On the road: Carnival workers ride the fair circuit

Operator Allen Moore tries to find participants for his carnival game, “Prize Time,” on Wednesday at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. Moore started working carnival games as a child to earn tickets for the rides. Today, he works off-and-on for pleasure. He said he enjoys goofing around with the customers. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

Operator Jon Bompers helps Idaho Falls resident Laura Ansley learn how to play the “Bank-A-Ball” game Wednesday at the Eastern Idaho State Fair. Bompers, who is in his 20th year as a game operator, said the long stretches away from home don’t bother him because he constantly is meeting new people. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

BLACKFOOT — The fair comes and goes every summer.

Families pack in to get their annual fill of cotton candy, ring-toss games and nausea-inducing rides before the whole thing is packed up in semitrailers and hauled off to the next fairground.

But for some, the midway carnival is perpetual. It’s the cities that come and go.

The games, food and rides synonymous with a fair are run by workers who often leave friends and family behind to travel a nine-month circuit, moving from one town to the next every week or so.

Allen Moore, 43, is a carnival lifer.

“I did my first balloon joint when I was 12,” he said.

As a child, Moore said he would work the games to earn tickets for the fair. The Sacramento, Calif., resident usually works a game once a year when the fair comes to town, but this year he wasn’t able to do so. Instead, he’s spending his vacation doing an eight-city circuit. He uses the carnival as a way to relax.

“This is my vacation,” he said. “You get to interact with all the people, get to clown, cut up, act stupid.”

Jon Bompers, 48, started working the traveling carnival 20 years ago in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He started working one of the games at a fair as a weekend side job, but quickly joined on a full-time basis.

“I made more money in two-and-a-half days than AT&T paid me in two-and-a-half weeks,” he said.

Twenty years of traveling from town-to-town can expose a person to things others only read about. While working the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo one year, Bompers said he witnessed a patron ride the roller coaster to its highest point and then jump out.

“He landed right in front of my game,” Bompers said.

But it’s not all bad.

Bompers said he loves working game booths at fairs. He’s a people person and gets to make new friends every day.

“It’s an entertainment business,” he said. “I get to make kids smile.”

While some of the relationships Bompers establishes are short-lived, as people come and go from his game, others are long-lasting. The group of workers travel the country together and have bonded into a family. That’s nice for Bompers, because other than his mother, he has no family ties in his offseason home of Houston.

“We’re a family,” he said. “We argue, fuss and fight just like a normal family.”

While the family aspect makes the job easier, the workers sign up every year to make money. Those working the game booths get a percentage of the earnings, so they heckle, holler and hoot to get fairgoers to play.

Each game worker has a different way of reeling in customers.

“You guys ready to win a fish?” Laurie Moore called out to a man and his son. When the father responded they already had a fish, Moore said, “Well, you could get some buddies for him, now couldn’t you? Some other fish to look at!”

Moore, 47, started with the carnival in the ’80s, but stopped years ago. When the fair came through Blackfoot, where she makes her home, Moore started up again as if it were an old habit. She works a game where players throw ping-pong balls into fish bowls to win a goldfish. Her trick is to target the pitch to the children.

“It’s awesome,” she said. “They think it’s wonderful to get a live animal.”

Moore said she loves being back at the carnival. She enjoys the travel and the relationships she makes with the carnival workers and the people she meets along the way. She said the carnival is better than it used to be — there used to be drug use and domestic violence behind the scenes. Now, she said, it’s just a close group of hard-working people.

“It’s all team members,” she said. “You work together and try to make a good dollar, which we have.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber can be reached at 542-6755.