ST. CHARLES — Jeff Lapin has been in the carnival business for 40 years, and although he’s also had other types of jobs, he is one of those who finds life on the road too alluring to give up.
Lapin, 50, is one of the vendors working with Fantasy Amusement, the midway company for the Kane County Fair. The fair kicked off Wednesday and runs through Sunday night.
Some might call Lapin a carny. That’s a term he’s had thrown at him, sometimes cruelly, by people on the midway. But he’s a businessman first and owns a few of the games, including the basketball shoot and a concession stand.
He discovered his love for the business at age 10, when a carnival set up across the street from his boyhood home. “My mother took me over. I helped with the church first. I sat in the dunk tank as a volunteer for no pay, other than the privilege of getting wet.”
From there, he worked for a few different carnival companies, then went on the road during the season. He worked as a carpet layer and painter, too — but those never compared to life in the carnival, he said.
Carnival life also has a four- or five-month off-season, which he spends amid a wildlife-filled area in Arkansas.
The economy is having the same effect on his business as any other, he added. His cost for merchandise has gone up, as have his costs for fuel, insurance, labor and utilities. And often, games are the last place where families spend their money at the fair.
“Rides are first, and everyone has got to eat or even get a bottle of water,” Lapin said. “Overall, families don’t have the extra money to spend.”
‘Trick’ to the game
He know there is a perception that carnival games are rigged. But the sign on his basketball game is clear — the rims are not regulation. The rims are more oval-shaped: 18 inches by 11½ inches. The basketballs are 9 inches in diameter; and the shooting line is at 19 feet — the same as a college-level three-point line.
The “trick” to making the basket is to drop the ball down straight into the basket. Underhand throws are great for that, he said.
Nick Das, 13, was working the game Thursday afternoon. He was “born into” the carnival business, because his mom works one of the concession stands. He’s been working carnivals during the summer since he was about 9 years old, Das said.
Das says he doesn’t see it as a long-term career — he wants to be a firefighter like his dad, who passed away from cancer five years ago.
For Quentin Rieves, 23, and Darryl Townsend, 22, both of Chicago, working the carnivals is a great way to work outdoors all summer long. During the off season, Rieves works security for a downtown Chicago hotel, and Townsend is going to Robert Morris University for computers.
“I like to be outside and interacting with people and kids,” Rieves said.
“I love being outside, not confined in a building all day long,” Townsend added. “I get to enjoy the weather of the summer.”