Skerbeck Brother Shows

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The family behind the carnival rides at the Shiawassee County Fair knows the business well – they have been involved with it for more than 150 years.

Now owned by the fifth generation, Skerbeck Brothers Shows has roots all the way back to 1857 when the Frank Skerbeck family decided to trade their linen factory for a circus in Aussig, Bohemia.

After some time, Frank’s son – also named Frank – ended up touring as a circus performer in America during the 1870s with P.T. Barnum’s show before immigrating in 1880 and settling in Wisconsin. He started a circus with his family there in 1882, touring the Midwest in the 1880-90s.

Frank Skerbeck attended the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, where he saw a new innovation, the Ferris Wheel.

“This tremendous mechanical invention directly led to the birth of the American carnival,” according to family history.

Because of what he saw, Frank bought his first merry-go-round in 1897 and began to transition his business from the traditional circus to a carnival.

Frank’s son Joe Skerbeck operated wild west shows, medicine shows and traveling attractions of all types. By 1908, he joined his father in the carnival business.

Joe’s children, Eugene and Pauline Skerbeck, took over the ownership of the show in 1952, and operated it as Skerbeck Amusement Company until 1971.

Eugene’s sons, Joe and Bill Skerbeck, took over ownership in 1972 and have operated it as Skerbeck Brothers Shows since that time.

“Since 1972, the show has more than doubled in size through acquisition and growth,” family history says.

Today, the carnival has two units that travel mostly across Michigan, sometimes venturing into northern Indiana. Joe Skerbeck heads one up, and Bill Skerbeck and his wife C.J. are in charge of the other, which will be traveling to the Shiawassee County Fairgrounds.

The sixth generation is already involved in the show and on the road. Bill’s son Dustin Skerbeck, 23, graduated from Northern Michigan University and is now the maintenance and rides supervisor. Dustin’s wife, Cindy, is the food concessions manager. Bill’s daughter, Carly Skerbeck, 21, attends NMU but works in game concessions during the summer.

Bill’s mother, Arlene Altenburg, and her sister-in-law, Cheryl Kedrowicz, both work in the office at the carnival. Arlene, now 80, has been on the road with the show since she was 14 years old.

Arlene’s brother Norb Kedrowicz also is the safety manager for the carnival group traveling to Shiawassee County.

Between both touring units, the family has at least 16 members involved in the business at this time.

Most of the family involved in the show spends about six months of the year on the road and the other six months in the Escanaba area, performing maintenance and preparing for the next carnival season.

Joe Skerbeck’s daughter-in-law, Sonja Skerbeck, said it has been interesting to see the business grow and develop over the years.

“We’ve seen the organization increase substantially in terms of the events that we do each year,” she said.

Weather plays a big role in how successful each event is.

“It’s show business,” she said. “You hope for the best, that’s not always how it goes. … But, we’ve been managing to pull it off for the last 150 years.”

And the constant change in scenery keeps things going.

“We throw a party for a lot of people every week,” Sonja said.

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By Michael Prelesnik – Matt’s Carnival Warehouse

The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids was the site for the 124th annual Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (MAFE) Annual Convention, held January 8-10, 2009. The convention featured a trade show, banquet, hospitality suites, workshops, round table discussion sessions, a Showcase, and Mega Raffle drawing night. Over 1200 fair board members and fair officials were in attendance at the convention.

Despite the tough Michigan economy, show owners and fairs were optimistic and excited to begin the Michigan Fair Season this summer. All major shows that play Michigan were represented at the MAFE Convention.

Skerbeck Brothers Shows, of Escanaba announced their recent purchase of a Mulligan Wheel from Belle City Amusements of Deltona, Florida. According to Co-Owner Bill Skerbeck, the wheel has already been transported to winter quarters in Escanaba, and new paint is planned before the wheel’s Michigan debut in April. New dates on the 2009 route the show will be playing include Laporte, Indiana as well as the Croswell Agricultural Society Fair in Croswell, Michigan. Additionally, a two year contract extension for 2010 and 2011 was finalized with the Ingham County Fair, of Mason. Joining Bill at the convention was co-show owner, Joe Skerbeck, their mother Arlene, Bill’s wife CJ, Jamie and Sonja Skerbeck, Dustin and Cindy Skerbeck, Carly Skerbeck, and Nicole Skerbeck.

Representing Elliott’s Amusements of Mason at the convention were owners Tracy and Debbie Elliott, Tracy’s Dad, Jim, their son Nick, and concession manager Nate Rowe. The Elliott’s signed two new fairs for the 2009 season, the Oceana County Fair in Hart and the Huron County Fair in Bad Axe. Other recent fairs added to their summer route included the Berlin Fair in Marne and the Cass County Fair in Cassopolis. According to Tracy, the show just acquired a Mack Himalaya from Dick Carl as well as four tractors purchased from Arnold Amusements. Late in the fall, the Elliott’s purchased a Show Me Grab from Phyllis Mercurio of Detroit. Jim reported he has sold his Lemonade trailer, and will be purchasing another one in time for the show spring opening in Lansing on April 8.

Back: Nate Rowe, Elliotts Concessionaire Manager, Jim Elliott, and Tracy Elliott. Front: Nick Elliott and Tony Anderson co-owner of Schmidt Amusements. Photo courtesy of Michael Prelesnik

Back: Nate Rowe, Elliott's Concessionaire Manager, Jim Elliott, and Tracy Elliott. Front: Nick Elliott and Tony Anderson co-owner of Schmidt Amusements. Photo courtesy of Michael Prelesnik

Despite the tough Michigan economy both the Elliott’s and Skerbecks were confident about having good attendance during the upcoming season. A general trend at the convention was to hold the line on ride specials, wristband prices and gate admission. Many show owners felt that despite the rising operation costs, this just wasn’t the season to raise midway pricing for Michigan fairgoers.

Ivan Arnold was at the convention and mentioned there is a list of ambitious projects being conducted at Winter Quarters in Florida. The Zipper, Tilt-a-Whirl, 1001 Nights, and Raiders are all being sand blasted and powder-coated for the 2009 season. The new look of the Zipper and 1001 Nights will debut at the Florida State Fair in Tampa in February. Although no new dates were added to the Arnold’s Michigan route, Ivan stated this season the show has maintained the same Michigan route as last year, and he was excited about the rides being re-built and was looking forward to a strong summer in Michigan.

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