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Frank Zaitshik: My Heart is Heavy...
Reflecting on the passing of Jerry "Freebird" Carson and Gary Denton


By Frank Zaitshik

Photo courtesy of

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On Thursday, within a couple of hours we lost two real carnival people.  They were both the kind of people you think of when you consider the best in our business.  

They don't have to be high profile owners or get any spotlight or glory.  They can just be guys or girls who work hard, stick to their word, are loyal  beyond measure, and will be there by your side when you most need them.  We all may differ in how we would describe real "carnival people" but I know each and everyone one of you knows the kind of person I am talking about. Take the time to hug them today, life has a funny way of taking them away from us when we least expect it.

Jerry "Freebird, or later, Bird" Carson, started working for Wade ShowsPhoto By when he was just a kid.  He helped with setup and tear down on various rides.  He was part of some of the top ride crews I had and the equipment was well cared for, moved with ease and always made opening. As his skill and knowledge grew, he eventually became the ride superintendent on one of our largest units.

Like all of us, Jerry had his struggles over his lifetime, he once left the show with a manager who promised him many things, but he came back to the show in short order, saying he was glad to return, and never looked back.

I could always count on Jerry to take care of our equipment as if it was his own.  He was a company man through and through and his loyalty to his Wade Shows family was genuine and unswerving.

A few years back, Jerry was unusually late coming out of his trailer.  After a while, Richard Armstrong went to check on him and found him unconscious. 

Richard called 911 and after spending time in the hospital in a coma he finally got strong enough to be moved to his mother's home in Nebraska. After months of recovery, Bird was well enough that he wanted to rejoin the show. He struggled on the road. Even though his heart and mind were as strong as ever, his body just couldn't do what it once did. In January, after the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach, he came to me and said he was just not able to cut it on the road anymore.  

I told Jerry I would make a position for him as a watchman in winterquarters, but Jerry had other plans. He told me the last thing he wanted was a free lunch. He had ideas for how he could contribute to the success of the show, while not actually working for the show. 

Over his remaining years he acted as a consultant, mentor, advisor and even helped as a purchasing agent, finding the best source for buying parts. He didn't have to do those things and, as I told him many times "Bird you have a lifetime no cut contract".

He didn't  have to do anything, but in the spirit that only those special carnival people have, he always forged ahead in order to make Wade Shows and our extended family a better place each day. 

Just recently, Jerry's health took a turn for the worse and he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In just a few short weeks,it had spread throughout his entire body. 

Just a couple of days ago, when I was in Las Vegas, he called and told me he was checking himself out of the hospital.  I impressed upon him the importance of staying there until I returned from Las Vegas. 

He was released to Hospice care and we went to see his Oncologist.  Unfortunately, the news was not good.  I was hoping for some sort of "silver bullet" and I even asked the doctor what he would do if it was his own family member, but he said there was nothing we could do at this point except make him comfortable. 

I was able to visit Jerry at his home Wednesday and between all of his Wade Shows family we were able to stay with him around the clock. Jerry passed away overnight and I spent the day Thursday making the necessary calls and arrangements for him.  I even heard from his mother who called to say that Wade Shows was a true family to him and thanked me for all we had done for her son.  I assured her we felt the same way about him and I truly viewed him as a member of our family.

His legacy will always live on in all of us at Wade Shows who were fortunate to live, work and play with the "Birdman."

Gary Denton
Just a few hours later, I heard of the passing of Gary Denton, another man who exemplified to me the qualities I hold dear in our special business.  Gary was a man's man, and when we were both coming up in the business, we kind of kept a wide berth around each other.  We had a mutual friend in Donnie Anderson but I never got to know Gary well at this point.  

About 25 years later, I received a call out of the blue from Gary, asking me if I would be interested in coming to Texas and playing a festival, and possibly Fiesta San Antonio, as his partner.  I was intrigued by the offer and traveled to Texas to see what he had in mind.  Gary and I decided to partner together and we played the Poteet Strawberry Festival and landed the contract for Fiesta San Antonio. 
Unfortunately, the initial deal we made with Fiesta was not a good one, and we had some unexpected expenses and obligations that made it impossible for us to make any money at the event.  Because our financial forecasts for what Fiesta would generate were far less than expected, Gary and I changed our roles but kept the spirit of our deal in place. We were both happy with the new arrangement.

When it came time for renewal, we could not bid the same amount as in the past and it looked like another carnival operator was going to get the contract.  Gary was approached by the other bidder and offered the same deal as he currently had with me to switch sides.   I told Gary he was free to do so, as I didn't think it was very likely I was going to be able to hold the spot. Almost without hesitation, he said, "Frank, you and I came to this spot together and I'm going to stick with you".  We wound up not renewing that year, but Gary, with this incredible show of loyalty, had a friend for life in me.  We continued to play Poteet and after a few years away, we resigned Fiesta which I still proudly play to this day.

It was also Gary who constantly encouraged me to look into The San Antonio Livestock Show  and Exposition. It was definitely his persistence that put me in touch with that great event. Fourteen years later, we are still the carnival at the Rodeo, and I'm proud to say we have recently signed a new long term agreement to continue that relationship. 

Gary was a guy who had a seemingly rough exterior, but was personally very kind, exceedingly generous, and extremely loyal.  

These two men were, to me, perfect examples of the people who make this industry great.  I'm not talking about a fictional superhero or a saint to be placed upon a pedestal, but everyday people who are willing to make that overnight move in the rain, with no extra help, after a long day at the fair.  They are the kind of people who when you don't know where you are going next week or worse yet, don't know where the money is going to come from to make the move, step up and somehow make it happen.  They keep their word even though it would be easier and financially beneficial not to. They have the integrity to remember past conduct when it would be easier to have a little amnesia.  They take great pride in who they are and what they do, and they are compassionate and understanding to those that try, give their all, but don't have the same skills or abilities.  They lend a hand up instead of a smack down.

Most importantly, they are proud of our industry and represent it and whatever company, ride or concession they work for, the do so to the best of their ability.

We all know people like Jerry and Gary.   They are the people who make our business so special for all of us.  

Let's all work to try and make them proud of us and this industry that has given so many of us a place to "find our great".

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