Danny Huston was happy - and relieved that everything ran smoothly at the Dearborn (Mich.) Arab International Festival in mid-June.
Huston, co-owner of North American Midway Entertainment, was working at the festival in greater Detroit overseeing one of the carnival's four primary units. There were some tense moments Friday, June 17, opening day of the weekend event. Terry Jones, the Koran-burning Florida pastor, showed up at City Hall in Detroit that day intent on making an appearance at the Arab fest. Local authorities stepped in to quash those plans and Jones did not show up at the festival, stopping a potentially ugly situation at the festival.
"He was stirring up trouble again," Huston said.
Six months have passed since Huston and his partner Jeff Blomsness purchased 100 percent of North American's assets from the Cypress Group in December 2010. Cypress, a New York private equity firm with a variety of financial interests ranging from broadcast media to hospitality, cat food to automotive supplies, had owned 85 percent of North American since its inception in 2004.
At that time, Blomsness-Thebault Enterprises, which included All-Star Amusements and Astro Amusements, plus Farrow Shows and Conklin Shows, were rolled up into one corporate entity rebranded as North American Midway Entertainment. In 2005, North American added Mid-America Shows, whose principals included Huston, with more than 25 years invested in the carnival business. Separately, Blomsness is nearing 40 years in the business after forming All-Star in 1973 in suburban Chicago.
Collectively, those four to five carnivals owned the remaining 15 percent of North American Midway Entertainment in the form of stock in the company. When it came time for the Cypress Group fund that owned the carnival to liquidate and sell the operation, Huston and Blomsness made an offer that officials with the private equity group accepted. The deal closed in December. Huston and Blomsness would not disclose how much they paid for a business with 230 rides and attractions.
For both carnival veterans, buying the largest traveling amusement outfit in North America gave them the opportunity to pass the business to their four full-grown children. Huston's two sons, Blake, 26, and Myles, 23 are both employed with North American after graduating from college. Blake Huston is unit manager of the North American division that played Dearborn.
Blomsness' daughter Christina, 30, owns an elephant ear stand in addition to her full-time job operating a mobile pet grooming van. She plans to get more involved with North American in the future, Jeff Blomsness said. His son, Robert, 28, is a Navy Seal serving in his third tour of Afghanistan. As it stands now, Robert Blomsness, a six-year Navy vet, will join the carnival in about eight months after his current tour of duty ends.
"As time goes along, those four will be taking this thing over and running it with all the other folks principally involved," Huston said. "In this business, you have got to make it fun but you also have to make money. Our intention is to do both of those things. One of the reasons the private equity firm bought our company was because we are a family-owned business. They loved to see our two families continue to keep things going."
In some respects, North American's business remains the same as it was before the consolidation. Most of the events covered by the four units are the same dates that were held by the individual shows before they combined to form North American. Dearborn is one example. North American, and before that, Mid-America Shows, has played that spot continuously for the past 16 years. State fairs in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Carolina, plus the Calgary Stampede, Canadian National Exhibition, Klondike Days and Red River Exhibition in Canada once held by the four shows are now wrapped into one single entity touting one of the strongest routes in the industry.
The corporate office is in Farmland, Ind., where Huston lives. North American's three other offices are in the Chicago area, Brantford, Ont. and Jackson, Miss. Those three markets have always been home to All-Star/Astro, Conklin and Farrow.
The same familiarity holds true for North American's top officials. Many of the same people who keep the huge operation moving from Alabama to Alberta in a season that runs from mid-March to mid-November stayed intact through relationships with their respective carnivals before North American took over seven years ago. Tony Diaz, the international unit manager who worked for Farrow Shows, spearheads the old Conklin route in Canada. Tom Thebault, son of Steve Thebault, Jeff Blomsness' former partner in Chicago, is one of two managers for the Astro unit that plays 25 dates in Illinois alone. Pat Repp, a former independent ride owner with booked with Tinsley Amusements, is the other unit manager for an operation that splits in two for some Midwest dates.
Danny Menge, Bob Gill and Terry Foreman, long-time employees with Farrow Shows, co-manage that particular unit and Tim Merkel is Blake Huston's co-manager on the Mid-America unit. Dan Wagner, a colleague of Huston's from Indiana, is North American's chief financial officer. Those officials, plus others such as Frank Conklin, at the helm of Conklin Shows at the time it was brought under the North American banner, continue to provide strong leadership for the overall operation.
John Anderson, another Conklin Shows official, is North American's midway manager for the international unit, "making sure everybody's shirt is tucked in and all the signs are straight up" on the lot, Huston said. "He's a man of many different hats."
"You put all those people and their years of experience together and it is invaluable," he added. "It gives us a nice advantage."
Mike Williams, former head of Farrow Shows who was among the principals of North American Midway Entertainment before Blomsness and Huston bought the company, is now serving as an advisor under new ownership. He has no financial stake in the operation, according to Huston.
"I give Mike Williams a lot of credit," Huston said. "He's the one who put this [deal] together and brought everyone to the table."
North American, like every other show, has to contend with much higher diesel prices this season compared with previous years. Fortunately, revenue is up this year "which has helped compensate for the fuel increase," Huston said.