Jeannette Gilmore feels a renewed sense of enthusiasm this season as Smokey's Greater Shows hits the road in its home state of Maine.
Gilmore, the carnival's owner who lives in Strong, Maine, has hired industry veteran Robby Driskill as the show's new general manager. Three years after George "Bud" Gilmore died, Jeannette's husband and the show's co-owner, Driskill has helped bring new blood to the 60-year-old company.
"Robby has been a godsend," she said. "He's brought a breath of fresh air to the show. I haven't been this excited in years. Bud would be real happy to see how things are going. He would have loved Robby."
Driskill is no stranger to the carnival business. He's the son of Bob Driskill, forme
r owner of the old Spectacular Midways of Chicago, and for many years, Robby helped run his family business.
Over the past six months, Robby has helped reshape Smokey's Greater Shows. He supervised a work crew in winter quarters that refurbished about a half-dozen rides leading up to the first spot in early June. Driskill documented the process on his Facebook page, taking before-and-after photos illustrating the repairing and painting of equipment.
In addition, Driskill has led the effort to upgrade the Giant Wheel, Scrambler, a fun house and the interior of the Gravitron with LED lighting. The show purchased an ATM/credit card machine, which it did not previously have, he said. The carnival also implemented a speed pass program and it now sells ride tickets online.
Driskill hired Walter Roberts, formerly with S&S Amusements and Deggeller Attractions, as Smokey's new concessions manager after George Mitford retired after last season. Roberts owns 12 game and food concessions and set up six games and a food trailer at the Auburn Carnival, June 3-11, the show's first date of the 2016 season.
Maine is long way from Chicago, but Driskill found new life in the carnival business after working the past few years for an amusement park in Panama City, Fla. He had moved back to Chicago last fall to be closer to family and planned to help his brother Danny Driskill operate his carnival, D&J Amusements.
But then Robby Driskill got a call from Rick D'Aprile, a former insurance salesman and a mutual friend of Driskill and Gilmore. It was Gilmore who contacted D'Aprile to see if he knew anyone interested in the job after she went through a few general managers that didn't work out to her satisfaction. In turn, D'Aprile called Driskill about the possibility of relocating to Maine and working for Smokey's Greater Shows.
"Robby called me the next day," Gilmore said. "It was in early November and we just got off the road. I don't know what it was, but we just clicked. We talked about the business, and the next thing I know, we attended the Maine fair meetings together and the Florida trade show.
"We've both been in this business all our lives and we both have a lot of energy," she said. "He had some new ideas, being from the Midwest, and so far he's done a fabulous job. It's going well and I see the show only getting better. We're a great team. The rides needed a lot of improvements, and since Bud died, it's been hard for me to move forward."
As the son of a carnival owner, Driskill has been all over the country and welcomed the opportunity to take over the reins of a carnival in one of the U.S.'s most beautiful settings. He brought Amanda, his 19-year-old daughter, to work with him at Smokey's. Together, they'll be crisscrossing the state of Maine playing some of its biggest events, including the Fryeburg Fair, the Yarmouth Clam Festival, the Northern Maine Fair, the Blue Hill Fair and the Ossipee Valley Fair.
"I'm getting to know everybody with the committees," Driskill said. "It's largely a good old boys club. The show has been in existence for 60 years with a lot of handshake deals and we're switching those over to paper contracts. We've had meetings with some fairs and it's just a matter of getting comfortable with each other."
Gilmore and Driskill can't do everything on their own for the carnvial. The show relies heavily on H2B workers to help run the operation. Smokey's hires 50 Mexican nationals over the course of the season. The carnival starts with nine international workers and adds another 35 by mid-May. The balance of H2B workers join the show by July, Gilmore said.
"I couldn't move the show without them," she said. "I know when they come and go. They have background checks and ID cards, and I can get visa extensions if we need them to work longer. Everything is by the book. [Carnival labor agent] Jim Judkins has never let me down. We appreciate all the hard work he's done for us."
Smokey's long-time workers include welder and fabricator Danny Crane and office manager Mary Robinson. She grew up on the show and left for 25 years before returning to Smokey's eight years ago. All told, the carnival employs 60 people.
The company owns about 40 rides and typically sets up a maximum of 30 pieces depending on the spot. In addition to the 18 fairs and festivals on this year's route, Smokey's Greater Shows will book 18 rides at the Skowhegan State Fair, an event where Fiesta Shows holds the contract.
A church date in Brunswick, Maine is new this year after the carnival that held that spot went out of business, Gilmore said. Smokey's also added the La Kermesse ("The Frogs") Franco-Americaine Festival in Biddeford, Maine, which it has played in the past before giving it up for several years.
Separately, the town of Bethel, Maine has created an event (July 21-24) tied to the local ski resort and booked Smokey's to help keep people in town during one of its slower periods, Gilmore said. Bath Heritage Days, held over the Fourth of July, books the carnival on a lot across the street from a naval ship factory.
The Blue Hill Fair, Sept. 1-15, has horse racing and Harrison Old Home Days, July 7-9, is situated in a community that looks like a "Norman Rockwell painting," Gilmore said. The Fryeburg Fair, Oct. 2-9, is the "granddaddy of them all" and is one of Gilmore's favorite events. Besides a full contingent of rides, Smokey's sets up 15 food trailers in Fryeburg.
For the past seven years, the carnival has stuck to playing Maine exclusively. When Bud Gilmore was alive, Smokey's traveled to Vermont, New Hampshire and New York but after fuel costs rose to $4 a gallon, the carnival cut back its route, reducing costly trucking fees and the reams of paperwork tied to DOT regulations.
Smokey's Greater Shows has increased ticket prices to $1.25 per coupon, up 25 cents over 2015. It's another change driven by Driskill. A sheet of 20 tickets is $20 and a sheet of 40 tickets is $35. Wristbands cost $20 for unlimited ride promotion.
Raiders being refurbished at winter quarters
Raiders after refurbishment