Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals
Phil Corl, 30 years year old, is 4th generation in the carnival business on his mother's - Debbie Powers - side and is the adopted son of Corky Powers, owner/founder of Powers Great American Midways. Corl grew up on the midway, working in food - mainly ice cream and French Fry trailers - as well as games and rides - and has been working in a more supervisory capacity since he was 19. "I worked in the joints and came out of the food trailers then," he said. "I became a ride supervisor, in charge of 10 to 15 rides."
His earliest memories are from the midway. "I remember being with Uncle Ronald, I think I was three years old, helping with his Frog Bog joint."
But Corl never considered a different career path. "It can be a 24-hour a day job, but you can't get this kind anywhere else. I love it, I love the lifestyle."
That love was both tested and fulfilled in 2014. At the end of last season, Powers promoted Corl to Unit Manager, essentially making him second-in-command of the operation. "He told me that this was the end of the grooming process. I am being groomed to take over."
For 2015, this last stage of apprenticeship Corl described "as really hands on. I get a lot of pointers. It's more intense."
Corl said that every day during a fair, Powers walks "the midway religiously and I walk with him. I'm still learning to see things that it seems only he notices, but I'm noticing them now too. He is imparting knowledge to me every day, the attention to detail is incredible."
Corl has more responsibility and a greater role in the organization He currently oversees 72 people, 37 rides and 50 various pieces of the Powers midway. "I have stepped into the helm and make sure the rides are running smoothly and safely," he said. "It's been a, big learning curve."
Morale is what Corl sees as the most vital aspect of day-to-day midway management when the fair season is in full swing. Building and sustaining morale is something he sees coming from the top down. No job is too dirty or to small for someone in a leadership position who has earned the respect of other team members. "When a truck is in the mud, you cannot hesitate to help get it unstuck," he said. "You have to be ready to do anything that needs to be done, and I've done everything in that there is to do on a midway so I am not afraid of hard work or getting dirty. When your work alongside them it keeps up morale. We all are working long days out here together."
Learning the carnival business from the ground up not only means spending his Wonder Bread years working the concessions and games. Ten years ago, he began hands on training for portable amusement ride repair, maintenance and refurbishing in the real world classroom of Powers Great American Midways winterquarters. "I learned how to paint and weld," he said. "I was eager to learn and there's a lot to learn. We not only work on them during the off-months, but just this morning I had to help repair some landing gear on a Flying Bob. I won't tell somebody to fix something if I cannot fix it myself.
This attitude is not some idealistic work ethic, it's a necessary part of a Unit Manager's skill-set. "I'm the one responsible for making sure it is done right, so you have that knowledge how to do it right in order to make a proper inspection of maintenance or a repair."'
His new responsibilities include the conceptual as well as the mechanical. Corl is now directly involved in midway layout, which he co-designs with Powers. "Picking the right rides and placing them so you keep the midway flowing really matters to how successful a show will be. We have had the same route for at least 10 years, and there are a lot of shows we play year in and year out, but we always want the midway to be better, we always try to change the midway. We always design it differently, you owe that to the fair and your customers."
The annual Powers' Great American Midway route generally begins in March, running through November, with little downtime as it traverses North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and Connecticut. But whether it's the North Carolina State Fair or the Webster Fireman's Carnival, the layout process is the same. Corl and Powers scope out the next gig at least four days before, doing a final walk around and measuring the tentative locations of rides and other midway attractions with string. "We start laying out before we get there, but you have to go there to see the place and go with a string. We have to remember the dimensions of every ride."
This site-visit takes about seven hours, and includes making a detailed, base-drawing of the layout of the fair, noting the various rides and their locations for this year's layout. Besides the new rides, each year's layout has to accommodate fairground modifications, such as new building or a new space because a building has been torn down. "We go over the drawing with the fair organizers, who will often ask for changes," he said. "In case of an emergency, they will need to be able to drive their vehicles through the fairgrounds."
In his new role at Powers Great American Midway, Corl is newly aware of the company's image and standing within the fair industry.
Off the midway and now in a higher-profile position, Corl has been active at industry events, including working the booth at the International Association of Fairs & Exposition (IAFE) Annual Convention & Trade Show and running Powers Great American Midway Hospitality Suite at the annual convention of the North Carolina Association of Agricultural Fairs. "I find talking with industry members a very exhilarating experience," he said. "There is a new generation working the carnivals and fairs in all the areas of the business."
Corl overcame an admitted shyness to be an effective Powers team player at industry events. He felt a similar apprehension when as Unit Manager he had to hold daily meetings with the entire Powers staff. "We have daily meetings, sometimes twice daily. We go over everything about the fair, make sure all the uniforms are right, that the are all dressed appropriately. We have meetings before work starts and after set up. I used to just have to meet with my crew."
As Unit Manager, Corl is now involved with contemporary issues that carnival companies have to address, such as the "H-2b Heartache" or the "headaches of trucking regulations from state to state." He admits that there is a lot to keep up with, but "you keep rolling, that's the Powers philosophy. You change what you can and when you're faced with something can't change, like the weather, you just keep rolling."