On April 19, 2018, the amusement industry lost a good friend of 40 years, Joe Zumsteg.
Zumsteg passed away at his home in suburban Western Springs, Illinois, after a long battle with brain cancer. He is survived by many friends who loved him.
Joe Zumsteg was a warm, sweet soul with a great sense of humor and – even though he was said to be skinny – a penchant for Italian food and cheeseburgers. Matt Cook, carnivalwarehouse.com Publisher remembers Joe visiting midways and working various trade shows and always suggesting a cheeseburger after closing.
"I first met Joe Z. over the summer of 2002 when Ryan Vawter and I were visiting several fairs in Northwest Indiana", remembers Cook. "I was busy taking photos of the midway when Joe stopped me and said, 'are you Matt from Matt’s Carnival Warehouse'? I was shocked not only that someone recognized me, but also that he was a visitor of the web site, which, at the time was mainly a message board and some photo galleries. We visited several other fairs that day and saw Joe at every one of them. He generously introduced us to the showmen that he knew and helped me to get to know some different operators in the industry. Throughout the years, we kept in touch and visited at the various industry trade shows and functions and discussed what was new and happening in the carnival industry", Cook added.
When it came to his work philosophy, his boss and friend, Michael Abrams of Classic Toy Company says he was an outstanding, iconic salesman who was passionate about what he did and cared about his customers.
“Everybody knew him and loved him” says Abrams. “His customers were his friends. We were truly proud to have him represent us, and I am certain Rhode Island Novelty Company felt the same way.”
Michael says that Zumsteg didn't initially appear to him as having the look of a sales person when he first hired him 15 years ago.
“When I first met him and he applied for the job, I was surprised as he didn't strike me as a sales guy,” Michael shares. “I thought it was funny. Everyone assured me it would work out, and we were not disappointed. Joe had a special relationship with his customers. All his customers were his friends and for 12 months out of the year, his phone never stopped ringing.”
Zumsteg was known among his friends and colleagues to be positive, always upbeat and extremely knowledgeable about the business. “It was just in his blood,” Abrams adds. “It was his life.”
Born on July 24, 1950, Zumsteg grew up in St. Louis and later moved to Chicago. His father worked for Acme Premium Supply Toy Company and he also began working at the company in high school, in the areas of buying and product development. After his interest in the business sparked, he eventually moved on to Brechner Co. and later, U.S. Toy Company as a sales rep. He eventually found permanent homes at Classic Toy and Rhode Island Novelty.
“He got his love for the business working at Acme, and loved the customers and getting a feel for the merchandise – he loved to keep on top of his business,” says Sharon Baskin, one of Zumsteg's oldest friends. She'd met Zumsteg when the two were in their 20s and he was working at Acme. She says he was like a brother to her. They had crossed paths on the road and over the years had formed a close friendship, despite the fact that her father owned Baskin Sales, a competitor of Acme.
“His famous line was 'Hey Buddy'” shares Mark Salerno of Chicago's Windy City Amusements. “As we grew together, we'd hang out at the carnival and talk. He was just a nice, honest and genuine guy. He'd help me frame up the carnival games, spend three days helping me ordering toys and planning. He enjoyed people. He was a really fun guy and was into the carnival business – a true showman.”
“Joe has been a constant in our business for as long as I can remember,” says Debbie Elliott of Elliott's Amusements, LLC. “I enjoyed our weekly chat and always looked forward to it. He never talked out of school but liked to share what games were doing well and which pieces of stock were hot. If I saw a piece of merchandise I liked that was not a midway piece, I would call Joe Z and he would investigate.
Joe not only knew the stock business, but he understood the game business as well,” she continues. “When he offered me certain pieces, he could recommend the piece for the right games in the right size. He understood that you needed color in between the naturals, and always remembered I wouldn’t buy white stock. We always spent as much time gabbing as we did ordering stock. Joe Z will be missed, as a stockman, a professional and above all, my friend.”
"When my wife and I opened our novelty business, Joe was always very enthusiastic about helping us find the right glow items to buy", said Cook of his novelty business. "Over the last few years, Joe was there for us when we were in a bind and needed help working events, and I think he truly enjoyed doing it. He was able to work with some of the items that he sold for Rhode Island and he could see what sold well and what didn’t. When a new item would come out, Joe would very enthusiastically show it to us if he thought it was something that would work well for us" added Cook.
“Joe was an employee but also a friend,” observed Bob Nowak, owner of Rhode Island Novelty. “He represented my company as if it was his own and took interest in my family as well. He was charismatic and had a heart of gold, which was always exemplified in his work and attitude.”
Aside from his outstanding work ethic and knowledge, there were also other sides to Zumsteg that those in his closest circle were privileged to see.
Baskin says Zumsteg loved race cars and used to go to races such as Daytona and the Indy 500. His favorite races to attend each year with his racing pals were in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin.
He would also make a habit of going to car shows and was a big fan of muscle cars.
“His most prized possession was a 1960s Porsche convertible that he restored,” she shares. “We'd go flying through the roads in the country. That was when he felt most alive.”
Zumsteg also loved 'Hillbilly rock n' roll music,' dancing, barbecue, cheeseburgers and Arnold Palmers. He enjoyed photography and was a nature lover. Many people probably didn't know that he'd captured thousands of beautiful photos over the years and was never seen without a camera. He also belonged to a flying club that built and flew remote control model airplanes.
“It was one of the things he enjoyed most in life,” Baskin says. He wanted to donate his collection of planes to the club for member use upon his death.
Joe Zumsteg fought a courageous fight with dignity and grace during the last year and a half of his life. Baskin and his companion, Trudy Heinlein, helped him as much as possible during the trying time, but Baskin says it was Heinlein who was like Joe's guardian angel, never leaving his side.
To those that knew him, Zumsteg was honest and unpretentious, a man that lived life to the fullest. He was also a man that didn't like attention. Because of this, it was his wish not to have a funeral service. Instead, he asked to be cremated and laid to rest next to his father back in St. Louis. Though his friends have honored his wishes, it hasn't been easy.
“It's been difficult for us because we have no vehicle for which to show our grief or love to him,” says Abrams.
Although Zumsteg was tired and struggled in his final months, he had a great attitude and his customers were concerned and cared about him until the end.
Nowak says that Zumsteg would always go above and beyond for any customers' needs.
“He was loved by all his customers as if he were family,” Nowak shares. “The clock didn't shut off at 5 p.m. for Joe. He was on all night if anyone ever needed him.”
“His goal was to not let the customers down,” Baskin adds. “Even at the end, he was worried about the customers. That is what kept him going. “He was very upbeat, he had such a good heart, and he helped everybody,” she continues. “I miss our daily conversations. It's just too quiet. He's going to be missed by a lot of people. I hope Joe finds everlasting peace in Heaven with all our show brothers and sisters who went before him to the Midway in the Sky. He will be in great company.”
There has been temendous support to honor Joe Z. by naming a Showmen's League of America Memorial Scholarship after him. The SLA Memorial Scholarship is $4,000 minimum fund (or $1,000 year committment for 4 years). If you would like to donate to help reach the $4,000 goal, please do so on the Showmen's League web site.
Joe Z. on the Porter County Fair (Indiana) midway in 2002.
Joe Z. and Sharon Baskin writing an order at the IISF Trade Show in Gibtown