By Frenchi Jones – Coastal Courier
Every child wishes they could have a carnival at their birthday bash, and although that might be a stretch for most parents’ budgets, it was the least that could be done for military children as the 3rd Infantry Division celebrated its 91st birthday this week during Marne Week. The Courier went behind the scenes with the fourth-generation family of carneys responsible for making the festivities come to life.
Fifty years and still riding
Joanna Geren remembers the day she first saw her husband. The carnival had come to town.
“I saw him riding the Tilt-A-Whirl,” she said. “And when I saw him, that was it.”
But she did not know what she was getting herself into. Her future beau was not just there for the ride. His family owned and operated it.
“Back then, it was a lot harder than it is now. He didn’t have much time for a girlfriend,” she said.
Joanna was a dental assistant in the small town of Jasonville, Ind. While Jerry Geren spent his days working booths, putting up and breaking down rides and making sure the children in each town he visited left the fairgrounds with a mouth full of cotton candy and a smile on their faces.
“One of the most rewarding things has been the children. It’s just a delight to see them,” she said. “That’s what our business is about. It’s a place where a family can make memories.”
Geren’s father was only 14 when he joined the carnival. Trying to escape life in an orphanage, W. R. Geren ran into the arms of a carnival worker. She gave him a place to sleep, he bought his first ride several years later and the rest, Joanna said, is carnival history.
The Mighty Hoosier State Shows, as it was called when it was established more than 85 years ago, became Geren Rides, Inc., a fourth-generation business of carneys.
“We’ve often said we could write a book about all the experiences the family had, but people probably would think it was fiction anyway,” Joanna said.
And so she married him, adding another chapter to the book.
“It was sort of a culture shock. You go from living in a house to living in much smaller quarters with no running water,” Joanna said with a chuckle. “But this has been my life and I don’t think I would want to change it.”
Twelve hundred employees, 1,825,000 bags of cotton candy sold, and 51 years later, the Gerens, happily married with only one son and one granddaughter, have kept the family business rolling.
“I would like to have a nickel for every mile she has followed me down,” Jerry Geren said.
He pulls the office trailer and Joanna hauls their living quarters – a 40-foot, fifth wheel travel trailer with full amenities, which is more than an upgrade from the humble abode, with no running water, they started with.
“There have been some hard times. There are hard times in every business, but our love of family and our faith in God has always got us through.”
Not always fun and games
Hard times and humble beginnings have not only rung true for the Gerens. It’s also an idea Emmit Johnson, one of 30 employees hired to help keep the Gerens’ carnival up and running, can appreciate.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he said. “Behind the scenes and after quitting time it can get a little crazy out here, if you know what I mean.”
“At night can also be a carnival.”
Johnson, 41, a construction worker who has been traveling with the carnival for only four months, hails from Nashville, Tenn., and considers himself to be sort of the odd-man-out in his family.
His sister is a college graduate and Johnson is responsible for running a Kiddie Land ride called the Drive-In. He said he just wants to make his mother proud.
“Can you take a photo of me next to my ride,” he asked. “I would like to have one to take home to my momma, to let her know what I am really doing out here.”
So the photo is snapped and it is back to work, but not before catching lunch and taking a visitor back to his room.
“This is where I sleep. You see it’s clean, not like some of these guys’ rooms, and I even have a TV and a DVD player,” he said. “It’s pimpin’, ain’t it?”
Each carnival employee sleeps in what Johnson called a one-man bunk. There are 20 bunks in each trailer, 10 on each side, and one shower on each end. The bunk room is the size of a small closet and comes with room for a twin bed and maybe a small table.
But traveling with the carnival gets a little lonely at times. When the lights are out and partying is done, there is plenty of time to reflect, plenty of time to miss home.
“You miss your family at times,” he said. “But out here, we’re all kind of like family.”
A few good men
Keeping the family together means having a few good men. It takes at least 30 men to put up tents, run cable lines and keep the rides going.
The Gerens set up their tents from Georgia all the way to New York, and it is General Manager Frank Sutton’s job to make sure it all happens with ease and grace.
“I run the show like it’s my own,” he said.
And it very well could be.
Sutton, like the Gerens, grew up in the carnival. His grandfather started Sutton’s Imperial Shows in 1869. Together the two families have more than 200 years of carnival experience between them.
“It’s got to be something that’s in your blood, something you really want to do,” he said.
The business can be very demanding. Meeting safety regulations can be tedious. But finding the help needed is probably the most difficult part of the job.
“The days of the gypsies are gone. It’s nothing like what it used to be.”