Every year, around the first week of October, the Davis Shows Northwest carnival comes to Tygh Valley. It is a scheduled stop, but there is no show involved.
Owner Pat Davis is tired after spending all summer on the road. He is looking forward to downtime, his home time.
Pat is a third-generation carnival owner. In some locations, his carnival has played longer than this middle-age man has been alive. His grandfather started the business many years ago in California. Pat took it over from his father, and his son, Mannie Davis—the fourth generation—is part of the carnival management.
“I wouldn’t necessarily wish (this business) on the next generations in my family,” says Pat. “But it’s been very good to us and, when the time comes, they’re welcome to it.
“Much like any small business, running a carnival is an all-consuming thing,” he continues. “My dad used to say: ‘I have a tiger by the tail and I can’t let go!’”
This family business kicks off its year in late February, with a safety seminar in conjunction with other regional carnivals. In March, they get organized by setting up in a few parking lots in the Portland area. By April, they ramp up further and provide a show at the 34th Annual Cherry Festival in The Dalles.
June is when rodeos start, and they will be at the St. Paul Rodeo on July 4. Their route will take them around the Albany area, then up to Seattle for almost a month. After spending time in Eastern Washington, they make sure they are in Pendleton for the Round Up during the third week of September.
The route is 5,000 to 6,000 miles long, but many of the trucks do much more, with doubling back for equipment. By October, the crew is ready for a break. Carnival life during the busy season is one of almost constant movement. Sometimes the workers get tired of moving. More often, they don’t.
“Moving gets in your blood,” says Mannie. “When you’re in a spot for a week, you start getting an itch that says, ‘I’m finished, I’m done with this town.’”
“Two-week spots are bad for that,” agrees Pat. “That’s part of the reason we don’t have a lot of two-week spots.”
There are no summer vacations for a carnival worker. Schoolwork for children is accomplished with lenient teachers, babysitters, tutors and relatives who work outside the family business. Pat has celebrated every birthday he has ever had—except two years when his parents had him working at a different carnival—at a show in Florence, Oregon.
A youngster growing up in a carnival family has a different mindset.
“I had a lot of freedom as a kid, more than many people,” says Mannie. “But I’ve also never had a summer to play and fool around. I’ve worked every single summer. A lot of people have friends from high school they’re still friends with. I have friends from summer that I’ve worked with most of my life, but I don’t remember many from school.”
Tygh Valley wintertime carnival maintenence projects are in full swing this month. Most of the time it’s a leaky seal or anything mechanical that needs attention. This year, they will do some facelifts on the rides. “We’ll try and get a couple of rides painted and continue our transformation from incandescent and florescent lighting to LEDs,” says Pat.
According to Pat, the LEDs make the carnival rides look brighter and prettier at night. The patterns can be changed on the fly by remote control, creating a more exciting visual presentation.
For the fairgoer, it means he gets more bang for his buck, which is no small thing in a business that relies on customers having a good time and coming back year after year.
Where do you get those people?
It’s all in a word, how you say it or how you mean it. When Pat Davis is on the road and he gets that question in those tones, he has a ready answer.
“Most of my employees are from every town we play,” he says. “For example, that guy over there is from your town. He’s a good worker and been with us for three years. My employees are just people, they’ve got families, they come from a home. It doesn’t mean they’re all good or bad. It just means they’re people.”
Carnival work is an intinerant life. To be fair, sometimes people hire on because they are on the run from a warrant, an ex-wife or family troubles. But a lot of the time, it’s their individual comfort zone—for whatever reason—that drives them to life on the road.
“Carny” is another word that displays the emotional baggage of the speaker.
“It is, and isn’t, a derogatory term,” says Pat. “To me, it’s not offensive, because that’s what I am.”
While the word “mark” isn’t used by Pat’s show, this term is common in the industry. It refers to someone with enough cash that they deserve to have their load lightened.
However, the term “mark” changes meaning when a small-town garage mechanic spots a broke-down carnival worker trying to keep a schedule and takes advantage of the situation.