As a seasoned carnival professional prepares for another season, Marty Brady of Brady Amusement worries about two things:
First and foremost of course is the weather. The second is having the necessary workforce.
Brady Amusements is a midsize midway provider traveling parts of the Midwest and upper-South, including Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. The route begins with an Easter-oriented event, the Dogwood Festival in Orleans, Indiana and concludes with a pre-Christmas fair – the Fantasy of Trees –a benefit event for the East Tennessee Children's Hospital held in the Knoxville Convention Center.
During the course of the season, he plays an average 20 county fairs and a handful of festivals and other events. This year the carnival has added three new Illinois dates, including a “small festival” and the Jasper County Fair. “The fairs and festivals I work have been doing great,” he said. “They are small but they are growing. They are in smaller more rural communities, but those communities have been doing better. Employment is up and families are coming out to the fairs. When the weather is good, attendance is growing.”
Whether big, mid-size or small, the common denominator is always the weather. Last year he describes as “strange. I got the real weather in June. I was in Indiana for five weeks and lost several days, but I got lucky again in July and August.”
Modern technology has exasperated the impact of rain, even when the forecast is exaggerated or simply false. “Nowadays, one person hears about the weather they tell 40 people on their smart phone, and pretty soon nobody is coming out to the fair.”
Other than the weather, the perennial concern is workers. Brady Amusements is that rare carnival company who has been able to get by without using the H-2B system. He has about 20 staff members, but the need is closer to 40.
His workers are a blend of full timers and people hired for specific events. “I’ve been lucky, we advertise in newspapers and use signage and have been able to get local help,” he said. “It’s weird, the paper still works for local help. I’m using Craig’s List and other things to get the word out.”
Will he get the number of employees he needs for 2019? One can only hope of course, but “we will do the best we can.” He may have an optimistic and tongue in cheek attitude, but he admits “it will be tough.”
When Brady Amusements was formed 13 years ago, weather may still have been a concern but getting carnival employees was not. “I was able to get workers, I am willing to pay them well and I have a nice operation. You would lose one or two guys, but there always seemed to be another generation wanting to work the carnival. But the younger people are not as willing to work as hard and or live the lifestyle of working fairs.”
Manageable patterns of turnover and attrition persisted until about “four years ago, I’m not sure what the change was, but it was just harder to get to people to work then it used to be.”
For the 2017 season, he applied for H-2B employees for the first time but was unsuccessful. “It was a lottery system and we just didn’t get the workers. We’re a smaller carnival company and we couldn’t really compete with the bigger companies.”
Next year, applying for H-2B employees is just an inevitability. “Hopefully we will be able to get into the system. I have to pull that trigger next year, but from what I’ve been reading about the issue, it’s going to be harder to get workers next year than this year. There’s just a lot more competition. But it’s getting too difficult to find workers each season. Labor is the number one issue facing carnival companies.”
The other issue is rising costs, mainly due to an influx of new DOT regulations. “Costs are going up this year, there are new regulations that you have to be on top of.”
In order to make his route work, he limits the distance between gigs. “I keep my jumps short, I don’t like more than 200 miles between fairs. I worry about logistics, so I like to have one fair close to another. All fairs are closed on Mondays, so that gives us a little breather.”
Like many midway providers, Brady Amusements is a family affair. Marty Brady co-owns and operates the company with his wife Elizabeth, both of whom are fourth and fifth generation in the business respectively. Brady claims to have been on a midways since he was two years old. His first midway job was pulling up grass stakes – strings were tied to the stakes to determine ride placement and once the midway equipment was in position, he would pull up the stakes and return them for “a nickel a stake. I was probably six or seven years old.”
Brady worked for Cumberland Valley Shows through the 1990s before joining All American Shows in 2000. He and Elizabeth decided to form their owned company in 2006, joined by Reba Jean Macaroni, who sold tickets and ran the Funhouse, until she passed away last December. John (Elizabeth’s brother) and Sharon Marconi operate the food stands for Brady Amusements.
The company has purchased a new Bunkhouse for this year as well as new canvas and other amenities. Last year, the company introduced its new High Five Wheel II. The company features 25 rides. “We keep the midway clean and professional. We don’t allow cut offs on our personnel, everybody is uniformed. We work with our fairs to present beautification of the midway, it is professional, clean and safe.”
With only a few weeks before his 2019 season begins, Brady is looking forward to his favorite part of the job, “watching the smiles on the kid’s face. I love the Kiddieland the most. That never gets old for me, making the kids happy. Being on the midway is my destiny, but I still love it. There’s something new every day.”