Karen Weber has spent some 15 years helping to run the spring carnival at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Essex. She knows what brings in the crowds — and it isn't the food, or the goldfish toss, or even the chance to hang out with good friends while helping raise money for church and school.
Nah, what brings 'em in are the rides: the Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and other mechanical contraptions that lift you up and spin you around, defying gravity and turning the whole world happily upside-down.
"They're the draw-er," she says, inventing a word appropriate to the occasion as she helps get things ready for the annual event, set this year for the weekend of April 30. "Everybody comes by, and they see the bright lights and the rides going on — it's the first thing they want to do."
Nothing says vacation and summer sunshine and take-it-easy better than carnivals and the rides they bring to town with them. In Baltimore, the unofficial start of the 2010 carnival season may be the annual Spring Fair at the Johns Hopkins University, which takes over the Homewood campus beginning today. Almost every weekend, straight through to Labor Day and beyond, there'll be a carnival of some kind set up somewhere — on mall parking lots, alongside volunteer fire departments, near churches and schools. It's like Ocean City's boardwalk moving into the neighborhood for a few days.
"It's very self-satisfying, that we're in a business where the idea is to supply enjoyment to youngsters of all ages," says Tom Gaylin, president of Rosedale Attractions and Shows, one of a handful of local businesses that spend their weekends hopping from one site to another, transforming parking lots and grassy fields into carnival midways. Last weekend, they were in Essex; Thursday, they began a 10-day stint at Colgate Park (North Point Boulevard and Baltimore Street) for the annual Colgate Carnival.
"Carnivals only come to the neighborhood one time a year," adds Terrie Shaw, whose Severn-based Shaw & Sons is providing the rides for this weekend's Spring Fair at Hopkins. "They're something the kids really look forward to. That's where the glamour is in this business, watching the kids have a good time."
Adults get a kick out of things, too, says Brenda Davis of Annapolis-based Jolly Shows, which will be running a carnival in the parking lot of Security Square Mall from May 5-16. "It's something they can do with the kids on the weekend, and they don't have to go all the way to Kings Dominion or Six Flags. They can come and spend a couple of hours, and it's not that expensive."
For many, the carnival is a magical place, but for people like Gaylin, Shaw and Davis, it's also a job, one that takes a lot of time and requires a good bit of muscle. Amusement companies usually spend between eight and 12 hours of hard labor setting up their carnival midways. Rosedale, which works 30 to 35 carnivals a year within a 150-mile radius of Baltimore, has some 30 rides in its collection, which it transports from place to place using 100 trucks. Shaw, which handles about 30 carnivals a year, owns 35 rides, including such crowd-pleasers as the senses-rattling Zipper, Rok N Roll and Gravitron.
After the kids have ridden themselves silly and Mom and Dad have picked up the pieces, after the parking lots are once again a place for cars and the grassy fields are waiting to be mowed, carnival operators are busy moving on to another town. "It's really not a job, and it's really not an occupation," says Gaylin, whose family has been in the business since 1928. "It's more a way of life than anything else."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Seeing people's faces light up as they decide which ride to try next, listening to the festive music play as the bright lights shine and the delighted screams cascade down — there are worse ways to make a living.
"That's the best part of it all," says Davis, "watching the kids laugh and have fun."