As a family with young children got their bearings by the fried dough booth, their wide-eyed little girl spun around to take in the colorful, flashing lights and listen to the enticing promises of the game barkers. Jumping up and down, she excitedly announced “I’m gonna get cra-a-azy!”
That mission to have fun is what a carnival is all about. Last Wednesday the L & M Amusements carnival run by the Cushings of Wilmington opened on Nantucket to enthusiastic crowds reveling in the troupe’s famous Italian sausage, the thrill of games with stuffed animal prizes and the lure of wild rides. The carnival runs through Saturday, July 18 on the Tom Nevers field from 6 to 10 p.m. each night.
Larry and Marion Cushing began bringing their carnival to the island in the early 1970s when it was set up next to Stop and Shop before The Seagrille and gas station properties were developed. One year the event was held on the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club land, another year it was on Nobadeer Farm Road where they had to run water from the nearest house 1,500 feet away, and for the last several years the carnival has been at Tom Nevers.
The carnival originated with Marion Cushing’s grandfather. She is now a sprightly 72, still the carnival’s owner and a regular traveler with the company’s 20 employees as they move weekly from April through October to 26 towns in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
“It’s always been my life,” said Marion Cushing, stopping by the office trailer to speak with her son Larry Cushing III, and Mike Joyce, a former Nantucketer. Joyce is now the carnival’s bookkeeper and the handiest man possible for the family business. He is a substitute teacher at a vocational school in the off-season.
“I like being my own boss,” Mrs. Cushing continued. “I like being around the people and I have a lot of friends over the years in the places I’ve been. It’s nice seeing them again. I had one of the islanders call me to see if we were coming this year. She was so happy I returned the call, and she let the kids hear the answering machine. They were so happy we were coming.”
Getting the sizable carnival equipment to Nantucket is no simple nor cheap feat, which is why for the last couple of years there has been no merry-goround or Ferris wheel, explained Larry Cushing, adding that it would cost about $20,000 to get all the rides and games here on the slow boat.
The family also has to make judgment calls on whether rides or games are practical to bring to Nantucket. On the last occasions the merry-go-round was transported, it only had enough riders to run three or four times the entire evening. This year, there are 10 games and 10 rides with each a mix of entertainment suitable for kids and adults. The carnival stays on Nantucket longer than in other towns because of the effort to travel here.
Larry, now 50, was 15 when he was recruited into the family operation and has a son and daughter running the fried dough concession representing fifth generation carnival Cushings. For many people, the carny life just gets into their system and stays there.
“It is crazy. I was pretty much born and raised with it and so was my mother. It’s a different place and different people every week. We have our own little moving community. It’s a lot of challenge, too,” said Larry, an oil burner technician in the winter. He noted that the lousy June weather has hurt business more this year than the lagging economy.
“If you ask the old-timers, some of the best days [for carnivals] were in the Depression days,” said Larry. “People save up for it and it may be one of the few things they do.”
It was evident by the crowd swarming the carnival last Thursday, only minutes after it opened, that spending a couple hours just having fun is very important for people’s happiness, even if they are watching their wallets more closely than in years past. There was no shortage of children pulling at sticky wads of spun cotton candy, others munching from festive red and white boxes of golden popcorn or folks devouring juicy grilled hot dogs stuffed into buns with mustard and pickle relish with obvious pleasure.
Kids were lining up at the Wac N Smash game where little creatures pop out of holes. The idea is to slam as many of them as possible with a rubber mallet to win fuzzy dinosaurs, alligators, bears and other stuffed toys. Meanwhile, people were piling into the Round Up that holds riders in open cages by centrifugal force as the main platform tilts on its side while spinning. Smaller folk were choosing to ride the little train, cars or trucks.
In the midst of all this is the popular fried dough stand where Lauren Cushing, 22, makes and fries the dough and her brother Tom, 16, smears the circles with generous amounts of sweetened spiced apples, melted chocolate or pizza sauce. Lauren is attending Arizona State College where she is studying family and human development. Tom is going into his junior year in high school and thinking about becoming a lawyer. Both kids work at the carnival during summers, but may not carry the family torch.
“It’s always been a part of our lives, but not our dream,” Lauren said of her and Tom, suggesting that maybe their two brothers will be the ones to take over the tradition.
A little farther from that booth, Dennis King is running the Tubs game (harder than it looks) where the goal is to land a softball sized rubber ball inside a tilted plastic basket. King has been with the Cushings for about a year after being laid off from his regular job as a fiberglass painter at Bombadier Corporation in Plattsburg, N.Y.
“I am a talker and I love traveling and meeting people,” he said of his satisfaction working for the carnival.
Next door is Kimberly Young, 28, who runs the balloon dart game. It was a bit tricky to nail targets that windy evening, but maybe the several lucky prize winners had Mother Nature moving their balloons to the right spot as an unexpected bonus.
Young, who teaches Pre-K students in Wilmington when not with the Cushings, said her grandparents owned a carnival and so she has been involved with the life since she was tiny. She met her husband, a plumber in the off-season, at one of the Cushing events. Now, she has logged seven years with the family and he has worked for them for 15 years. They love their carny jobs, she said, and lamented the fact that carnivals such as the Cushings’ do not receive enough appreciation about their support of scholarship funds and charities.
“We get to come to Nantucket for two weeks every year and the Vineyard for a week. You make so many friends, and every year people are looking for you. It’s never boring,” said Young, handing out small blue whales to happy little winners and blowing up more balloons to replace the ones that were popped.