Butler Amusements

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Source: By Matt O’Brien – Contra Costa Times

The census is supposed to count every American, even itinerant carnival folk, but good luck finding Marla Obrentz while she is fixing up the Drag-a-Fish booth.

The fake fishing pond, which looks like a moat, is her pride and joy and the source of her income. She devotes hours to furnishing the game with prizes meant to entice young customers. The 44-year-old says she will pay no attention, however, to the census questionnaires that millions of Americans — most of them stationary, settled Americans — are filling out this month.

“I’m a lost soul. I haven’t been on the records for 14 years,” said Obrentz, who lives in a closet-sized RV cabin that lands in a new town each week. “I think we’re all pretty much lost souls here.”

Carnival and circus workers have populated the American landscape at least since President George Washington visited the nation’s first circus in 1793. Census workers have been counting the nation’s people every decade since 1790. So for at least 200 years, they have faced the special challenge of trying to keep track of a fluctuating population of nomadic entertainers.

Obrentz uprooted herself from mainstream society at 16 when she ran away from her San Jose home over Easter weekend. Back when the labor rules were not so strictly enforced, she would sleep peacefully beneath the carnival rides. Decades later, she still waxes romantic about life on the road but also considers herself a professional.

“It’s just like a regular job, except we move,” she said. “You build everything, decorate it, move it.”

The toughest part of carnival work happens on the first day in a new town, when the brute strength of a caravan of workers transforms a parking lot or an empty field into a wonderland in a matter of hours. The second toughest is the end, when the wonderland reverts to a parking lot in the middle of the night.

At the Butler Amusements carnival that stopped in Antioch’s Somersville Towne Center this week, at least half of the ride jockeys — the workers who set up, operate and take down the rides — hail from Tlapacoyan, a town in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz. None of them are sure if they, too, should be counted in the census.

One of them, Clemente Pena, 46, has been working eight years for Butler Amusements, which claims to be the biggest carnival company in the Western United States.

“Some people like sports,” he said in Spanish. “I like to travel, so that’s why I joined the carnival. I get to know a lot of places, a lot of people.”

Pena talks as he crouches beneath a long trailer parked at the Contra Costa County Fairgrounds that is home for him a dozen other Mexican men.

There are two stoves in the hollow beneath the trailer, and he is using one of them to cook a sopa de coditos, a soup filled with pasta and vegetables he bought at a Mexican market in downtown Antioch. Night is falling, and frogs croaking in a nearby creek, as other men set up chairs and a television. Mexico’s soccer team is about to play North Korea, beating them 2-1. It is also St. Patrick’s Day, and many of the other carnival workers — the native-born ones, who call themselves carnies — have gone out to drink at local bars.

The bunks in the trailer above Pena are stacked vertically — three beds one on top of the other — though not all are occupied. To explain how he copes with such a cramped lifestyle, Pena recites a proverb: “Todo cabe en un jarrito sabiéndolo acomodar.” Everything can fit in a little jar if you know how to accommodate it.

“You have to have an adventurous spirit,” he said. “After eight years, you adapt.”

When his wife died in an accident eight years ago, the grieving widower was looking for an escape. He applied to be a temporary seasonal worker in the United States, obtaining an H-2B visa that allows him to work for the carnival from February through October. At the end of the season, he goes back home to Veracruz, visiting the son he left in the care of his mother. When they talk on the phone, there are sometimes awkward pauses halting conversation between the boy, now 12, and his dad. The son wants his dad home, but respects what the father is doing for the family, Pena said.

Walking through a Target store in Antioch this week, Pena saw volunteers talking in Spanish to local Latinos about the importance of the 2010 census. They approached him, but he thought it did not concern him. Census officials say it does matter.

“If they are tourists, they’re passing through” and are not counted, said Sonny Le, spokesman for the Census Bureau. “But if they’re working here, however temporary, they’re using services. Even the circus, it uses up the municipal sewer system, the water system, electricity. That’s the rationale.”

Le said the agency has a plan for counting carnival workers and others who spend their time moving from one place to another. If there is no residence where they live and sleep most of the time, they are counted “where they live and sleep more than anywhere else,” census documents say. If there is no such place, they should be counted as living wherever they are on April 1, the official day of the census.

“It’s a constitutional mandate,” Le said. “The requirement is we need to count everyone. I understand that carnivals and circuses kind of seem trivial, but we cannot leave anybody out.”

Census workers will descend later this month upon dozens of encampments, RV parks, bridges and benches looking for people who live outside or in tents and other mobile lodging. In California, the priority will be on the state’s tens of thousands of homeless people, not a few hundred carnival workers, but everyone matters in determining the state’s true population, Le said.

“We’ve got our own little city, our own little traveling city on wheels,” said Laddy Buck, 21, who joined the carnival when he lost a job at a Quiznos in Stockton. “I don’t worry about mail or anything like that.”

Fellow carnival worker Marilyn Souza said she will probably be counted where her daughter lives, in Turlock, where unemployment has reached above 14 percent. The 50-year-old Souza joined the carnival once her children were grown, and she will stick to the road this year until she raises enough money to fix her 1980 Chevy Silverado.

Unlike the Mexican guest workers, who are guaranteed a salary through the rules of the guest worker program, Souza’s income depends on the popularity of her games. A rainy day is a lost day.

“I work on commission, so the hurry-up-and-wait is just free time,” she said. “If I work for 25 percent, bring in $1,000, $250 is mine. The more we make, the more we make.”

Robby Cotter, 38, joined a carnival in Oregon when he was 16, getting the job by telling the boss he was two years older. He has been on the road ever since and passes time by lifting weights. When there is no gym around, or it is too expensive, he makes do with lifting the carnival equipment.

“I used to be in a lot of trouble, in jail a lot. My parents died when I was young,” he said. “This job has given me a purpose. It’s hard work, but it’s an OK life.”

As far as he knows, he has never been counted in the census as an adult, and he has no intention of ever participating. In the future, he said, there will be earthquakes and great catastrophe, Jesus Christ will return to Earth and the census will be irrelevant.

“I’m not too into the world. It’s a big lie,” he said. “I don’t believe in the system. It’s a big show, a big facade.”

Speaking of which, he has a job to do, he said, returning to the parking lot to put up a ride called the Orient Express.

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By Bo Poertner – The Lompoc Record

Ken LaForce sits on the steps of the Eagle 16, a Ferris wheel ride that reaches 60 feet into a blue sky, backdropped by Lompoc’s southern hills.

He wears a white construction hat, greasy jeans and yellow T-shirt that tell the story of his labor.

His face is dark, burnt and as rugged as his job.

“Me and Rick put it up,” he says, nodding toward the big wheels, cushioned seats and lights above him. “We can do it in less than five hours — up and running, safely.”

A breeze blows away some of the heat from the afternoon sun, and in the distance the clank of a hammer on metal echoes across Ryon Park.

“Me and my wife got married on this,” says La Force, who is from Copperas Cove, Texas.

“We said our vows right there,” he says, turning to nod at the platform where riders stand before they climb aboard. “We went around, and we were officially married. It was a carny wedding.”

A collection of Butler Amusements rides stretches out in front of LaForce, all with bright colors and catchy names that promise thrills, screams and laughter — the Scrambler, Zipper, Tornado, Orient Express, Tilt-a-Whirl.

Those rides and others crank up today for the 57th annual Lompoc Valley Flower Festival, a five-day event that runs through Sunday.

Entertainment and food booths open at noon. The carnival begins at 2:30 p.m.

A short distance from the Eagle 16, two young women with a little boy and girl walk past a race car ride for children.

“I wanna go on that ride!” says Tatyana Chapman, 7, dancing and swinging in half circles while holding hands with her cousin, Sherita Hill.

“Me, too,” echoes Frankie Villalobos, 5, who clings to his sister, Myranda Buck.

Near the carnival entrance, where workers are setting up a pony ride, the sounds of Travis Tritt’s version of the Eagles classic, “Take it Easy,” comes crashing from the speakers of a white pickup.

“We may lose and we may win, but we will never be here again. So open up, I’m climbing in. Take it easy.”

The song is timely. An Eagles tribute band, Desperado, will perform at the festival Saturday night.

Across the park, at the entertainment stage near West Ocean Avenue, Rob Salzer of Luners Pro Sound & Lighting in Santa Barbara, is setting up the sound system, moving big, black boxes around the stage that come off a 24-foot truck packed with equipment.

“The main thing you’re amplifying is the vocals, because that’s the quietest thing coming off the stage,” Salzer says.

To the west of the stage, a row of colorful food booth signs — yellow, red, blue, green — offer a medley of refreshments and rations as diverse as Lompoc itself.

Here, between the entertainment stage and the carnival entrance, festival visitors will choose among quesadillas and tamales, jambalaya and pork sandwiches, corn on the cob and French-bread pizza. They can feast on rootbeer floats, strawberry shortcake, funnel cakes and cotton candy.

The food booths are important fundraisers for nonprofit civic groups and churches.

At the Kiwanis Club of Lompoc booth, president-elect Monika Bennett says the group raised about $4,000 last year selling cotton candy, and all of the profits went back into community projects.

“We’re not a huge money-maker; we’re honestly here for the community,” she said.

Bennett says she doesn’t expect the economy to hurt the festival financially. Instead, she says, she expects people to vacation near home.

“Small town, local. In my opinion it’ll be a good turnout,” she says.

Ray Garrett of the Vandenberg Village Rotary Club is checking out his booth’s decorations. The Rotary will sell funnel cakes and nachos.

“Most of the funds go to our scholarship program. We provide scholarships for Cabrillo and Maple high schools,” Garrett says. “Last year we raised about $13,000.

“We’re hoping for a great year.”

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California kids now have one more incentive to tackle their summer reading lists.

Building on the success of the past four years, the California State Fair and its new carnival operator, Butler Amusements, will continue with the popular literacy program that rewards youth for reading books.

How it works

The Read to Ride program is simple: read three books, get three free ride tickets. Any California student in kindergarten through eighth grade can read any three books of their choice and fill out a summary report form. (Children in grade 1 or below are allowed to draw pictures instead.) After receiving approval from a teacher, parent or guardian, they simply bring the completed report form to Guest Services at the state fair and receive three free midway ride passes.

“The state fair has always been a haven for families seeking wholesome, affordable entertainment. With discretionary income at an all time low, programs like this are especially important,” said state fair CEO and General Manager Norb Bartosik. “In addition, the Read to Ride program is the perfect way to encourage summer reading and highlight the back-to-school season.”

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Aldrich M. Tan • The Indio Sun

Several new carnival rides are coming to the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival.

The Viper, Balloon Samba and Hip Hop Fun House are the newest rides that will be at the festival’s carnival grounds.

Butler Amusements, based in Fairfield, has provided the carnival rides for the Indio-based festival since 1997. They are also at 37 fairs in six Western states.

Desert Hot Springs resident Dani Moreno (left), 10, and Coachella resident Alex Lucero, 5, ride the Grand Carousel at the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio. Even more family-oriented rides will be featured at this years event. (Marilyn Chung Indio Sun File Photo)

Desert Hot Springs resident Dani Moreno (left), 10, and Coachella resident Alex Lucero, 5, ride the Grand Carousel at the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio. Even more family-oriented rides will be featured at this year's event. (Marilyn Chung Indio Sun File Photo)

The rides are being aimed more toward families so children can enjoy them with their parents, said Andrea Owen, marketing director for Butler Amusements.

“We try to purchase new rides every single year to keep the experience fresh so that the Midway is not the same thing every year,” she said.

The Viper seats 24 people and has more than 3,000 lights, Owen said. The ride’s large arm tilts and spins. Two clusters at the end of each arm will also twist and spin.

The Viper debuted last year and has been known to be a high-capacity thrill ride, Owen said.

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