There’s an unmistakable feeling of excitement when the carnival comes to town. It might be that lose-your-stomach thrill of the tilt-a-whirl or the press-your-luck game of dart throwing. Maybe it’s the excitement as the sounds and lights of the joy rides beckon through the night.
Maybe it’s just the smell of funnel cakes.
Whatever it is, the carnival is in town, and the people in Macon County are rediscovering their childhood, no matter what their age, as they head over to Highlands Road and stop by for some fun. They’re called “marks” as they make their way down the midways, the walkways that get you from your favorite trip on the Ferris wheel to one last stop at corn dog heaven. Along the way they are heckled and beckoned to come and “win a prize, win a prize, win a prize.” Somehow it’s hard to resist that temptation of leaving a carnival without a six-foot stuffed snake, an oversized basketball or that giant teddy bear in tow. It’s part of the game.
Adding to the fun is the mystery of the carnie – the workers who come and go with the carnival, carrying their wares, calling to the crowd and often imagined as the rough and tumble set parents warn their children about. But like most stereotypes, it’s a little overblown, and at Dominick and Ruby Macaroni’s show, you aren’t likely to stumble into trouble. “It’s just life here. The only thing that is different is you travel. Everybody has a job. Everyone has a responsibility. We get up every day and go to work,” Ruby said. She sits under the awning behind the motor home she and her husband travel in while her grand daughter chases fire flies in the night. Her husband, Dominick, was raised at the carnival. It was the family business he grew up in, and now his family runs the show. “We all do what we got to do,” Ruby said.
They bought the Family Attractions carnival in 1996, and, even before they bought it, this carnival had been a mainstay in Franklin for as long as she has known.
Every year the show comes to town and is sponsored by the Smoky Mountain Shrine Club. “The Shriners are good people. We don’t mind doing this for them,” Ruby said, adding that she had a niece and nephew badly burned as children that the Shriners helped. They run a tight ship, said the workers on the midway. “You have to find a carnival that is on the right track,” said Matt from his station running the hoop toss. “This is the right carnival.” Most of those working only wanted to give their first names, and when asked about the reputation that goes along with being a carnie, most just gave a laugh and looked the other way. “You know how it is,” Chris said. One bad apple can ruin it for the rest of them. He’s been in the business for 10 years. “It’s sort of like this, if you’re a good person and you get in with a bad group, you get yourself out. If someone came to this show and started making trouble, we’d make him leave,” Matt said. Every one got into the business by a different path, but everyone seemed to like where their path had led them.
Nate and Angel came to the business together. Nate was working at a steel mill in Georgia until he was laid off from work. “We lost everything: my job, the house. We were living out of my car. Angel had worked in the business before, so we started researching what one we should come and work for, and here we are.” Shelia says she got in the biz for the travel. Others agreed. “I’ve seen more places than most people. Some people grow up in the same town and never leave that area. I’ve been all over the country and even a few places overseas,” he said. “You travel a lot. But you never pay rent. It’s all right here,” Matt added. Aside from travel, the most popular reason to work a carnival is the money. Every gamer is running his own show. They get a commission from the booth they run, which boosts the jester antics of attracting a mark to a game. Those running the rides work on salary. “I work six months out of the year, and then I don’t have to work for the other half of the year,” Chris said. Matt said he got into the business when he and his wife split up. He missed being with his own children all of the time. He signed up to work as a carnie. “And now look. I’m with kids all the time; it’s my job to make them smile and laugh.” It brings out the side of carnies that is often overlooked — their amazing heart. Most said they liked the job, because they liked the joy it brought to others. “My best memory? It was in Evansville, Indiana. The carnival I was working for always had a handicapped day. There was this one little girl, she didn’t have any arms or legs, she would come every year and just get out there and laugh and laugh. Those are the things you take with you,” said Shelia. She’s a lifer, having worked carnivals over the last 17 years. She said she doesn’t know if she’ll make it another 17. “It’s a lot of work. You get tired. You’re on your feet all day; you move from place to place,” she said. The carnival comes to town for a week. It takes one day to set up and one day for tear down. “We know where we are going to be for 35 weeks before we ever hit the road,” Ruby said. “And it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or not. We can be in a downpour, but if the show has to go up, it has to go up.”
Everyone travels together for the season, and they do it all, from the time they set up, to running the show day after day, to the time they tear it all down ready to start again. “If you actually work for one, you will get a newfound respect for how much work goes into a carnival. There’s not much sleep. You’re on your feet and you’re working,” Angel said. There are three things the carnies look for in every town; a laundromat, a Wal-mart and a Mc-Donald’s — the comforts of home away from home. “That’s one thing I would tell people. When you go home tonight, appreciate your front and backyards, because ours is different every week,” Nate said.
“So are our neighbors,” he added.
The carnival travels as a unit from April to October. The workers sleep in mobile bunk houses and spend all their time together. They eat together, sleep together, travel together and get up and work together every day. It becomes a surrogate family six months out of the year.
“Oh, we act like a family alright. We can be up screaming at each other one minute, and then we’re off laughing and hugging like nothing happened,” Angel said.
If it is a family, Ruby and Dominick are the acting parents.
“I think it is sort of my calling in life, where God wants me to be, out there helping others,” Ruby said. The people who work for her come from all walks of life. Some of them, she said, might not fit into another place, but at the carnival, they find a place to call home.
“There’s a little bit of good in everyone, you just need to know how to find it,” she said. One such man was a Franklin man, Art Cruts. Art was inherited when Ruby and Dominick bought the Family Attractions carnival. He never learned how to use a tool, or “at least he didn’t let on that he knew how to use one,” Ruby said. But, he became the “go to” guy for just about anything. He was the right hand and always willing to run an errand – even if it meant driving three states away just to pick up a part. Art died last year.
“He was one of those fellas that you didn’t know just how much he meant to you until he was gone. He will never be replaced,” Ruby said. “You’ve got to take people as they are, you can’t remake them.”
These are the lessons learned from a life on the road. “You know, people say you are a product of your environment. I don’t agree. I think the environment is a product of the people in it,” Matt said.
Angel said it’s funny how people are. Some people come to the carnival every day it is in town, just to ride one ride or play one game. Some come to talk. Some come to pour out their confessions.
“It’s kind of like I’m a bartender. Instead of serving up beers, I’m serving up darts.” Angel said.
There’s a lot to be seen on the road, and it isn’t always a game.
Nate said when the show opened in Alabama, a tornado came through on opening day. He’s only been at this for three months, and he survived a tornado – and gun fire.
“One night the generators went and the lights went out, and shots were fired. People were running around. I was just trying to protect my merchandise to make sure no one was running off with anything. Fights broke out and the police showed up,” he said. No one was hurt, but it made for a good story.
Chris said the most exciting thing he ever witnessed was watching a man fall 80-feet. “Oh, it was a worker. He just had an accident, stepped in the wrong place, and, instead of falling 80- inches, it was 80 feet.”
Angel said the strangest thing she ever saw was a three-year-old who threw a dart so hard it stuck in cement. “I took pictures and showed everyone. A three-yearold!”
One of the fascinations to the carnies is the “lot lizards.” Every group has its groupie and lot lizards follow the carnival from town to town.
But when it summer comes to an end and the air gets cool, traveling from town to town starts to lose it’s allure. Most said they like being on the road, but they really look forward to going back home.
“What am I going to do when I get off the road? I’m going to kick my shoes off and kick my feet up. And take a shower. In my own home,” Angel said.
The carnival will be in town until June 13 before leaving for its next location. Be sure to stop by, take a trip on the Ferris wheel and eat a corn dog or two. And if you have a little extra time, stop in for a chat.