Two months before Luehrs' Ideal Rides hits the road, Andy Schoendienst's immediate focus is on pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, the time-honored tradition signaling the start of baseball season.
The St. Louis Cardinals, the defending National League champions, spend spring training in Jupiter, a few miles from where the Schoendienst family spends their winters in Florida. The Schoendienst name spells royalty among Cardinals Nation. Red Schoendienst, Andy's 91-year-old uncle, was a longtime player, manager and coach for the Cardinals. So naturally, Andy the nephew grew up a died-in-the-wool Redbird fan.
As the Cardinals prepare for another season, so does Schoendienst. He is a veteran of 45 years in the carnival business, starting as a teen-ager with Ed Murphy, an equipment provider and ride financier operating in the Greater St. Louis region. Years later, he went to work for Luehrs' Ideal Rides, founded by the late Hub Luehrs. Andy's wife Lorelei, and her sister Jean Clair, are Hub's daughters.
The Schoendienst and Clair families purchased the company from Hub Luehrs in 1996. Luehrs died three years later in 1999. This will be the 58th consecutive season for a show that plays primarily Illinois and Indiana county fairs, festivals and celebrations.
"Spring training" for Luehrs' consists of shopping centers in the St. Louis area, starting April 12 in Alton, Ill., a historic Mississippi River town. Some of those dates have moved around a bit but they provide an opportunity for Luehrs' officials to train employees and work the kinks out before the heart of the schedule hits in the summer, Schoendiesnt said.
New dates include a fall festival in southern Indiana. The carnival's 10-fair route holds firm for 2014, an itinerary that includes the Will County Fair in Peotone. The Luehrs family has had a relationship with the agricultural event for at least 50 years, Schoendienst said.
The show held the line on major ride purchases for the coming season. Instead, officials are concentrating on refurbishing their existing equipment. A big upgrade was outfitting the Pharoah's Fury with a full LED lighting package, including the ride sign and the piece's triangle-shaped structure. MaxTron provided the LED technology, Schoendienst said.
The carnival did purchase a new Schantz ice cream trailer this winter that will debut this season. It is a first-class addition, with beautiful sign boards and the best ice creaming making machines on the market, he said. Soda and bottled water will also be sold from the trailer.
All told, the operation still travels with about 20 rides, give or take a few attractions. These days, there is a premium on space at county fairs. As a result, Schoendienst keeps a close eye on making sure the carnival sets up rides providing the highest capacity at those events.
The 2013 season resulted in a profitable bottom line "but it took all year to do it," according to Schoendienst. Rainy conditions in the Midwest until June had the show playing catchup during most of the summer. But the public is willing to spend money, an encouraging sign for the carnival, he said.
Ticket prices for the 2014 season have not been set but "I guarantee they won't go down," Schoendienst said. "People are always looking for a bargain. We run some specials, one ticket rides (for $1.50) on one day during the fair, and we do a lot of advance sale."
The recent trade show in Gibtown provided the Luehrs and Clair families the opportunity to renew friendships with other carnival clans. Those conversations in part revolved around the ride principals reaching age 60 and gradually handing over more responsibilities to their children for running the overall business, Schoendienst said.
In their case, it's the younger generation led by Andrew Luehrs', Andy and Lorelei's 26-year-old son who is taking over a greater role for the carnival. Andrew, a college graduate with a degree in journalism, pretty much does it all now from office management to ride operations, his father said.
The same is true for Kristin, the daughter of Jean and Joe Clair, and her husband Chris Atkins, son of Tom Atkins of Mighty Thomas Carnival. They take care of the show's food operation.
Other key personnel are Jules, Kam and Corey Catarzi. Jules is the show's ride fabricator and his son is a ride superintendent. Michael Snow is a ride superintendent as well. Tom Brookens is the carnival's electrician.