Running away with the carnival was more than just a fantasy for this dirt-poor Arkansas boy.
At age 7, Kenny Maple left home and tagged along with the Gala Exposition Show. And every summer until he graduated high school, Maple returned to work under the carnival’s flashing lights and bright paint. Traveling across several Southern states, Maple worked his way up from the cork gun booth to operating the Ferris wheel.
Maple brings his own carnival, Kenny’s Funland, to the Bloomin’ Temple Festival this weekend.
Looking back on 50 years of setting up, putting on a show, tearing down and moving on, Maple said he wouldn’t change a thing. He’s enjoyed a life others only imagine.
Back when riding the Ferris wheel cost a dime, a carnival owner named Bert Miller took young Kenny under his wing.
“We came from a very, very poor family. My father didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Maple said. “When school was out, he (carnival owner Miller) would come and get me. He always brought me back and made sure I was in good shape. Probably, if it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have made it through school.”
One summer, Maple met a young lady at the carnival – Jeanne Gala. Her great-great-grandparents ran a carnival in the early 1900s and her father owned an interest in the carnival where Maple worked.
They got married in 1968, Maple took charge of the carnival, and they moved to South Texas. In 1980, he bought three old kiddy rides and built his own carnival from there. Today, Jeanne runs the ticket booth.
Looking back, Maple said he saw the country through a young man’s eyes when life on the road was safe and simple.
One night, on a lonely Missouri highway, one of the trucks broke down. While one man drove to town for parts, Maple and others stretched out on the side of the road and gazed into the heavens.
They saw something strange.
“We sat there maybe 30-40 minutes talking about the stars, how bright they was. Pretty soon, one of them went this way, and the other went the other way,” Maple said. “We had no idea if they was stars or if they was something different.”
Maple’s circus today travels from deep South Texas to Iowa. They are booked at a rodeo, a snake-hunting festival and numerous county fairs every weekend until October.
Maple said, yes, carnival workers are misfits, but behind the stereotype often lies a person who needs a second chance. In years past, when someone joined the outfit they also joined the family.
“In the carnival business, you take care of your own,” Maple said. “When a man came to work, the first thing he was asked, ‘Are you hungry?’ I tried to instill some of those times into this carnival. But those days are gone now.”
Temple Chamber of Commerce president Ken Higdon said Kenny’s Fun Land came recommended. In four years, it’s the only carnival that’s worked the Bloomin Temple Festival.
Maple hires some local folks when he brings his carnival to town.
Last year, Tiffany Ansley hired on. When the carnival hit the road she did too. Back home this weekend, she dusted shelves at the pop-gun booth. At age 25, she said working for a carnival was a good place to be. She earns about $300 a week, and gets paid lodging on the road.
Ansley said carnival workers are misunderstood.
“Carnival people are not like what they say. We work for our money,” Ansley said. “It feels like I’m supposed to be doing this. Seeing kids smile makes the job worth it.”
Her boss agrees.
“Just seeing those kids enjoy themselves, that’s what keeps you going,” Maple said.
But the question now is how long can Maple keep it up. Because he suffers from diabetes, his son, John, mostly runs the show. And with the rides computer activated, that’s OK with Maple.
Nevertheless, come early next week Kenny’s troops will fold up the tents and hit the road for another town.