"An army marches on its stomach." -- Napoleon Bonaparte
No great carnival exists without great carnival food and showmen cooks.
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"You must not fear death, my lads; defy him, and you drive him...
Someday I'll wish upon a star,
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where trouble melts like lemon drops,
High above the chimney tops,
That's where you'll find me.
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow," music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg.
The 30-ish bartender sports a shiny bald head, purple triangle earrings and a Buffalo Bill Cody goatee.
I decide to take a seat where the bartender gets ice, so he can pause to talk once in a while.
I'm on the hunt for carnival stories. My duck blind is the main bar in Carnytown U.S.A., during its annual traveling carnival trade show in February.
Not many people were there yet. It's a long rectangular bar with flat screen TVs. Brightly lit, real Italian-painted carousel scenery panels above the bar made it carnival chic.
I remembered an encounter the night before, when I walked in with a carny who knew I was looking for stories.
"There are going to be hundreds of people here tonight," he said, "and each of them will have thousands of stories."
We chuckled and looked around the room, not at the each other.
"And half of them will be related to each other," I said. "A lot of them will be slaughtering someone else's story."
The bartender's name is Kelly Wilson and he was born into the carnival business. His parents were in the business; he grew up in games and food wagons.
His eyes are clear and he sports an easy, full smile. He wants to talk between pouring drinks.
I just knew the story safe at a carnival trade show would be at the bar and the key is the bartender with the Buffalo Bill beard.
Kelly learns from everything he comes across, religion, philosophy, music and art. He'd be a humanities scholar if he ever went to college.
"My college is life," he said as he poured rum and coke.
Then he began mixing disciplines.
"Love and music are my religion," he said. "Buddhism and Daoism make sense to me."
He was careful not to "dis" Christianity either. He's not ruling out ideas so much as seeking unifying laws for life.
"Kindness," Gandhi and food service are the disparate concepts he's been mulling.
"Gandhi said you should be the change you wish to see in the world," he said. "I want to be kind as much as possible. Even to the meanest people."
Bartending is Kelly's off-season gig. He's tried lots of sucker jobs. He's trained under some good restaurant chefs, so, "I know how to cook."
The "season" calls him back, though, like it does migrating birds.
"I tried the normal life," he said. "Every a April I'd get the itch."
Maybe it's because he was raised on the road in a cramped blue trailer, in a family of six.
His childhood was spent running around, free rides, free sweets, playing with the other carnival kids from town to town.
He worked some games coming up but he spent more than half his life on the road making cotton candy, gyros, pizzas and hamburgers.
"My whole life, there wasn't a year I didn't go out and do something," he said pouring whiskey and Coke. "My friends always say I'm like the Allman Brothers song, 'Ramblin' Man.' That's the way we lived in a blue bus."
When he reached his teen years, the cramped living and maybe his phase in life, led to lots of arguing. Sometimes it was great, but somewhere it turned.
Music was his savior. At his first "rave" he had an epiphany. I don't have to live like this any more.
"It was like the Bob Marley song, 'If you are unhappy then travel wide.'"
Never mind, he was already traveling wide, it was a freedom song to him.
From July to October he travels the Midwest and South working a Mexican food trailer.
About five years ago he began selling hula hoops on the side. On breaks, he went to the meeting room off the bar area so he could hula with kids.
I videotaped the dance. It started out with a "life's a playground" feel. Then he kept going, part dervish, part "auana," a Polynesian hula word for "to wander or drift."
Kelly hears all the wild carnival stories as he pours drinks, but I asked him what's the weirdest thing he ever saw on the road.
He kept pouring drinks and making change but was stumped for a while.
"For me, weirdness is just normal," he finally said. "Like people having sex in random spots is normal."
When I prod him about his future, he says maybe he'll buy his own trailer some day.
Which tells me, he isn't like some carnival people I've known who envied homes in towns they passed.
He was more like a nester, who sets up home where he migrates.
Once again, he searches for the unifying theory of his life.
"I like cooking. I like people. I like traveling. And this is the best way to do all three."
What I find disorienting about his unified theory is the backdrop. We're in a carnival bar, everyone in this bar is a carnival person. He was raised in carnivals and lives in carnivals.
Yet he's not jaded. His theories are idealistic, at times romanticized and wishful.
Bob Marley, the Allman Brothers, Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Gandhi, cooking, traveling and "kindness" even to the mean people.
Such are the truths he lives by -- Wilson's laws -- as he dances in hula hoops through life with his beard of Buffalo Bill.
I recently finished working a year in traveling carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and a Florida freak show. I trekked down into Mexico to see the new face of American carnivals, Mexican carnies. I've traveled more than 20,000 miles through 36 states, Canada and Mexico. I'm attempting to sell a book on the America I saw from the carny quarters and the side of the...
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"An unexciting truth may be eclipsed by a thrilling lie." -- Aldous Huxley
Elizabeth is a precocious third-grader on her dad's lap at the Liar's Table at Showtown USA, Gibsonton, Fla.
"Original Tommy" Arnold is in his 80s and a living legend in the traveling carnival world. O.T. is a carnival storyteller.
"Elvis won more than we let most people win, he kept throwing the prizes to the crowd," he said.
In 1957, Elvis scored a hit with "Jailhouse Rock" but hadn't yet been drafted into the Army.
At a Memphis carnival, he stopped to throw softballs at Original Tommy's milk bottles game.
If Elvis wasn't yet the king, he was the crown prince of the midway.
"The girls went crazy," said the veteran carnival owner. "He drew a big crowd."
What's interesting about Original Tommy's story is he remembers few details other than the line that makes his Elvis story a classic carny story.
"He spent maybe $200 on my game and that was a lot of money in those days."
He took Elvis for a $200 and drew a crowd to boot.
Elvis may have been the crown prince of the midway but Original Tommy got him to lay out two C-notes.
There's some irony in their table name because they also talk about the old "flat joints," games where suckers cannot win. Alibi stores are games carnies must make excuses, "you crossed the line," to foil a winner.
I didn't ask how he "gaffed" the game but you can be sure Original Tommy let Elvis win just enough to keep playing and keep throwing toys to the excited fans.
In Original Tommy's story, crown prince Elvis was just a mark.
The Liar's Table at Showtown bar/restaurant is the liveliest breakfast table. During this month's Super Trade Show Extravaganza in Gibsonton, old pros sat around the table like a secret hall of fame.
The carnival world is a subculture and the stars of its realm are found in hidden places like the faded Showtown USA.
Showtown is the creation of Bill Browning who painted elaborate stories on the walls of the restaurant, at countless carnivals and at the International Independent Showmen's Association headquarters in town.
He used to yearly repaint and reframe the story on Showtown's front facade.
All his art tells stories and often brings nature to the indoors with boardwalk and carnival scenes.
The carnival business inspires many artists, possibly because there is so much painting required.
Browning's paintings at the IISA headquarters building cover the walls and easily make him the most famous carnival artist.
However, Browning isn't actively painting these days and many of his Showtown stories are fading on the walls.
A food critic might suggest even the menu is old school. This morning it is chipped beef over toast, two eggs, $5.99.
I hear Showtown is still a vibrant place but the cigarette-smoke walls tell stories of bygone golden eras.
The Liar's Table is its living time warp.
Dash of Flash
Flash said to me once, "If a carny doesn't have a nickname, he isn't interesting."
Nick the Prick. Luke the Puke. Even Flash's nickname has a back story.
"That's what this business is based on, everything the sucker sees out there is flash," he said.
Flash is cash, is the phrase I heard as a jointee, a game worker.
One morning the ballys started flying and I started taping as guys from different sides of the table urged the marks to buy.
The mayor of the Liar's Table is Freddy Vonderheim, 76, former circus and carnival owner (a special breed he calls showman transvestites).
Flash and the Mayor are retired from the business, but they can still bark them out.
When the Mayor pipes up, you know thousands have heard it on thousands of midways.
"I'm Donniker Dan (donniker is a carny toilet),
the candy man,
with circus straaawbery candy,
all you kids who want candy,
please hold up your hand!!!"
Flash came back with his own, ending in a carnival limerick, more than a bally.
"They were brewing up coffee seconds and thirds,
Those happy go lucky carnival birds."
Born under a ride
Original Tommy bounced Elizabeth on his knee and told me how she wants to be an artist someday too.
Maybe face painting, he said.
Elizabeth is in third grade, just like Grace so I show her my daughter's picture.
She loves hugging and playing games with the old men and a few younger ones around the table. Some get big hugs around the necks.
"I like it," she says of her life in carnivals. "I get to go on all the rides for free."
During the season she lives with Original Tommy and plays with other kids her age, also traveling with the carnival.
Asked about the highlights of his carnival life, Tommy says she's the highlight of his life.
She loves teasing her old single father.
"My dad burns eggs, burns muffins, he burns everything you want to eat except cake and cereal," she said.
Later that evening I was editing tape in a room near the main bar at the IISA headquarters.
My favorite bartender came over, Anna May, she's in her 50s or 60s. She's proud she raised her kids in carnivals without ever being homeless.
They were raised in the trailer during the season and she's proud of the job she did, while running games, rides and working the ticket booth.
Then she noticed a picture of Original Tommy and Elizabeth on my computer.
I thought she might say something about their age difference but she had something to say about her age difference.
"That's my granddaughter and Tommy's my son-in-law," she said. "A lot of people in this business are related."
Kids born in the carnival business are said to be "born under a ride."
Elizabeth comes from a long line of carnival people and she wants to be an artist, maybe a carnival artist.
"Elizabeth the artist" would make people here at Showtown USA very proud and that's what passes for the thrilling truth at the Liar's Table.
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