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June 6th, 2007 Ethan Smith | Featured Stories
 

Carnie Knowledge

Fried dough, gunshots and...civic unity? You think you know the people behind the Rose Festival Carnival. You have no idea.

     
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Wade Hockett grew up with the Rose Festival. A native of Northeast Portland, he marched in the Hollywood kids' parade in elementary school. As a teen, he was back, marching with the Grant High School band in the full-fledged Rose Parade. And in 1974, he worked his first Rose Festival carnival, selling souvenirs. He's made his living on the carnival circuit ever since. Yes, Hockett is a carnie—or "showman," the industry's preferred term.

But does the carnival that hooked this Portland native still have a place in the city? Corn dogs, vinyl knickknacks, rickety rides with names like the Inverter and Hot Shot's Big Sling—they don't quite mesh with a town that ties its self-image to sustainable development and chic condos. And yet the carnival—or Fun Center or Waterfront Village, as it's been called in the past decade—has been a part of Portland's Rose Festival since its inception in 1907, when mayor Harry Lane called for a "permanent rose carnival." Its tents and rides are as native to the festival as the parades and teenage princesses that are currently being celebrated for their civic meaning and historical importance as the city immerses itself in its 100th annual Rose Festival. And despite conflicts between this old Portland institution and the city's new direction, the carnival outdraws any other event in the festival. In just 11 days, along a few blocks of riverside grass, it will bring together several hundred thousand people.

To Hockett, the carnival's sheer volume has inherent value. "There's something good about getting people together in big crowds," he says. "A kind of exchange goes on. The carnival has people from all walks of life, all races, all demographics, just milling around together. That's important."

Hockett's enthusiasm for this idea ripples out through his long limbs. His 6-foot-plus frame seems to be mostly legs, topped with a knot of dark, bushy hair. Black-rimmed glasses perch above his easy, lopsided smile.

These days, Hockett calls St. Johns home. But for the past 30 years, his life has followed the meandering path of carnival circuits in the Northwest and around the country. He's not alone. A distinct culture has grown up around these traveling shows, with its own lingo (see sidebar, page 38), professional organizations and clubs. In 2003, Hockett (or "The Mighty Hawk," as his fellow showmen call him) was president of the Northwestern Showmen's Club, a fraternal organization of "carnival owners, operators, employees and associates." It's like the Elks for showmen. The NWSC publishes its own yearbook, stages an annual safety seminar and throws a notoriously rowdy black-tie banquet and ball to honor the year's outgoing president—an event that has involved fights with security guards and drunken nakedness in past years.

The club also hints at just how tight-knit the carnival community is.

It's easy to take cheap shots at carnies, but being a showman is more than a job; it's a lifestyle—and a very unique one. From spring to fall, they are nomads, traveling in ragtag caravans of cars and semis, hitting one event after another without a break. They work 10-, 12-, 15-hour days, seven days a week, during the peak summer season. And at the end of each punishing week, they labor into the wee hours, tearing down the whole carnival only to erect it in a new location the next day. For their trouble, showmen take home a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each week. Not bad, but considering the work lasts only six months, it's not exactly a fortune either. And yet this strange, often difficult, existence inspires loyalty. "It does get grueling," says Hockett, who spends his slow off-season organizing Portland showman training and workshops. "But I like what I do. When it all works just right, it's really satisfying."

In the 2003 NWSC yearbook, there's a picture of Wade and two children dragging a cart of inflatable toys along a parade route. A caption reads "Will and Esther Hockett, Our First Parade." Hockett's two children, now grown and graduated from college, grew up working carnivals, including the Rose Festival, with their dad. They're both selling novelties, from switchblade combs to glowsticks at a few bucks a pop, for the family's Mighty Hawk Concessions at the Waterfront Village this year. This isn't unusual. The carnival industry is largely a family business. In a list of past NWSC presidents, last names recur regularly. Ron Burback, graying at the temples and grinning, was president in 1982. His wife, Beverly, held the position in 1998. Her brother, Larry Flattery, presided in 2005. And, thanks to a system of seniority, the Burbacks' daughter Tracy is due to wear the crown in 2009.

Burback owns Funtastic Shows, the Portland-based carnival company that's had the Rose Festival contract since 2005. Funtastic owns the Wave Swinger, the Kamikaze and most of the other rides, concession stands and game joints that line the Rose Fest midway (although independent contractors' booths are also fixtures).

Like Hockett, Ron Burback grew up in Portland. He graduated first from Jefferson High School, then Portland State University. While still in college, Burback worked his first Rose Festival carnival in 1958, when the carnival as we know it debuted in the downtown park blocks—where the cultured Portland Farmers Market now sets up each Saturday. "My economics professor caught me working a game," tells Burback. "He said, 'What are you doing, Ron?' And I said, 'Supply and demand, professor.'"

Burback laughs, but the carnival industry is evolving into just another normal business. The wild west days of rigging games" and "bribing local cops" to leave carnies alone is largely over according to Hockett. "I got in at the end of that era," he says. "No we pretty much just sell the merchandise." Increased regulation and licensing is standardizing and modernizing carnivals across the country. Funtastic performed background checks on its 300 to 400 employees who are currently working the Rose Fest carnival (they'll work with more than 5,000 showmen throughout the Northwest this year). The stereotypical carnie—a sleazy huckster—is less and less a reality. "The business is the business," says Burback. "There's a lot of scalawags. There's a lot of rascals. But there's a lot of rascals in used cars, too. If you run a tight ship, the bad ones don't stick around. There's no action for them."

The Rose Festival carnival has had its share of problems. In the '90s, arrests and ejections were rampant. In 1997, a 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death just outside the Fun Center. The next year, a gang altercation that began at the carnival resulted in gunfire, and a stray bullet struck and killed a man several blocks away.

Critics, including The Oregonian and WW, called for eliminating the carnival completely. The Rose Festival Association chose reform, at least in part because the carnival brings in up to 40 percent of the festival's revenue. Police presence and security were ramped up, and the beer garden was (sadly) eliminated. In 2000, the carnival was fenced and began charging admission. Crime has trailed off since then, and now according to Portland police, the carnival is nearly "incident-free."

But its image was badly wounded, and attendance—especially among families—shrank. Only in the past few years has the carnival really begun to rebound. From an economic standpoint, this is very good news for the Rose Festival, which finally cleared a narrow profit in 2006 after several years in the red. For lifelong showmen like Hockett and Burback, the carnival's resurgence has a deeper importance.

This year, Hockett won't have time to work at Waterfront Village, though Mighty Hawk Concessions is operating three souvenir stands. He's busy managing more than 40 Mighty Hawk toy carts that are working the festival's parade routes. "The irony is I love working the Rose Festival," he says. "I've loved it since I was kid."

To Hockett, the carnival—in all its garish and frivolous glory—demonstrates a sort of grand democratic principle. All sectors of society meet on the even ground of the midway. "Our society is increasingly stratified," he says. "It's like sporting events. Everyone used to just be in the bleachers, together no matter who they were. Now there are special reserved sections and luxury boxes. But when you're trying to knock three bottles over with a softball, we all have the same chance."


The Rose Festival WaMu Waterfront Village, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, 1020 Southwest Naito Parkway, 227-2681. 11 am-11 pm, May 31-June 10. $5 adults; free for kids 12 and under; free to all till 5 pm Monday-Friday. Rosefestival.org.
 
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