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Where Have All the Carnies Gone?: The Ocean State might be left out of an American tradition

Last year was a bust for that key New England tradition, the summer carnival. Most were canceled outright. Others turned to the “drive-in” format to recoup fiscal losses. Carnival and fair operations represent a billion-dollar industry nationwide, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local revenue and employing hundreds of thousands of people. The economic knock-on effects provided to local vendors, hotels, restaurants and the like are incalculable.

This year the industry is hoping for a renaissance. Sharon Popovich of Reithoffer Shows, a Florida-based travelling carnival company in operation for over a century, said the pandemic shot a hole through many of the smaller traveling carnivals, leaving a demand for mobile attractions for the summer county fair circuit. The culprit is not the virus, but the aftershocks the pandemic left on national and local economies. 

“Some of the smaller companies didn’t make it,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because many people missed their fair last year. They have pent-up desire to attend this year. We are getting the people, but we just don’t have the labor force to give them the big event that they really want.”

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The northeastern carnival circuit follows the same schedule as other summer attractions, relying on steady business from Memorial Day to Labor Day to keep afloat. Popovich said the upcoming season could be bleak for the region. Reithoffer usually travels as far north as Brockton for their annual fair — hitting over 40 events around the country in a normal year — however that event has been cancelled. 

The website carnivalwarehouse.com, an online clearinghouse for all things carnival, shows only one event scheduled in Rhode Island, the Washington County Fair, scheduled for August.

Washington County Fair committee co-chair Roxanne Nelson said the group is excited to bring back the annual tradition. Last year’s event was held virtually, which curtailed the charitable fundraising that participating organizations rely upon. The fair will be welcoming Johnston-based Rockwell Amusements, Rhode Island’s only carnival company. 

“Many of the food booths do their annual fundraising at the fair, which definitely caused a hardship [in 2020] for their organization,” she said. “Whenever you cancel an in-person event there is always a fear that when you are able to reopen, the patrons won’t remember your event or won’t make plans to attend.”

As states continue to relax COVID restrictions, there is no reason 2021 shouldn’t be a banner year, said Chieko. Early reports suggest a blockbuster run.

“Every carnival is doing phenomenal business. There is a lot of pent-up demand,” he said. “COVID was obviously devastating for our industry. For the most part nobody operated last year. But the carnival folks are very resilient.”

Because most are privately held companies, Chieko said hard data on the total impact from the economic shutdown is tough to establish. He estimates about 90% of 2020 sales were lost.

Popovich acknowledges the carnival life is not for the faint of heart. Employees are on the road for extended stretches of time. The hours are long, and the wages are comparable to the average service industry job that one could work from the comfort of their hometown. The company does provide housing for their employees in the form of small trailers. 

 Reithoffer often takes on local day labor to supplement staffing. 

“Right now we’ll hire anybody,” said Popovich. “It’s been tough. It’s taking us longer to get [to locations] and set up than it used to.”

Like musicians on the road, traveling carnivals rely on a dedicated circuit to move along, generating revenue in one place that in turn allows them to move on to the next. If too many festivals are cancelled, the financial calculus of putting up the capital to travel to a particular region stops making sense.

“We’re coming out of Florida. Is it feasible for us to go north when we only have one event? That’s not going to pay for our expenses,” said Popovich. “So now we are having to cancel events. You have to have the routes. We already lost one year. And this year is not looking good.”

Chieko said the carnivals shall endure. They are part of the country’s DNA.

“It’s traditional Americana,” he said. “What’s more fun than going outside to a carnival with three generations of your family to enjoy the day?”

Perhaps Rhode Island officials should begin mailing invitations to these moveable feasts.

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