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Jeff Pugh, A Leader In Amusement Industry Innovation, passes

5/23/2014

By Timothy Herrick

Photo courtesy of

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Jeffery D. Pugh, a Midwest midway provider whose Pugh Shows is widely credited for setting a high standard of midway professionalism, passed away on April 10.   Jeff Pugh, age 60, passed away after a two-year battle with ALS.

Jeff Pugh was in the outdoor amusement business his entire life, joining his father, Richard and his brothers Bobby and Tom (Tom left the amusement industry), in the then new Pugh Amusement Company, based in Lancaster, Ohio.

Waiting For Jeff
Richard Pugh had a just sold his successful trucking business, Pugh Motor Transport and "we were waiting for Jeff to graduate from high school," said Bobby Pugh, of Riethoffer Shows, where he runs company's Blue Unit. That was in 1967, when Pugh Amusements was just a 7-ride midway with a limited circuit - it Photo By would eventually grow to four touring units, 150 rides, 100 game concessions and more than 125 contracts before a series of financial set-backs forced the company to close in 2001. 
Jeff Pugh initially gravitated towards the behind-the-scenes part of the midway business. "He was a natural mechanic," said Bobby Pugh. "He was the best at re-furbishing a ride and re-racking rides."

The emphasis on maintenance and cleanliness protocols -Pugh Motor Transport had implemented similar policies and his father apparently instilled this awareness into his son-eventually led to  Jeff Pugh setting up a mechanics shop for the maintenance, repair and refurbishment of amusement rides at the Pugh Amusement headquarters in Lancaster.

"He had an electrical department that was unrivaled in the industry," said Bobby Pugh. "He brought in sand blasting and high-pressure cleaning equipment. He ran a high-tech spray room for its time."

As the midway machinery became more complicated, Jeff Pugh started a near clean-room policy for the ride garages. "He also wanted the machines to be clean, we never scrimped on maintenance," said Bobby Pugh.

Gooding Acquisition
In the late 70s, about 10 years after Jeff Pugh had joined the family business, he was instrumental in the company purchasing the assets and routes of Columbus-based Gooding Amusement Company, which included such high-profile events as the Ohio State Fair.

With that purchase, Pugh Shows immediately became one of the leading midway providers in the United States. The acquisition also enabled Jeff Pugh to implement, on a wider-scale, his conviction that midways should be professional, family-friendly and adaptable.

Jeff Pugh started a new ticketing policy that was then new for both the industry and the Buckeye state's annual summer extravaganza - one price for all rides. "The industry was beginning to price itself out of the market, but we started the one-price wristbands," said Bobby Pugh. "The fair was against it at first, but we showed that they cold make twice or three times the money on the food and other concessions because people stay at the fair longer."

Danny Huston, CEO, North American Midway Entertainment (N.A.M.E.) worked alongside Jeff for more than 25 years, having joined Pugh Shows in 1980 and eventually marrying Diane Pugh, Jeff's sister. They celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary this year.

What first impressed Huston was both the mechanical skill and the comprehensive cleanliness.  "He had a unique ability to make a ride look good," said Huston. "They were always mechanically perfect. He could tear a ride apart like nobody I ever saw, find out what was wrong and repair and put it back together and it not only ran better, but looked better."

New Standards
The cleanliness was a midway-wide standard, intended to be immediately noticeable. "He was a fanatic about cleanliness," said Bobby Pugh. "You could eat out of his generators. He cleaned the fence because there would be dirt and grease when people leaned against it. He understood that cleanliness was not just about making the rides run more safely, but instilled confidence in customers that the midway was safe and family-friendly."

"Actually, he was the cleanest guy in the carnival business," Huston said. "He was the first one to have a mobile wash unit, which was a big truck, with these arms that clean the rides, they were individual power-wash units. The truck was capable of hauling a few thousand gallons of water. Now a lot of carnivals have them, but Pugh was the first." 

Jeff Pugh can be credited with introducing a big-picture sensibility by enhancing the midway with a family friendly, professional atmosphere. "Beautification became his thing," said Bobby Pugh. "He took lessons from auto body shops and made sure the rides had wild, custom paint jobs. He was the first to put plants and flowers throughout the midway."

Also, Jeff Pugh was one of the first to have midway canopies and tents not just match each other - orange and white stripes became the Pugh Shows colors - but he is also a leader in having  the midway employees wear matching uniforms, in the same orange and stripes of the tents.

"It was not enough for everyone to act professionally, they had to look professional," said Huston. "He was the was the first one to have grooming requirements, have everybody wear uniforms. He really changed the image of midway workers in the mind of the public. He instilled his work ethic in our employees." 

The combination of Jeff Pugh's various initiatives both bolstered the Pugh Amusement brand and created memorable impressions on not just on fairgoers, but the new generation of fair managers and midway professionals who believed that a higher level of business practices could revitalize the fair industry.
 
"Pugh Shows just had more pizzazz, they had state of the art rides and equipment, including the game and food trailers," said Huston. "But Pugh also had the bright lights and the cleanliness, everything was shiny and had flash. The employees were all in bright uniforms. Jeff's theory was that the midway had to have be good looking, and you would get the repeat business if the midway was good looking. That was way back in the early 80s and not many people were thinking that way back then in this business."

Huston continued, "Jeff really upgraded the quality of carnivals, especially in the Midwest. Customer service was so important to Jeff, because through that service everybody coming to the fair would have an enjoyable experience. Jeff started a transformation of this business, at least in my eyes."

After implementing these new policies, Pugh Amusement's "revenue started to rise and we kept getting more bookings," said Huston. "The rest of the industry soon followed suit."

Major League Fair
In 2011, Jim Wegerly left the industry and now enjoys semi-retirement (he's a board member with Endura Coatings). But for several decades before , Wegerly worked for Pugh Shows, coming on board soon after the Gooding purchase.

Wegerly had just turned 30 and had worked for a few years in the carnival industry in the marketing and booking department of a few midway providers. "I had worked with some big clients, but I had become frustrated."

The frustration was mainly due to a general unwillingness to adapt to a new, more professional era in the fair business. "I was going to leave the industry, but I had read about Pugh Shows in Amusement Business magazine, and I forget if it was an article or a help wanted ad or both."

It was the summer of 1981, and Wegerly -a born and bred son of Michigan - intrigued by what he read about Pugh, put his plans to leave the fair business on hold and went to check out the Pugh Amusement midway at one of the fairs on the old Floyd Gooding circuit. "I drove up to Saginaw," he remembered, "…the ride personal were wearing white pants and shirts with orange shirts, and they matched the tents. The equipment was immaculate, gleaming. Back then, you never saw anything like that, even in amusement parks. It was just, WOW! I finally had found a major league fair."

Visionary & Trendsetter
Wegerly remembers calling the Pugh organization and he and Jeff Pugh soon reached a deal.

"Jeff was a visionary and a trendsetter," said Wegerly. "He was the first one to institute strict grooming clothes, men couldn't wear earrings for example. He had substance abuse restrictions and testing in the 1980s, before anyone else. Those matching canvas tents that matched the uniforms, you never saw that before. Ride operators just wore grimy t-shirts. There was a color theme to Jeff's midway, it was revolutionary."

According to Wegerly, the Pugh style took off in the 1980s. "We started signing major fairs, in Indiana, and Michigan, Ohio."

This rise in bookings indicated a new industry standard. "Jeff set the bar high," Wegerly continued. "He wasn't interested in the status quo. And he knew that people would appreciate quality and he knew that you provide the service, create a safe and fun atmosphere, but also look clean and professionals. The fairs loved us."
Most midway providers, however, were not so welcoming to the new upgrade trend.

"They hated us," said Wegerly. "It took a relatively major investment to keep up the level of maintenance. The mobile power wash unit cost $50,000 and that was in the 80s. But he cleaned that carnival every week. He added a laundry truck for the uniforms. The rest of the industry wasn't happy at all, but they had to follow suit because the fairs began demanding it. Jeff set a new standard for the industry that we all now take for granted."

Downfall: Over-Reach
Unfortunately, the downfall of Pugh Shows began in the late 1990s, when Jeff Pugh made what proved to be a disastrous business decision; the purchase of Crown Amusements in 1999 for $6.2 million.

A merger that looked good on paper, in reality created insurmountable challenges. Pugh Shows was a market leader in the Midwest and the Crown Amusements acquisition was designed to expanded its reach into the lower mid-Atlantic, adding a series of fall events and a Florida route.
 
But a strategy that worked in earlier in his career with the Gooding acquisition proved no longer to be on the side of Jeff Pugh. Integration problems, debt and weather proved to be the company's undoing.

"We had horrendous weather that first year," said Wegerly. "Fairs were cancelled."

Besides staggering losses in revenue, Wegerly pointed out that the divergent corporate cultures of these two diverse midway companies made a true merger impracticle. "The two companies just never meshed," said Wegerly.   "Jeff had his way of doing things and the Crown units could never adapt."

Affable and dedicated, Jeff was widely described as a hands-on midway executive, involved with all aspects  of midway operations. Perhaps one reason the Crown Amusements acquisition ultimately proved devastating was that the hands-on work ethic that Jeff was known for could not be sustained in a company whose size nearly doubled within one year.

Hands-on just isn't possible with multiple traveling units separated by such vast geographical expenses."It was over-reach on the part of Jeff," said Wegerly.
By 2003, Pugh Amusement's assets were auctioned or otherwise sold off. Many of the key rides, concession and route were acquired by Huston and Wegerly, who used them to form Mid America Shows.

After the collapse of Pugh Shows, Jeff Pugh opened a new, albeit smaller, amusement ride garage in his hometown of Lancaster and worked as a free-lance mechanic for various ride manufactures and midway providers. He was also employed as an independent ride broker, working for several US based ride companies.

Brave Battle
According to Bobby Pugh, even though Jeff was severely inflicted with ALS and bravely battled the disease, "he still went to work everyday in his shop."
Jeff Pugh is survived by his wife of 39 years Beverly; children Jeffery, Matthew and  Alissa; grandchildren, Marissa and Christopher, Kolson, Kylan and Addicyn; his brothers and sisters Robert, Deborah Woodman (, Tom, Diane Huston (married to Danny), nieces, nephews and special sister-in-law Judy Bresler. He was surrounded by his family at the time of his death at Fairfield Medical Center in Lancaster Ohio.

Remembering Jeff
Bobby Pugh remembers most his brother's love of family, food and food. "He loved food, he loved fine dining. No oyster was safe when he was around."
Wegerly recalls the comradeship that Jeff inspired among the Pugh team. "The fair would close at midnight and Jeff would start a barbecue. He loved good food and we just sat around, ate and talked and laughed. They were just great times.  The industry lost a true pioneer. We miss him." 

"It was a hell of a run, and we had lot of fun," remembered Huston. "We made some money and had a nice product. It was a pretty strong team.  If you worked for Pugh Shows, you were made to really feel part of the family. Everybody liked Jeff. He was a caring man, and he thought about his employees. He treated them like they were his own children."

During its heyday, Jeff Pugh was also respected as an employer whose considerate treatment of Pugh Amusement staff kept morale high. "He wanted everyone to do well and to be a success.," said Wegerly. "He was willing to pay people higher wages than other companies. People really liked working at Pugh."

Lasting Legacy
A quick google search confirms this lingering fondness for a long gone midway provider. There's a tribute page to Pugh Shows (http://kizarny.wix.com/pugh-shows-tribute) created by former employee, and a Pugh Shows Facebook Fan Page (facebook.com/pugh.shows) with more than 300 likes.

The irrevocable and long-lasting stamp of enhanced professionalism that Jeff Pugh brought to the industry was not just in the visibility of uniforms or shiny, well-running, safe rides. The work ethic and enthusiasm for midway traditions was passed down by Jeff Pugh on an individual level, one person at a time.

According to Wegerly, fair professionals who got their start and/or otherwise were part of the Jeff Pugh-led team, number in the dozens and now populate every strata of the business, "Safety personnel, unit managers, mechanics, managers of carnivals who now work throughout the industry, they all got their start with Jeff."
 
Jeff Pugh Memorial Fund
In lieu of flowers, industry members are requested to donate to the Jeff Pugh Memorial Fund, recently set up by the Showmen's League of America.

The organization asks that checks made out to the Showmen's League of America with a memo: Jeff Pugh Memorial. Please mail checks to:

Showmen's League of America
1023 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
www.showmensleague.org





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