Fuel Prices high but Skinners endure Truly a family operation
By Don Muret
DRS Skinners' Amusements has been playing catch-up this season, its 101st year in the carnival business.
For the most part, the Midwest weather has cooperated for the 40-miler show based in Crystal Lake, Ill., a one-hour drive northwest of Chicago. But excessive fuel costs, with some of the nation's highest prices in the Chicago market, have kept Skinners' from celebrating too much in 2011.
Those overhead costs are eating into the show's profits even on the spots that have been up this year.
"Fair season went very well," said Pat Skinner, the show's secretary-treasurer. "Lake County held its own and Boone County tripled in [attendance] capacity. For most dates, we matched or were over last year's totals.But fuel prices keep taking us away from our game."
The carnival recently finished playing the On the Waterfront festival in Rockford, Ill., an event Skinners' has played for about 20 years. The event is one of the state's biggest Labor Day celebrations, booking national acts across several stages in the northern Illinois city.
Some tweaks were made to Skinners' layout this year. All the rides, games and attractions were consolidated into one area on the west side of the Rock River in the city's business district. Event officials felt it was a better location than spreading the carnival over both sides of the river. The new lot is the same size as the two spots put together, Skinner said.
With this season winding down, the Skinners are already looking to 2012, juggling the calendar to meet all their contractual obligations. Next year is leap year, and the extra day, Feb. 29, means there will be some dates bumping into each other on the show's route, Skinner said.
The five weekends in July with the Fourth falling midweek will be tough for the show to accommodate its commitees but the family will find a way to make it work. It's tough on carnival companies setting up and tearing down when there is little breathing room to get from one spot to another. The year 2013 will be more of the same, Skinner said.
Keeping its crew happy on the road is the key to resolving some of those issues without too much acrimony, according to Skinner. The Skinners provide free living quarters for men, in addition to free lunches and show T-shirts, benefits other shows often charge to employees by taking those fees out of their paychecks.
Little things such as a complimentary bed to bunk in go a long way to promoting goodwill in the community.
For example, the Skinner family received a letter from a woman whose husband attended the McHenry County Fair in Woodstock, Ill. He had never been to a carnival in his life before walking the Skinners' midway. He was impressed with the show's professionalism and vowed to be back next year, Skinner said.
Pat's husband, Doug Skinner, show president, keeps the carnival moving seamlessly over the road. His grandfather, George Skinner, founded the business in 1910. The initials DRS stand for Douglas R. Skinner and reflect the formation of an additional corporation a few years ago.
Doug Skinner Jr. is vice president of the carnival and his wife Renate is the show secretary. They also own and operate Skinners' funnel cake trailer. Dale and Bev Downing run the popcorn and cotton candy wagon. Bev is Doug Sr.'s sister. Jared While, 24, Pat and Doug's grandson, is also active in the business.
Independent concessionaires Peter, Paul and Clarence "Coach" Kasin book the majority of games with Skinners' Amusements. Their family's ties to the show go back 40 years when their father, the original Coach Kasin, booked with the Skinners.
Red Thornberry, another carnival veteran, also books games with the carnival. Thornberry's motto, "carnivals are recession-proof," keeps business in perspective, Skinner siad.
After the season, the Skinner family attends the major trade shows in Las Vegas and Gibsonton, Fla., as well as IAAPA in Orlando.
The elder Doug Skinner, a big NASCAR fan, makes it a point to attend the Las Vegas race every year. He loves Dodge race cars, whoever's driving them, his wife said. This year, it's Kurt Busch driving the No. 22 car, a Dodge Charger.
In other family news, Pat Skinner recently became a great-grandmother for the second time. On Sept. 6, Jared's wife Amy gave birth to a baby boy, Paxton Douglas While. Mary While, Pat's daughter and Jared's mother, runs the carnival's pizza trailer.
New LED lighting package from Rides 4-U on the show's Eli 16 Wheel
Photos by Ken Kugler - taken at the 2011 Boone County Fair:
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