Seeking confidence in carnie backgrounds

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

With strings of bright lights, rows of trailers offering tempting prizes for games of skill, dizzying rides, and the tantalizing smells of hot, greasy food, a carnival can turn a bare field into a magical world of fun and intrigue.

In spite of the colorful lights, carnivals can have a dark side.

Carnival worker Terry Dwayne Wake was arrested during the SEMO District Fair last fall for allegedly raping a 15-year-old Cape Girar-deau girl. Wake worked for Thebault-Blomsness, an entertainment company based in Los Angeles, with carnivals that originate in Illinois.

Illinois private investigator Gene Sorrows, author of the book "All About Carnivals," said carnivals make it easy for carnies to disappear from mainstream life because carnival employment records are kept casually if at all. Carnies travel from one city to another with the carnival until they either drift away, get fired or are arrested, he said.

Mike Williams, chief operating officer of Thebault-Blomsness, says carnivals are changing and so are the people who work for them. Traveling carnivals are competing more and more against the big, permanent amusement parks, and they have to operate more like a business than ever before. It's a process that is still evolving, he said.

Last year, the New York Cypress group bought three carnival companies -- Thebault-Bloms-ness, Conklin Shows and Farrow Shows -- for $100 million and merged them into North American Midway Entertainment.

"I think the industry, from what it was 20 years ago, is completely different," Williams said. "Along the way, with thousands of employees, there is the possibility we will have an employee who does not do right. It's a possibility. We make sure we do everything we can so that will not happen."

30 years or 30 days

Like any other business, Williams said, Thebault-Blomsness has employees who have been with them for 30 years and some who don't last 30 days. Williams said potential employees fill out an application form, go through an interview and take a drug test. If they pass the drug screening, they go to an employee training center where they watch a video on safety. Then a human resource officer talks to them about the job, safety and emergency procedures and will check the references the employees list on the application form.

Criminal background checks are done on some employees, he said, but not all. He said Thebault-Blomsness will do background checks on anyone they hire in Indiana because it's state law. The carnival company routinely checks for registered sex offenders in all states, he said. But criminal background checks, he said, are expensive to do, and it's not always possible to track the background of a transient.

"If we feel we need to, we do," he said.

Carnival workers live in their own world and seldom cross over into the mainstream, according to George S. Hawley, himself a former carnie. Hawley, now a political science student and intern in Washington, D.C., described a carnie's life in the Dec. 2 issue of National Review.

Carnival workers are paid under the table and don't pay taxes, he claims in the story. Often they supplement their carnival wages by overcharging customers and pocketing the difference.

"Still in my experience, carnies are decent people," Hawley wrote. "There is very little else most of them could do. We can thank the nation's carnivals for taking literally thousands of prospective bums and giving them a place to live and work."

Williams said that practice is changing. "What we have today is a new company," he said. "Over a number of years, the industry earned some of that reputation. Today with the liabilities we have to face, with the inspections, with investments and equipment, the industry has changed more in the last five years than the whole 25 years prior to that. It's a different industry today."

Isolated incident

As far as the SEMO District Fair Board is concerned, Thebault-Blomsness has entertained fairgoers and will continue to do so as long as the company meets bid specifications the board has established.

Board president Pete Poe said he and other board members are satisfied with Thebault-Blomsness's methods of doing business and consider the incident involving Wake to be an isolated one.

"Over 100,000 people have attended our fairs," Poe said. "It's not something that happens every day, ever year, every other year, every 10 years or every 50 years. It's a nonissue."

Terry Dwayne Wake pleaded guilty last week to a negotiated charge of endangering the welfare of a child and is waiting to be sentenced. When released from the Cape Girardeau County Jail, he may return to Springfield, Ill., where he comes from, but Williams said Wake won't be coming back to Thebault-Blomsness.

"We have zero tolerance for drugs or behavior which endangers our customers," he said.

335-6611, extension 160

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