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D&J Amusements Resurges into Chicago Carnival Market

7/13/2016

By Don Muret

Photo courtesy of Matt Cook

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The legacy of Spectacular Midways lives on through D&J Amusements, a Greater Chicago carnival co-owned by Dan Driskill and Joe Frankowski.  

Both men worked for the old Spectacular show owned by Bob Driskill, father of Dan and Robby Driskill, now employed with Smokey's Greater Shows in Maine. 

In Chicago, D&J is in the midst of its sixth season after picking up the pieces in 2010 following some financial issues during the recession tied to the Driskill family's operation of a family entertainment center in Aurora. The Driskills were using money connected to their carnival business to keep the doors open at the FEC, and ultimately had to file for bankruptcy protection. The untimely situation resulted in the Driskills losing both businesses, according to Dan Driskill.<Photo By Matt Cook/div>

"It was right before the economy took a [dump]," Driskill said. "We took $250,000 from the carnival and invested it in the FEC in one year to keep the doors open. Due to the cross-collateral [arrangement], we couldn't keep the carnival  in business. The bank we used in Chicago got in financial trouble and couldn't re-write the loan. Once we were in trouble, we filed for bankruptcy. Dad retired but we still had [festival] contracts."

Six years later, though, D&J Amusements is doing well, thanks to agreements with Firestone Financial and used ride broker Tommy Coffing that helped Dan Driskill get back on his feet as a carnival operator. He took on Joe Frankowski, a long-time Spectacular Midways employee and Driskill's best friend dating to high school, as a business partner. Together, they launched D&J Amusements.

In addition, Robert Salerno, owner of All-Around Amusements, another Chicago carnival, extended a helping hand. "Rather than take dates and work against us ... he helped us get back on our feet and we now have a good working relationship, sharing equipment and events," Driskill said.

Case in point: Over the Fourth of July holiday week, All-Around Amusements provided rides for an event in Oak Forest, Ill., a date held by D&J Amusements. D&J, meanwhile, had its show set up at the annual Naperville Ribfest, one of Chicago's biggest summer celebrations.

The Driskill family has played the Ribfest for 25 years now between D&J and Spectacular Midways. It's one of about 20 dates Dan Driskill kept after the old carnival folded.

"It was nice to be able to hang on to our old dates as part of the transition to the new company," Driskill said. "The committees stuck with us. Otherwise, we wouldn't be here. We've played the Gaelic Park festival for 23 years and the St. Gerald's Catholic church festival for more than 20 years."

D&J Amusements' route extends beyond Chicago to North Carolina, Florida and Oklahoma through booking rides with Michael's Amusements, Amusements of America and Wade Shows, respectively. For several years in the 1990s, Spectacular Midways booked equipment with Wade at the State Fair of Oklahoma, and the Driskills' relationship remains intact with Frank Zaitshik, owner of Wade Shows.

In the early spring, D&J kicks off its season in North Carolina booking with Michael's Amusements, playing some smaller towns in the eastern part of the state. The Vivonas, owner of Amusements of America, use some of D&J's rides for its Florida church celebrations. Frankowksi typically travels out of state to oversee its operations with Driskill helping at times on lot layouts.

Over the past two years, D&J has invested close to $200,000 to rebuild rides and attractions, including the Club Scene fun house, a Kilinski slide, Crazy Sub and the Rainbow Rock, as well as LED retrofits on all pieces. 

"We're trying to make what we have better," Driskill said. "Before we buy new, we want to make sure what we have is in good shape."

D&J's labor situation is in good shape. It's better this year than in past seasons, Driskill said. The carnival does not use international workers. Most of its employees are "American made," he said. "We've been very fortunate."

Key personnel include ride superintendent and electrician Vince Yacovella, who's going on his 35th year working with the Driskill family among the two carnivals. "Every time the [crap] hits the fan, we call Vinny," Driskill said. "He's a personal friend who attended my wedding."

Lori Driskill, Dan's wife, runs the show office and the popper. They married in 1997 after first meeting each other at Sandberg High School in Orland Park, Ill. Paulette Frankowski, Joe's wife, comes from the Larkee family, owner of Tip Top Shows in Wisconsin.

Dan Driskill sees the economy getting better in Chicago, although he said fuel prices are higher in Chicago than in other markets. Ride grosses are improving and the weather has cooperated in 2016, he said.  At the same time, D&J Amusements has held the line on ticket prices. 

"We've kept ticket prices the same since we've taken over company the past six years," Driskill said. "You can't keep gouging the customer. Sometimes,less is more. You offer them a better deal and they will spend more money in other places."


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