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Doolan Amusements: Veteran Showman Spends Another Summer Hopscotching Between Carnival Companies
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To hear John Doolan of Doolan Amusements Company tell it, at 82, he’s not surprised that he’s still in the carnival business after 65 years, but that he’s still enjoying it. “It’s my life,” he said. “What I love the most is hanging with the younger generation. Being around young people keeps you young.”    

The young people he is around is not just his son Michael – Doolan Amusements is a family owned company, including John’s wife, Heidi –  or his 35 employees but the families and other fairgoers whose rides bring fun and joy to every fair season.  

Another ongoing appeal for Doolan is the lifestyle of being in different towns and interacting with different fairgoers throughout the season. But more often than not, especially when it comes to the larger, peak-season fairs, the midways are not Doolan’s. The company belongs to that small but essential category of carnival companies – independent operators.

Florida First
Based in Stuart, Florida – the company plays early spring dates in its home state, mainly local fairs, still dates, fundraisers, church groups and other local events. By summer, the route extends as far north as Massachusetts, but also includes the Mid-Atlantic region, such as Virginia and North Carolina before returning back to Florida to close out the season with autumn fairs and festivals in the Sunshine state.

At the smaller scale events that start his route, the midway is a Doolan Amusements project, but once he leaves his home state and plays larger gigs, which range from ViVa Vienna to The Big E/Eastern State Exposition, it’s as a subcontractor, providing key augmentation for midways operated by much larger companies. 

“In Florida, we have an independent route,” he said. “But then we move north and we deal with a lot of good companies. I’ve had pretty much the same route for 15 years, it’s very solid.”

After the Florida leg of the season, the company “hopscotches” as a midway subcontractor, filling in open spots for the midway provider who has contracted with the fair organizers, sometimes splitting into two units and working separate dates on the same weekend. The company specializes in what Doolan referred to as the backend of the midway.

Midway Backend
“We have kiddie rides and backend pieces that the companies need,” said Doolan. “We bookend the rides the companies have, they are looking for us to fill in gaps.” Particular favorites include the Dark Ride, Funhouse and Mouse Trap. Doolan Amusements hopscotches with some of the leading carnival companies during its route, including Amusements of America, Powers Great American Midways, Blue Sky Amusements, Shamrock Amusements, Fiesta Shows and R.C. Cole Shows Amusement Company.

For these companies, one incentive of course is that subcontracting can mean less overhead, but there are other things to consider – professionalism, dependability and the ability of a freelance ride company to seamlessly mesh with the overall midway so fairgoers, fair managers and fair boards only see and/or experience one midway. The longevity of Doolan Amusements as a subcontractor indicates he fills this criterion.

“In my opinion Johnny (John Doolan) is one of the few remaining true showman,” said R.C. Cole, R.C. Cole Shows Amusement Company, who has been using Doolan Amusement so supplement his midway for more than 20 years. “He’s unique in the carnival business and his presentation is unsurpassed. His professionalism is apparent in all his rides.”

Perhaps foremost is that the relationship has been built on trust – “his word is bond,” said Cole – an essential characteristic especially when it comes to the transaction component of the contractual arrangement.

Doolan also becomes a partner in the midway. Cole pointed out, “his signage is optimum for the food trailers he has, especially his hot dog wagon – Banquet in a Bun. In addition, Doolan’s emphasis on cleanliness sometimes “can you put you to shame. All his rims are polished and shiny, and he’ll go out of his way to paint your rims. The detailing on his equipment is top notch. He looks at the overall midway.”

Midway Unity
This perspective has become so important to Cole that at times Doolan actually designs the layouts of the midway. “He’s one of the best layout men in the business. Most weeks, he designs the layout of our midway. He knows ride placement. He is great with the children’s rides. His Mouse Trap ride is a really great piece of equipment. It’s always very popular.”

He added, “what you want as a carnival company is no headaches with your independent operators. You don’t want to have to be constantly monitoring them, which is sometimes the case. When Johnny joins us, I’m maxed out on rides and I can’t afford to invest in all the equipment. He’s not just a pleasure, but his equipment and team makes financial sense for the fairs we work together.”

“We have a good relationship with the carnival companies,” said Doolan. “With our show, when I go to the bigger spots, we help the carnival company to work together.”

Key to the arrangement is that Doolan keeps the midway seamless. “We’re under their banner. Whatever the show’s uniform, that’s the shirt our staff wears.”

Doolan spoke with Carnival Warehouse in early August, the brink of his busiest time of the year.  When asked how the 2019 season has been so far, Doolan responded by saying "The winter/spring Florida shows were very good but the early part of the summer “was mediocre.  The heat has got bad in the New England area. It was 100 degrees with a heat index of 105. The heat was worse than rain.”

Adding to the weather woes was work force shortages due to the 2019 H-2B crisis. Like many other carnival companies, Doolan Amusement’s foreign workers were delayed in arrival. The company uses 15 H-2B workers, but instead of being here in April, “we finally started getting them the beginning of June.  We had a hard time, we had to leave equipment behind, and there were times we weren’t sure if we could keep going.”

 Doolan said he had to leave four to five pieces behind during the worst of the labor shortage this year, a significant impact on a carnival company that travels with about 12 – 15 rides. But those problems are behind him as he gets ready to hopscotch from one carnival company to another. “I’ve been an independent operator since the 1980s. When the big carnivals need me, I’m there. I bring different rides to them, and they like that because we can switch up the midway every year.”
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