Carnival owner Dave Helm has no problem standing out in a crowd, whether it's conducting background checks on his employees or waiting until Monday to start tearing down and moving to the next spot.
Forging his own path in the show business has served Helm and his wife Debbie well. They own Helm & Son Amusements, a California company that has developed into one of the state's three largest carnivals. The Helms have been in business since 1978 when both worked for the old Carnival Time Shows owned by Debbie's father, Larry Davis.
Now in their 33rd season, the Helms are comfortable doing things their own way. It means every employee must submit to a background check and drug test. With up to 100 employees, the costs tied to those programs are not cheap, but in the end it is worth it, according to Dave Helm. In an industry traditionally met with skepticism, Helm & Son Amusements has earned the respect of law enforcement agencies working the many "street scene" festivals the carnival plays throughout its season.
"They're blown away by a carnival that is clean and well run," Helm said. "Some carnivals do background checks but most don't. I do what I feel is morally responsible. Operating in California, I feel we owe our customers a safe environment. If I get a leg up as a result, so be it. If my competition doesn't want to work that hard, that's fine.
In addition, "it is impossible to work for my carnival without being drug tested,' he said.
The Helms also believe in treating their employees with respect. It means often waiting to tear down on Monday morning instead of Sunday nights to give workers a full night's rest. Implementing a "humane work schedule" pays off with greater productivity and a more positive attitude, Helm said. Where it makes sense, the Helm family will book an extra week between dates to give them ample time to set up as many as 50 rides.
"We don't run as hard as other people," he said.
The carnival recently finished playing the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, Calif. This year, an event closely tied to horse racing, was extended a week longer. In a summer that has set heat records across the country, the weather was a "bit cold," which cut down on business, Helm said.
Conversely, two smaller events coming up in the next few weeks, the six-day Monterey County Fair and the five-day Tulare County Fair, have proven to be strong events, he said. Monterey moved its dates from mid-August to the week of Labor Day.
Helm & Son also plays a key role in the San Diego Fair in Del Mar, booking eight to nine rides over the past nine years at its independent midway. The show's brand can be seen there on the Wave Swinger, Pharaoh's Fury, Beach Party and Silver Streak, to name a few rides.
Two events stand out on the route, the Electric Daisy Carnival and the Oracle Corp. shindig. The first one, a three-day festival of electronic music, is a date Helm & Son has played out west for the past 10 years, most recently in late June at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Helm, together with Ray Cammack Shows, set up equipment in three locations inside the race track's infield.
The festival has been linked to deaths in Los Angeles and Dallas, this summer and in 2010, drawing scrutiny in the press. Helm supports the promoter and will continue booking the event. The carnival rides are covered in the price of festival admission.
"I don't share the feeling of the media and it is not because I make money," he said. "If a kid dies from drowning at the beach, do you shut the beach down for good? No. The event in Vegas was remarkably successful with only a few arrests among the 350,000 people who showed up. Las Vegas police did a great job securing the property."
The bash for Oracle, the computer software giant, is a sight to be seen, Helm said. It takes a month for the company set up the one-day party on Treasure Island, located between Oakland and San Francisco. Oracle spends several million dollars to entertain its employees, clients and guests in a first-class setting, with a breathtaking night view of the San Francisco Bay Bridge, Helm said. The party, Oct. 5, is tied to OracleWorld, the company's annual trade show.
"This year, they get the Giant Wheel," Helm said.
One new date for Helm & Sons is the Southern California Fair in Lake Perris, also known as the Farmers Fair. Dates are Oct. 8-16. Butler Amusements previously had the contract but had to give it up after taking over the Big Fresno Fair, Helm said.
Like other carnivals, Helm & Sons is going through the process of installing LED lights on some of their marquee attractions, a cost-cutting move to reduce their power bills. Its three Chance wheels, two Century models and the Giant unit, are three examples of rides that undergone the conversion, Helm said.
This season, the show added a new Sizzler, Badlands Express, a carousel, Taxi Jet and a candy wagon. In late August, the Helms were negotiating a deal with Denny's Electronics to outfit their Tower ride with new spiral lighting.
Key employees are Helm's son, David Jr., show manager, Robert Barr, ride superintendent, and a man known only as "Ski," the electronics and shop manager. Mark Teagh is in charge of "beautification," the elder Helm said. Teagh is responsible for all the show's signs and benches, including the 14-foot-high marquee and video display at the front gate.