The ride of their lives


The days of carnies sleeping on the rides at night, setting up the carnival while high on drugs and cheating townies in the game booths are over.

"The carnival is a whole different world today," said Mike Schafer, who manages the workers for Butler Amusements, which provided the 28 rides and several games of luck tents at this week's Jackson County Fair.

Schafer joined the carnival life in the '70s, working game booths for decades until moving into management.

"Everything's on the up and up now because of regulations," he said. "No one's getting robbed anymore."

Butler Amusements provides bunk houses and trailers with showers for the workers, Schafer said. In the old days, carnies slept wherever they could find a place to rest their heads, usually on or under the rides.

He said that, while carnival workers have earned the reputation of being heavy drug users, all the workers with Butler, mostly recruited from Mexico, are drug free.

"Everyone gets a (urine analysis) test. If we suspect anyone, or the sheriffs suspect anyone, we take 'em right in there and test 'em," Schafer said, pointing to the Butler Amusements trailer behind him.

He said most of the carnival workers today are "just honest, hard-working folks trying to earn some money to send home to their families in Mexico."

"Now I'll admit that as soon as the show's over, everybody starts drinking. But there's no drugs," he added.

He said from the public's standpoint, the carnival is a better experience today than it was before. "But yeah, sometimes I miss the old days."

Most of the carnival workers refused to be interviewed. One man in a game booth winked when he said, "Well, ya never know. I just might have a felony warrant out for my arrest."

But Josh Orton, a 15-year-old from Gold Hill who was hired for the week to work a basketball hoop game, didn't mind discussing his carnie gig.

He earns 20 percent of whatever he pulls in.

"Last night I made $90 cash," Orton said, grinning.

But after a 13-hour shift, that only translates into $6.92 an hour.

Orton said he has no desire to run off with carnival after the week is over.

"I just did it to earn a little bit of money and talk to my friends all week," he said.

For most of the carnies, the work is seasonal, generally eight months out of the year.

Butler Amusements has four to six units that travel to shows in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona and Nevada.

The unit currently in Central Point came from Weed, Calif. last week and will split into two subunits next week, one heading for Salem and the other for Coos Bay.

Cecil Rhodes, 71, assistant manager for the carnival unit, said he loves everything about the carnival and enjoys the travel the most.

Rhodes said he joined the carnival in 1980 to help out his brother, who owned a couple game booths.

"I did the games for eight or nine years and worked the rides on and off," he said. "But I also own a pizza parlor in Clear Lake, Calif."

Many people have a negative stereotype about carnies, Rhodes said.

"I've lived in Clear Lake for 20 years and nobody there knows I'm a carnie," he said. "And even if I told them, I don't think anybody would believe me."

Rhodes' wife of 45 years passed away 4&

65279;1/2 years ago, and his brother died in December.

"Working in the carnival is like having a second family," he said. "I wouldn't give this life up for anything."

Reach reporter at 482-3456 ext. 226 or .

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