customer to his booth.

Carnival workers must hustle the crowd to make money. And they only make money when someone pays to race a hog, shoot a basketball or throw a beanbag.

“Hey, I’m tryin’ to make a livin’ over here,” he quipped as another attendee walked past his booth filled with colorful balloons shoved into cubbyholes. Dozens of small and large stuffed animals hung in the booth, awaiting a brave soul to free them from captivity. Fairgoers used to throw darts at the balloons, but someone apparently deemed that too dangerous.

Like a used car salesman pointing out the finer qualities of a junker, George held up a yellow balloon in one hand and a small, dirty beanbag in the other. “What, pop a balloon with a beanbag?” he feigned, as another attendee glanced his way. “How do you do that?”

George shook his head. “I know, I know, you can’t, right? It’s rigged.” He slammed the beanbag against the balloon, popping it with the force of his hit. Several attendees jumped and walked faster from his booth.

The old carnival worker laughed as he leaned back against the counter behind him, waiting for another patron to wander into his neck of the woods.

“They just don’t want a bunch of crazy people out here ... well, except for me,” he said.

CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-566-6878 and on Twitter at @writerontheedge.