Nathan J. Comp
Scott Covert, 21, running the G-Force in Darlington, WI.
In late July, just ahead of a four-day festival in Dane County, Corina Wenzel rallied her crew of 16 carnies. After setting up the bunkhouses, affixing the water hoses and connecting to the electric grid, the crew was moments away from being cut loose for the day in a new city. But not before a little pep talk.
"Guys, this is Waunakee," Wenzel advised. "People here aren't always that friendly toward us. They do watch us here." She didn't mention that the local police had requested the names of her employees in advance for warrant checks. "Let's show them we're not your typical carnies. This is a busy spot, so we need you all here."
Corina, 35, runs Wenzel Amazements, a carnival based in Allenton, Wis., near West Bend. The company was launched in the 1970s by her parents. All her life, Corina and her two sisters, who help her run the show, have lived among carnies.
They drink, smoke, run afoul of the law, wrest her from sleep and cost her company business, but she treats them in many ways like family.
Roughly 17 weeks a year, from spring to autumn, Corina, her sisters, their parents and an ever-changing roster of 15 to 20 carnies live, travel and work together. They provide the rides, games and refreshments at county fairs and city festivals throughout the state.
Like a clan of modern gypsies, they arrive in a new place each Monday, beginning a week that will see the complete setup, operation and teardown of a small family-owned carnival.
After turns at Monona's Fourth of July celebration at Winnequah Park and Waunakee's WaunaFest, held late last month, Wenzel Amazements returns next week to Dane County for Middleton's annual Good Neighbor Fest at Fireman's Park.
For eight weeks this summer, from June 20 to Aug. 17, I traveled with Wenzel Amazements, working as a carny and blogging about my experiences at TheFeralScribe.com. Most of the time I ran a 120-foot-long fun slide.
A Madison native and former Isthmus writer, I left for Philadelphia in 2008 but was back in Wisconsin this summer when I found an employment ad on Craigslist. Two days later I was a carny.
I caught up with the show in Rosholt, north of Stevens Point, full of assumptions about what carnival life was like. But where I expected dangerous men and unpleasant bosses, I discovered instead a unique community of people who slave away their summers for a pittance, and an enigmatic family that provides many of them with far more than just a wage.
At the center of it all is Corina, whose particular brand of brains, beauty and brawn leaves her both feared and adored.
"Corina is a bad-ass bitch, hands down," says Jeremy Moon, 25, who started with the show last year. "She can weld, drive semi, knows electricity, she can lift steel...she can do anything. She is the best boss I've ever had. I wish I could do this all year."
The workweek begins Monday at 7 a.m. when Corina raps on the bunkhouse doors, our cue to wake up, then pack up. Within 90 minutes, a caravan of up to 10 trucks with full loads of people, rides and inventory is off to the next spot. Once bunks are set up, the crew is typically cut loose until Tuesday's 8 a.m. work call, when setup gets under way.
"Setup is my favorite part of the job," says Moon, a fledgling cage fighter who won his only fight to date in March. "You're lifting steel, but it's pretty laid back. I can work at my own pace. The worst part of this job is sitting at a ride for eight, nine, 10 hours a day."
Standing in a field or parking lot, Corina forms a mental blueprint of the midway, then directs her sisters to where she wants the rides. Once on location, the carnies begin their assembly. Like big Erector sets, each ride has its own idiosyncrasies and tricks for assemblage. But none of the 13 rides that fill out the show is more disdained than the Tilt-A-Whirl.
In his 1926 patent, Tilt-A-Whirl inventor Herbert Sellner described the machine, then made of wood, as an "amusement apparatus wherein the riders will be moved in general through an orbit and will unexpectedly swing, snap from side to side or rotate without in any way being able to figure what movement may next take place in the car."
Today, Tilts are assembled from more than 225 steel, aluminum and fiberglass pieces weighing a combined 32,000 pounds. The carnies call her "the Iron Bitch," both for the raw strength her assembly requires and the injuries she inflicts.
In Waunakee, one of its steel beams peeled a fingernail from Tilt operator Carl Erickson's finger. In Monona, I fell off the edge of the blue plates, badly bruising my knee. During his first year with the Wenzels, in 1999, Mark Zagorski, 51, seriously injured his back while improperly raising one of the platforms.
"I went to my knees and couldn't feel my legs," he recalls. "It still causes me problems to this day."
Setup stretches over two days. In addition to assembling the rides, we lay more than 500 feet of heavy-duty power lines and connect them to a 250-kilowatt generator, which powers the show. The rides get washed, polished and tested.
While a tragic accident involving a free-fall ride in the Wisconsin Dells left a 12-year-old girl seriously injured and raised fresh concerns about the safety of thrill rides, my experience is that operators go to great lengths to keep them safe. The rides come with numerous built-in safeguards, and any problems are readily detected and fixed during setup.
"People think places like Six Flags are safer than small operations like ours, but it's the opposite," says Corina. "Our rides are inspected twice a week, during setup and teardown. At places like Six Flags, where the rides are stationary, things many times go unnoticed until there's a problem."
By late afternoon Wednesday, the carnies begin congregating, waiting for Corina to call it a day. But Corina, ever so thorough, never makes this call until every last thing is done. Then the carnies hurry back to their bunks to shower, change and toss back a few, if not many.
"After throwing around steel for eight hours on a 90-degree day, all anyone wants is to get fucked up," says Moon. "Sure, we might get a little loud, a little rowdy, but what the fuck? We're carnies. That's what we do."
Managing carnies requires a drill sergeant's fierceness: shouting orders, hurling insults and punishing those who don't meet expectations.
When Corina's father, Harley, ran the show, it was an even harsher place. Those who broke cardinal rules, like dipping into the money aprons, reselling ride tickets or drinking before work call, could expect a visit from an "enforcer." Eventually it became too much for Harley, now 73, and he retired.
"Ten years ago I wanted to kill everybody who worked for me," he says. "That's why the girls took over the show."
While no one doubts Corina could drop a guy if necessary, her management style is reserved, almost maternal, to Harley's chagrin. In Monona, after observing some carnies standing around during teardown, he lamented how easy we have it under Corina. "I'd fire every last one of you cocksuckers," he yelled, walking away.
Corina inspires deep loyalty among her best employees, some of whom think of her as a sister.
"She's got a great sense of humor, she's even-tempered, but she won't think twice about getting in your face," says Zagorski. "Usually, a person is either your friend or your boss, but Corina is both."
Though her sisters, Alison, 32, and Liz, 30, assist her, Corina does nearly all the heavy lifting. "Let's just say that if Corina wasn't doing this, there'd be an auction," says her mother, Ann, company treasurer and ticket seller.
Corina seldom isn't working. On the rare occasions she steps out for a Coors Light, her face is pensive, her mind preoccupied with the tasks that need attending. Many of the carnies rely on visual cues to get a read on her mood, such as when she pulls her ponytail high and tight, a sign, they say, that she's stressed out.
The carnies marvel at her industry and enterprise. "She just has that magic touch," says Zagorski. "Ten guys will spend 30 minutes trying to figure something out, doing it every way but the right way. Then here comes Corina, who sees right away what they can't."
One thing all the Wenzel girls have in common is their father's extraordinary temper. Both Liz and Alison will swear and holler all day long, while Corina rarely raises her voice. Still, she's no shrinking violet. "She threw a block of wood at me once, can you believe that?" says Harley.
"That would be a true statement," Corina says, laughing when asked about this. "I was working under the Tilt and he was standing there pushing buttons. I'll say this about Harley: He just gets in the way."
In the beginning
Harley Wenzel, like his daughters, was born into the carnival. After losing three farms during the Depression, his father, Benny, began bringing games he'd built to barn dances. In the early 1970s, while working as a ride superintendent for Belle City Amusements, Harley met his future wife, Ann, a ticket seller. Once married, they began cobbling together a carnival. A short time later, they purchased their first ride.
"It was a flying coaster," recalls Harley. "That thing made some serious money. You put four to six people in a tub on a track and it hits a jump. Bam! It was a helluva ride."
In 1982, after a financial dispute with a business partner, Harley and Ann formed Wenzel Amazements and began booking their own spots. "We called it 'amazements' because it was amazing we got it started. You won't find too many people who started a carnival with nothing," says Harley. "My dad was so proud of me when I got my own show. He never told me, but I knew he was very proud."
The circumstances surrounding Harley's retirement are murky. Corina and Alison laugh when I tell them he says they voted him out. "If only it was that easy," says Alison. The Wenzel women, Ann included, are coy about this part of their past. But they have no problem talking about the headaches Harley causes them.
"Everything he does turns into a fucking disaster," says Liz. "Sometimes you think he does the shit on purpose just so we stop asking for his help. He tells everyone he's proud of us, that we're doing a great job, but he's never told us that."
Last year, Harley forgot to pull the emergency brake on the Tilt-A-Whirl truck and it rolled into a car. He caught hell from Corina in July after doing the same thing with the Scrambler truck as it was being unloaded. In Darlington, he got stuck after driving over a fire pit. In Beaver Dam, he was accused of backing into a vehicle. Though the accusation was unsubstantiated, Harley was cited for disorderly conduct after berating the officer.
"My father never ran the front stores, the games that aren't winnable; he hated them," Harley says. "You won't find them at carnivals anymore, but I'll tell you what: Every city in this country has one. It's called a police station."
Brushed off by his family, Harley spends quite a bit of time hanging out with the carnies, cracking jokes at others' expense. He'll make the dedicated drunks feel bad about their drinking, chastise the loose girls whose easy ways bother him, and air complaints about his life in general.
Those who've known him for a while say he's gotten softer with age. In Darlington, Harley grilled burgers and brats for us. But when someone remarked "he's starting to like us," Harley reflexively shot back, "I don't like any of you fuckers. I'm just trying to be nice."
The carny life
"Lifting steel" for a carnival isn't merely a job; it's a lifestyle. Few people have the rigor to withstand the long, brutal hours in the sun, the cramped living quarters, the verbal abuse and paltry pay - which is, for most, $240 a week. Tally the hours spent working, traveling and waiting around, and the hourly rate can drop as low as $3.50.
"A lot of guys come here thinking they're gonna make a lot of money, but it ain't gonna happen," says Scott Covert, 21, who's worked on and off for the show since he was 13. "Others think it's a big fucking party, but it's a job."
Many carnies arrive dead broke. Everyone I worked with has been to jail, prison or rehab. Carl Erickson was homeless when he joined 10 years ago. Mark Zagorski came on board after spending his $50,000 inheritance smoking weed in Alaska.
Says Corina, "Some things you just have to look past."
The job offers workers a temporary reprieve from the disorder of their lives. Except for Fridays and Saturdays, they're given a $20 draw against that week's pay, which usually goes toward cigarettes and beer. On paydays, Corina and Alison make laundry and Wal-Mart runs. Liz isn't as charitable.
"The help is the worst part of the job," she says. "All the smoking, drinking and laziness, I can't stand it. But what other people can just leave their lives to travel and do this work?"
The carnies are both a necessity and liability for carnival owners. Last year, a pair of carnies cost the Wenzels a spot in St. Paul-De Pere after stealing from the beer tent after hours. Many nights, Corina reminds them that "bunkhouses are for sleeping, not partying" after waking to a drunken ruckus.
In Monona, when several carnies became stranded after blowing their pay at a Madison strip club, Corina, who was preparing for bed, had to pick them up.
"She put on the boss face, but she was laughing on the inside," says Moon. "We were in Madison, so she had to have known something was going to happen."
Underlying the cohesion of "the family" is a profound generosity. Everything - cigarettes, beer, blankets, pillows and food - is shared. Rarely does anyone go without. I arrived with only my clothes, but in no time I acquired a blanket and pillow, food, a microwave, coffee maker and hot plate, all at no expense. The bartering is incessant, with exchanges like two packs of ramen noodles for a cold water or use of a fridge for a beer or two.
"We all got attitudes and end up bumping heads once in a while, but you say your piece and move on," says Erickson. "We're all one big family. I like this family better than my own."
Earlier this year, a customer asked Liz if she lives in a Florida mansion during winter. As if.
Truth is, carnivals bleed so much money that the Wenzels' primary job is to stop the hemorrhaging. For one thing, carnivals usually aren't hired, but rather pay the festival's organizing committee a percentage of the take in addition to myriad other costs.
"We haven't raised our prices for 10 years, even though everything else has gone up," says Liz. "But every year people complain about how expensive it's getting."
Though Harley routinely threatens to sell the show, he never will. "There's no money in it anymore, but what do you do with all you've worked for?" he asks. "Sell everything for half of what you put into it?"
For the older carnies, like Zagorski and Erickson, whose bodies break a little more each year, they'll do the work as long as they can. "This is a young man's job. It's physical even for a 30-year-old," says Zagorski. "It is getting harder and harder to do."
Moon, after a long night of drinking in Spooner, decided he'd had enough and split. Corina was clearly hurt by his abrupt departure. "Why they do that to themselves, I don't know."
Three days later he asked for his job back. Harley picked him up.
Instead of lavish vacations, Corina and her sisters spend winters driving truck part-time and refurbishing and painting the rides. She expects to work for the carnival until she retires.
"It's all I've ever done, and I enjoy it," she says. "I worked in a factory for a couple of winters. I can tell you that I don't like punching a clock."
Harley says he's "damn proud" of his daughters, especially Corina, without whom the show would end. He tells of how when Corina was 5, he got pulled away for a phone call while changing a tire. When he returned Corina was trying to lift the tire iron up to the wheel.
"I knew right then," he says, "what she was going to be."