Bill Reiss has been in the carnival business for more than 40 years but there is one date that sticks in his mind -- May 20, 2003.
It was that day that Reiss started his own show, Blue Sky Amusements, after parting ways with his former partner, Bob DeStefano and Silver Dollar Shows.
A business disagreement led to the split after 18 years together, according to Reiss.
"Most people remember when they got married," Reiss said, laughing. "I remember when I got divorced [in business]."
He hasn't looked back. Ten years after Reiss went out on his own, Blue Sky, based in Long Island, N.Y., has grown to a 30-ride operation with two units playing firemen's and church festivals. Bill runs the carnival with his wife, Susan, their two sons, Bill Jr. and Michael, and their daughter, Catherine.
The show's family ties extend to Reiss' two brothers-in-law, John Keffas and Steve Maroulis. Kathleen Keffas, John's wife and Susan Reiss' sister, runs the main office.
Bill Jr. manages the concessions. Michael owns four rides and a rock wall. Susan Reiss runs the show's popper and ice cream trailer. Annie Newell has the zeppoles and a grab joint. Teddy Bear (his real name) is concessions manager. Both Newell and Bear have been with Reiss since the Silver Dollar Shows days.
The family learned the business from their father, who started when he was 12 working with a local carnival in Long Island called Prudence Amusements. Bill Reiss also worked for a city show, New York Fair and Rental Co., where he served as a ride superintendent for about 15 years. After the carnival's owner Mike Tellone died, Reiss partnered with DeStefano to form Silver Dollar Shows.
As Reiss eases his way into retirement and hands the show over to his kids, he is content with the size of his operation. Blue Sky plays Long Island, upstate New York and New Jersey. The carnival stays out of New York City because there are too many headaches with permits and having to worry about equipment getting defaced with graffiti, Reiss said.
"I would be content with being a three-miler instead of a 40-miler," he said.
This season has been good when the weather cooperates, Reiss said. "The only thing you need to make money is sunshine and people," he said. Simple enough.
The show escaped major damage last fall after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York. The storm hit south and west of Blue Sky's winter quarters in Long Island. Reiss said he made "a few dollars" renting generators to businesses and individuals who lost power in the region.
Blue Sky's route includes dates purchased from former New York carnival owner Ronnie Cook. Richard Spooner, a former associate of Cook's, books his giant swing ride and Tubs of Fun independently with Blue Sky. Spooner also serves as a driver for the show.
The show bought a new Quad Runner from Dalton Kid Rides with delivery expected in June. Reiss is good friends with Kevin Dalton, the ride company's owner.
"He finally pestered me to buy something," Reiss said. "He's been after me for a few years now."
Reiss prefers to keep his ride lineup simple without technology standing in the way of a smooth operation.
"I'm content with what I have," he said. "The new rides with all the electronics are too much for me. You need a full-time engineer and computer expert to get some of these newer pieces to run all the time. When the stuff is set up in the cold, rain and dampness, you don't want it to cut out. I would rather not mess with it."
New dates for 2013 are St. Leo the Great, a church fest in Lincroft, N.J., June 17-22, and the Huntington Manor (N.Y.) Fire Department firemen's fest, July 16-20.
For the most part, though, Blue Sky maintains the same route year after year. As with other major markets, sometimes a competitor will come in and attempt to pick off a date by offering a better deal to an event committee, which does no good for the industry as a whole said Reiss.
"Every now and then, you get smacked around by somebody and you gotta smack 'em back," he said. "In the long run, it tends up costing everybody money. I don't like stealing anybody's spots. If an event manager calls me up and says he can't work with a guy, that's a different story."
Occasionally, Blue Sky will team with a few shows, including All County Amusements, to give each other a hand with equipment, Reiss said.
Help is good, although Reiss worries about the federal government's changes to the H2B Visa program, which in the end will put additional financial burdens on show owners by forcing them to pay equal wages for both domestic and international workers.
The bigger shows will absorb those increased costs better than the mid-sized shows, Reiss said.
"Let's face it, Americans don't want to work anymore, at least not in our business," he said. "The breed of carnival person is not there. They get more money sitting on their [behinds]. We pay well too. The average international worker gets $350 to $500 a week. We provide two vans for transportation to use for food and laundry and they have days off. Years ago, they only day off we had was when it rained."