Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals
Fairs often seem to occupy two time periods at once.They're steeped in tradition, showcasing the agricultural roots of a community and its love for the past. But to continue thriving, fairs need the latest technology and marketing to promote the event, enhance exhibits and make nostalgic revelry relevant to the current community.
Steven "Stevie" Ianni, Train Master - and also manager of the Zyklon Roller Coaster -for James E. Strates
Shows, much like those fairs he has been around since childhood and working at since he was a teenager, straddles two eras. Now 28, Ianni is a tech-savvy millennial, but also holds a position whose lineage stretches back nearly a century.
Strates Shows, founded in 1923, still travels its fair route - which spans much of the Eastern United States, from Florida into New England - by carnival train. Back in the day, all carnival companies used this method of transportation but today, only Strates Shows keeps this tradition alive. Which makes Ianni not just the first Gen-Y Train Master, but the only Train Master in the fair business.
Ianni is responsible for all the logistics of transporting an entire midway by rail from one fair to another. He determines what equipment goes on what flat car, makes sure that the crew and vehicles needed to load or unload the train are at the designated stop, and getting clearance and permission from the seven different railroad companies whose tracks the Strates train must traverse.
Interestingly, before Ianni's family joined the carnival business, many of his ancestors were railroad men during America's golden of age of trains. Ianni's great-great grandfather, Carlo Marcozzi, who immigrated to the United States in 1896, worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
"I'm not sure how cost effective travelling by train is," said Ianni. "But it is a great tradition to carry to on."
But it also hard work, and crucial to Strates Shows. Train Master is one of the more high-pressured jobs on the traveling units of one of oldest traveling carnival companies in North America.
"I make sure we are at the next fair in time to set up for opening day," said Ianni, who has held the position for five years.
In addition to coordinating the train travel, he also helps facilitate promotional events featuring the Strates Carnival Train. The Erie County fair - which in 2014 celebrated both its 175th anniversary and the 90th anniversary of a Strates Shows midway at the fair - set up a banner across the tracks, which the States train broke through, to the delight of the crowd gathered for the occasion. This celebration harkened back to decades past when the fair would come to town, families would gather to welcome the carnival train as it rolled into the station.
"You still see people gathering to see the train, but not as often," said Ianni, "but now mainly it's a few grandparents with their grand kids watching the train.
While the tradition of carnival trainspotting may have fallen out of favor, the tradition of the fair is strong.
Ianni grew up on the midway - his father, also named Steve - was Concessions Manager and it was in the concessions where Stevie entered the business. "I always loved the excitement of the midway and that the fair was such a big tradition for familiesto come every year."
Ianni considers it an honor to maintain the carnival train tradition in the 21st century. Computers and smart phones make some aspects of the job easier, Train Master has always been a job heavy with responsibility. "Everything is in your hands, and you have to remember all the minor stuff that has to be done," he said. "You have to make sure everything is safely loaded, and on the right cars, and then you have to get the train off so it will be ready at the next fair to open the next week."
He added that using a train, "is not like using an interstate highway. I have to coordinate with up to four different railroad entities to get to one fair," he said. Of course that scheduling is planned out months in advance, but not everything can be anticipated. To cross regions by rail, the Strates Shows Carnival Train uses freight and some passenger track lines.
The Carnival Train is at the mercy of these railroad companies. If there's a delay with another train system or rail yard, the repercussion is likely a delay for the Strates Shows train.
"Especially in the Northeast, there can be a lot of congestion and that can cause problems," he said.
In general, it takes about nine hours to set up the midway, and really no leeway when it comes to having the midway ready when the fair opens. If there's a delay on the tracks, the train gets to the destined depot for the fairground later than planned,"you just have to work that much harder."
The entire midway cannot go by train to every fair. "We use 45 to 55 flat cars," said Ianni. "It's not like the old days where the personnel traveled by train, they use other transportation to get the fairgrounds. Our midway has about 50 rides. You have to know every ride dimension and load dimension, so the right piece gets on the right car, or if we have to play a smaller event with a smaller midway, how those rides will be transported to the spot. You have to have trailers ready to drive that equipment to where it has to be."
Once the train is at the fair and the dozens of midway components are unloaded, Ianni's secondary position begins: Zyklon Roller Coaster Supervisor.
The Zyklon is a signature piece of the Strates Shows midway and Ianni is in charge of its assembly and operation of the roller coaster. "It's a vintage piece, something we are known for," he said.
When the fair opens, and the Zyklon is rolling and the midway pulses with energy, the most important objective for Ianni is staying alert. "You have to be ready for anything. There's a lot of little problems that need to be solved every day. You have to be flexible, there are times I have to my welder's cap or do something else on the midway. You cannot just have the mindset that something cannot be done, or that it isn't your job."
The main difference for Ianni between his generation of midway professionals and the older colleagues is contrast between attitudes about technology. "Some of the older generation, they don't believe in the new technology, and that can keep them from being able to understand technology, and how it help the midway," said Ianni.
For example, Strates Shows has switched to a ticketless, smart card system. "It is a more efficient system, but some of the older guys were against it, they were just set in their ways and liked the old style. But once they realized it worked better and were taught the new system, they changed their minds."