When your parents own a carnival, you can ask for bigger-than-usual presents.
Like a Sky Wheel – a sort of double Ferris wheel.
Mary Panacek’s son, Charles Jr., wanted one when he was a teenager, so she and her husband bought it. Which worked out well because they owned an amusement ride company and could put it on the midway.
That very Sky Wheel will be spinning passengers and churning tummies when the Nebraska State Fair fires up for the 140th year today.
Mary will survey the scene from her lawn chair perched between two huge tractor trailers that contain the offices of the midway operator, Belle City Amusements.
And Charles Jr. will be running around making sure the carnival operates smoothly.
“He’s the boss,” Mary explains. “I do the PR.”
She’s 84 now, and her husband died years ago, so now mother and son continue the company Charles Sr. started at age 18 after he visited a county fair in Wisconsin and saw the pony rides. His family had ponies, so he started giving pony rides at fairs in the 1930s.
He added more rides, and by 1948 he’d incorporated the company.
Which is why Charles Jr. has lived in a carnival all his life.
On Thursday, his T-shirt was covered in dirt as the midway came to life. Workers were attaching gondolas to the Giant Wheel, washing seats on the Sky Wheel, mopping the floor of the Tilt-A-Whirl and testing lights on the Typhoon.
Every summer, Mary, Charles Jr. and his family leave their homes in Florida and travel the country with a crew of about 60 to about 28 fairs.
They finished the Iowa State Fair on Sunday and headed to Nebraska for the first time. They have more than 100 semi-loads of equipment, but they can set up the whole carnival in a day and a half and take it apart in 10 hours.
Charles Jr. says running a midway is getting tougher, with high diesel prices and increasing insurance, parts and maintenance costs.
Although Mary is hesitant to talk about how expensive the rides are, she lets slip that the “glass house” cost a quarter-million dollars and the Himalaya $750,000.
She is on a one-woman crusade to erase the image of carnies as people with “nasty teeth” and long, dirty hair.
Belle City employees undergo drug testing and background checks; are required to wear uniforms; and are banned from having hair below the collar or facial hair beyond a trimmed mustache.
As if to illustrate her point, a woman in a tie-dyed Sturgis T-shirt and a scraggly-haired man hugging a Big Gulp wandered by, asking to see the boss about a job manning “the kiddie rides.”
Mary pointed them toward her son, but whispered that they’d never get a job there, then asked the Lord to forgive her for saying so.
Every time they set up the midway in a new city, they clean all the equipment and replace burned-out light bulbs.
They analyze which rides are most popular by weighing tickets every night. In Des Moines, the Giant Wheel was the most popular.
This year, Mary was going to sit out the season, but ultimately, she couldn’t resist joining the carnival again.
“It was boring,” the matriarch said. “You just miss it. You miss your friends along the route.”
But she never rides the Scorpion or takes a spin on the Yo Yo.
“I would love to,” she said. “I get motion sickness.”