Bill Johnson feels the pain of every carnival operator contending with bad weather, high fuel prices and government regulation.
In February, the owner of Fantasy Amusements wraps up his one-year tenure as chairman of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, the trade group representing the traveling amusement industry.
Representing the OABA, Johnson traveled to several state fairs over the course of the 2011 season, updating other show owners on key issues such as the H2B Visa program and heavy vehicle taxes. If somebody had rides booked those major events in Milwaukee, St. Paul, Tampa, Dallas and Springfield, Mass., chances are they ran into Johnson.
Meeting with carnivals on site is just a small part of the OABA's service to the industry, something Johnson has seen firsthand while visiting the group's Tampa headquarters.
"The phone never stops ringing," Johnson said. "There is always somebody with a problem that needs to be addressed."
Fantasy Amusements, a Chicago-based operation, completed its 26th season this year. It was a rough one with weather taking a toll on many spots, he said. In addition, diesel was up $1 a gallon over last year, which did not make it any easier to generate revenue.
One bright spot was the show's rollout of a KMG Freakout, a super-spectacular attraction. Johnson actually bought the ride 18 months before taking possession to make it fit within his payment plan.
"I'm happy with it," he said.
The show travels with 23 rides now compared with eight when Johnson started Fantasy Amusements in 1985.
"I still enjoy it," he said. "It's nice when you have your family out there helping out and learning the business."
Johnson's three daughters all work for the carnival. Katie, 26, and Kelly, 23, are both college graduates with teaching degrees.
When a carnival customer cracks wise to Kelly that "you don't have to go to school" to run her water game, she points to her college diploma tacked to the wall of the trailer, her dad said.
Kelly just recently graduated from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Alyce Johnson, the youngest daughter, attends Harper College, a junior college in Palatine, Ill.
Mary Johnson, Bill's wife, managed the show during her husband's OABA travels over the summer. She works full-time for the carnival and volunteers for the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, putting on diving gear to clean tanks holding jellyfish, whales and dolphins.
Long-time employees include manager Mike Romano, ride superintendent Rick Stanley, CDL driver Bob Thorson. Gina Romano, Mike's wife, runs the duck pond. Angie Collachia has the popcorn wagon. Jeff "Rufus" Lapin has booked games with the show for many years.
Otherwise, Fantasy Amusements, like other shows, relies on international labor to get the job done right. The workers come from Mexico and South Africa. The carnival will hire Americans as long as they can pass background checks and drug tests, Johnson said.
The hearing in Louisiana tied to the OABA's lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor's move to raise hourly wages for international workers has been delayed until Jan. 20, according to Johnson.
Just this week, OABA officials received some good news about a similar suit filed by a landscaping group in Florida. The Department of Labor's attempt to relocate that case to a Pennsylvania court in the same state where the wage hike was first proposed was struck down by the Florida judge, Johnson said.
Outside of his OABA duties, Johnson remains heavily involved in the Showmen's League of America, another group supporting carnival causes.
A little over a year ago, the group moved its Chicago office to a building in the West Loop, two blocks north of Oprah Winfrey's television studios.The SLA's new home is a half-mile from United Center, where Johnson is a Chicago Blackhawks season ticket holder.
The SLA purchased the building and renovated it to suit the group's needs for daily business and its Thursday night meetings during the offseason. The new kitchen and bar space provide a high-tech feel and a big upgrade from the old SLA headquarters in downtown Chicago.
Across the street from the new digs, developers are building condominiums, restaurants and a parking garage. SLA officials expect the value of their property to increase after those projects are completed, Johnson said.
The Showmen's League annual Christmas party is Friday (Dec. 16) at Hanson Park Elementary School in Chicago. The school caters to children with special needs. There is live entertainment, free popcorn, cotton candy and a special appearance by Santa Claus.
Providing scholarship money for kids of carnival owners and attending to Showmen's Rest, a burial property at a local cemetery are among the SLA's other benevolent programs.
The late George Bujalka, owner of Glory Amusements and a long-time concessionaire with Fantasy Amusements is buried at Showmen's Rest, a plot of land at a local cemetery. Bujalka, a friend of the Johnson family for 35 years, died of cancer in May.
At Bujalka's wake, his friends and colleagues remembered him as "one of the good guys" who "was always smiling," Johnson said.