July 4th is just around the corner and the Community Days carnival is coming. With all that fun comes the “carnies,” the folks who operate all the rides, game booths and contests.
No one gets more excited about carnivals than Virginia Lee Hunter. A photographer and fine arts teacher at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Hunter traveled with carnivals for several years to produce the book, “Carny,” a sort of photo-documentary of Americana on the carnival midway.
A Kirkwood native, Hunter was inspired to capture the life of carnies, in part, because of fond childhood memories. She recalls being “amped up” on cotton candy and riding the carnival rides with her girl friends.
“My first encounter with carnies was when I was 13 at the North Junior High School,” said Hunter. “A carny whistled at me. He was probably 18. I was so excited about this attention from an older male I walked past his game over and over again to get more whistles as it seemed thrilling to me.
“Times were different in early ’70s and I would be surprised if a carny would do the same today,” continued Hunter. “There are much stricter codes of ethics all around, although I still see girls about my age, then, still behaving in the manner I did. Some behaviors never change.”
Hunter began her 10-year book project, “Carny” in 1996. Working in California for the Los Angeles Times and the LA Weekly, she decided one day to drop everything and to follow the carnies in a quest to tell their story through photojournalism.
She said the carnies were wary of talking to her at first. A few worried she might be with the FBI or family services, because some were running from a past. After sharing a beer or a morning coffee, the carnies opened up and allowed her to photograph them.
“I did get a sense in my interviews with carnies that they get a bad rap,” said Hunter. “There’s a long history of discrimination against them. An old saying is ‘Lock up your daughters and bring in your laundry, the carnival is coming to town.’
“Carnival workers work hard to make a buck, raise their families and to try to have a decent life,” Hunter said. “And a small town may have a financial boon when a carnival show sets up in their community. Think of it, a group of 50 to 200 come into a town. They shop, eat out, buy groceries, buy tires, and other parts needed for a show’s operation or just their individual needs.”
This isn’t to say that Hunter didn’t meet some sketchy carnies. For example, Melinda, who went from guy to guy or in carny lingo, became an “opossum belly queen.” Other carnies have cleaned up their acts after bouts with drugs or alcohol. Hunter said the business has cleaned up its collective act because of new regulations and increased scrutiny.
Among carny characters whom Hunter profiles in her book is Grampa Hack, who has made a living by selling “three dart throws for a dollar.” Hack joined up for carnival work in 1937 in Ellsworth, Kan., and never looked back. He told Hunter he “never did hanker for no regular job.”
“Hairy,” the popcorn and cotton candy maker, told Hunter that he had a miserable childhood. Hairy said he joined the carnival because it was magic to move from town to town, “to rebuild our little city” to bring joy to folks in a new location.
Walter, the Ride Jock, told Hunter that after five years in a penitentiary, there’s not much that can happen at a carnival that would scare him. He said he takes pride in operating rides and making sure the customers are safe. He has some strange tattoos.
“The carnival keeps my outta trouble,” Walter told Hunter. “I know the way I am. The way I was brought up… I got the tattoos, ‘love’ and ‘hate’ on my knuckles when I was 14. I was a lover one moment, then a hater the next.”
In case you’re wondering if those rides – the Octopus, Ferris Wheel and Tilt-A-Whirl – are safe, Hunter answers in the affirmative.
“Fair boards, such as put on the Community Days, are interested in putting on a clean, safe carnival show,” said Hunter. “As far as rides, they are inspected every week, before a show opens, usually by the local fire marshal. I would ride any ride on a carnival before I would ride a ride at a stationary amusement park.
“Most of the accidents around rides have to do with carnival goers’ errors, usually involving their own ignorant behavior due to consumption of too many beers at the beer garden. I never witnessed any one under the influence working on the midway. If they were caught with alcohol on their breath by a breathalizer, they were docked from work that day, and if it continued then they were given the boot off the show,” Hunter said.
In covering the carnies, Hunter traveled alone. She would camp or get a cheap motel. Sometimes she would crash on the couch of a carny. When she was low on cash, she might even work a ball toss or a dart game. She became a part-time carny.
Carny Film Debut
Hunter’s book inspired a Canadian filmmaker, Allison Murray, to team up with her for the film “Carny.” It had a sold-out screening this past fall at the St. Louis International Film Festival.
“A gentleman in the audience came up to me afterward and said he and his father had been in the carnival business for decades, selling trinkets and stuffed animals to carnivals,” said Hunter. “Although they were in the business a long time, he’d never seen the side of the carnival world that was featured in the film. His eyes were opened wide to a different society of folks in the carnival.”
“Carny,” the film, is airing on the Sundance Channel. The schedule can be found on the channel’s Web site. The film also is airing in Canada, UK and New Zealand this summer.
Hunter has 20 years experience as a professional photojournalist. She has worked for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, London Times as well as various magazines.
She graduated from Kirkwood High School in 1978 and continued her education with stints at the University of Kansas and Ringling School of Design in Florida, finishing at the Kansas City Art Institute with a BFA in photography in 1983.
She is in the process of forming a multi-media production company. Her next project? You could say that it’s a ring toss – totally up in the air.