Tony Salerno has a lot of admiration for Ross Owen, the longtime manufacturer of fun houses, dark rides and mirror mazes.
Salerno, owner of Windy City Amusements, recently bought a Wacky Shack, Owen Trailers' newest fun house that sets up on a 48-foot trailer. It was delivered last week to the shows winter quarters. Owen traveled from California, where his company is situated, to Aurora, Ill., the western Chicago suburb where Windy City keeps its winter quarters.
Owen took the time to help show officials put the fun house together for the first time, something not lost on the Salerno family.
"He put a lot of extras into that piece," Salerno said. "It was a great buy. He's one of the few manufacturers that still
do a quality job. I really like the way he took care of us. He did everything he could to help us and I want people to know that."
"When a problem happens, Ross answers the phone and stays on the line until the issue is taken care of. I was really impressed by his support and would like to see other manufacturers stand behind their product as well as Owens does," said Salerno. "Ross told me what whatever I needed, he would take care of for me" Salerno echoed.
The fun house is a two story model, complete with a Denny's Electronics light package for extra flash. It is the first Owen piece owned by the show.
Other than the Wacky Shack, the show bought a used Sizzler for the second unit that Wisdom Manufacturing is currently refurbishing and it should be delivered sometime in June, Salerno said. The Sizzler is being retrofited with a LED package from Wisdom / RideParts.com. Separately, the show sold a Tilt-a-Whirl and a Tornado. Both of those rides ran their course and weren't generating enough revenue to keep them on the road, according to Salerno.
The show has been busy retrofitting existing equipment with LED light packages and vinyl wraps. Over the spring, they added a LED package to their Pharaoh's Fury from Denny's Electronics and are in the process of finalizing vinyl wraps on a Funnel Cake trailer for the second unit and the Raiders on the first unit.
In addition, Windy City plans to hold an auction in October after the season is over to get rid of spare ride parts, a few generators, any excess rides, and some game and food trailers. Windy City could also potentially do some consignment deals with other owners of carnival equipment as part of the auction, Salerno said. He's still looking for a company to produce the auction. The date is still to be determined but it will be at the show's winter quarters, he said.
The process of liquidation falls in line with Windy City's effort to make do with what it has outside of the few new attractions. Last November, the carnival sold about 10 rides to a carnival in Mexico through a broker. Those pieces made up the old "phantom fourth" unit, the term Salerno used to describe the operation that popped up on various occasions in Greater Chicago. All told, the show now owns about 50 rides, down from 75 a few years ago.
"We've laid low ... making sure the bills are paid," Salerno said. "We don't want to be like some shows that have overextended themselves."
Windy City, whose corporate office is in St. Charles, Ill., started the season with one unit in operation in Geneva, Ill. It's one of the "sneak spots" Chicago-based shows refer to in a market where competition is fierce and carnivals are hesitant to disclose their locations. The irony is that most shows know where everybody is playing anyway, but just the same, Salerno preferred not to identify the spot other than to say he works with the city to book the date.
The second unit followed suit in the western suburbs and the third unit hit the road last week in South Elgin.
"We try to fly in the shadows," Salerno joked.
Overall, the carnival's help situation is good as it enters the third year of using international labor. For years, Windy City stood behind using domestic labor but its thinking has changed and the Salerno family embraces the strong work ethic their Mexican nationals bring to the operation. For 2015, the show has 41 of those individuals working among the three units.
"We tried to hold out and keep Americans working but all they want is a hand out thanks to our Government," Salerno said. "They're not hungry [for work]. Life [on welfare] is too much of a gift. They get a free phone, housing and food. They're happy being [poor] and that's how the politicians want to keep it. We'll wait until after the [2016 presidential] election to see if things change."
Salerno mentioned that the show picked up two new festivals in Cicero and Worth, Ill. The carnival also booked a new Labor Day spot in the city of Chicago.
Otherwise, many dates are longstanding, including events in Palatine and Geneva. Windy City has been playing both holiday festivals for about 30 years.
Windy City raised its wristband prices to $25 last year and Salerno doesn't bat an eye when he says the show runs those specials twice a day. Does it burn the help out? No, he says, because the rides have to turn anyways regardless if they are using tickets or armbands. "It's not like [they're all] running a ground-mounted Wheel," Salerno said.
This year marks the 39th year for the carnival. Tony Salerno Sr., 86, is retired. His wife Ruth, is 76 and still works the office. Tony's two brothers, Mark and Mike, both run units. The youngest of Tony's three daughters, Samantha, works part-time for the show as a concessions manager. She lives at home right now and is saving money to buy a house, her father said. Mark's youngest son, Adam, works for the second unit as a manager.
Speaking of real estate, Tony's father still has his sense of humor intact. As the Wacky Shack took shape at winter quarters, Tony Sr. took one look at the fun house and told his son he thought it looked like an expensive piece of property. "Thank God there's no property tax," he cracked.