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Remembering Morris Vivona, Sr. of Amusements of America
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Morris Vivona, Sr., the Chairman of the Board of Amusements of America and the eldest of the company’s five Vivona brothers, passed away Saturday, August 25th at the age of 97. Born October 31, 1920, Vivona was considered to be the oldest working showman in the country and in fact, he passed while with his unit in Greenwich, NY at the Washington County Fair.

Morris’ father Anthony was a custard operator and when the boys were old enough, he gave them each their own stand to operate. His dream was for the whole family to be able to work together in a business. The custard operation did best when around carnivals and the family decided to take the leap into the ride business. On the last day of the New York World’s Fair in 1940, Morris spied an Eli Hy-5 and asked the owner, Morris Pieson if it was for sale. After consultation with his father and brother, they purchased the ride for $2,200 and took their first step into the carnival business.

Over the ensuing years, they added some equipment and played churches and bazaars in NJ. In 1949, they played their first fair, subcontracting as a second unit for Sam Prell’s Broadway Shows. In 1951, after gaining two years of experience with Prell, the brothers struck out on their own, as the Vivona Brothers Amusement Company.

In a short period of time, Morris (General Agent) and John (General Manager) booked several fairs including some big events traditionally played only by train shows, including the Coastal Carolina Fair in 1958, which had been played by Strates Shows for decades, and their home state New Jersey State Fair the following year. With these important bookings, Morris and John brought Amusements of America into the big leagues.

The show operated largely in two major units at that time. John managed Unit 1 and Morris Unit 2 while brother Babe managed a bazaar unit in NJ. The shows combined when going South. Morris and John worked hard and took care of their family, sending brothers Dominic and Phil to Duke University, and both brothers joined the show after graduation. Five strong now, the brothers continued to add rides and grow the company.

Together, the Vivonas built Amusements of America into a powerhouse in the carnival business. In the 1960s, they purchased the Buck-Page Shows adding southern fairs such as Rocky Mount, NC for a second southern route and in 1964, they landed the contract for the Central Canada Exhibition in Ottawa.

Like many successful duos, John and Morris were complements to one another. John was flashy, brash and outspoken, Morris more reserved, steady and cautious, even skeptical at times. When I received a call from the Guinness Book of World Records that Amusements of America would be listed as the largest traveling amusement park in the world, I immediately called Morris with the good news. Instead of excitement, he didn’t believe me and said I was full of it. Only after I faxed him the letter and certificate did I hear that infectious HA! laugh of his and in my mind I could see his smile through the phone.

If John was the heart of Amusements of America, Morris was its soul, reigning in his hard charging younger brother when necessary, keeping a steady hand on the reigns of the company and playing peacemaker for the brothers and their extended families when their mother Catherine passed away.

While Morris was more reserved than his brother John he was not in any way weak or incapable of holding the floor with the best of them. Morris was a fierce advocate for his unit and the fairs on his route. During the infamous brothers’ meetings or on phone calls with his siblings, he would insist on the need for the latest ride to be on his unit for an upcoming fair. ”I need that ride”, he would exclaim, “…or I’m going to blow the spot”. Reserved, gentlemanly Morris, when he went into battle, usually won the day.

At conventions, you would see a side of Morris not often on display throughout the year. I remember going to the New York meeting in the 1990s for the first time. Morris rented a large room for the company’s New York fairs. With everyone gathered around, he gave an amazing, heartfelt speech about the events in the room, remembering personal details about each fair or management team whether they were on his route or not. No one who listened to that speech did not feel his personal appreciation and affection for them, his words reached everyone there, including staff members like myself. After his speech, Morris went to the piano in the room and played several songs as the crowd clapped and sang.

Morris was a devoted family man, balancing his work duties and personal life in an industry where that is not so easy to accomplish. His wife of 70 years, Ethel, held the family together when Morris was on the road. Morris Sr. introduced his son, Morris Jr., to the business, mentoring him as he became general manager of Sr’s carnival unit. While Morris Jr., eventually took over the day to day operations, Morris remained at his side until his death. The transition from father to son was seamless, almost imperceptible, as Sr., without personal pride or resentment, took enormous satisfaction in seeing his son come into the lead role.

In an industry that has many rivalries, big personalities and egos, Morris was able to attain a feat almost impossible to duplicate; he was universally liked, even loved, by his committees, his fellow carnival owners and concessionaires.

Mention the name Morris Vivona to almost anyone in the business and you will see a smile come to their face almost every time. He was a man who reached out to family, friends and business associates just to check in on them, sitting at his desk and dialing numbers from his large Rolodex or from his keen memory. There are stories of personal kindness and quite a few of impish pranks. Morris loved to tease and play practical jokes and he was a master at keeping a straight face while doing so. In Las Vegas for the IAFE convention, we went with Phil and Dominic to an Italian restaurant at Ceasar’s Palace. We all ordered dinner and when Morris’ turn came, he asked for the Fe-tooch-in-I Al-fred-o and proceeded to purposely mispronounce everything else on his order. Our waiter, seeing this older Italian gentleman, sheepishly asked if he meant Fettucini Alfredo? Morris told the waiter in no uncertain terms that his was the correct pronunciation for the dish and that the title had become Americanized over the years. By the end of the night, the waiter was mispronouncing Italian dishes right along with him!

Morris received dozens of recognitions for his service to the fair and carnival industries. He was past president of the National, New York and St. Louis Showmen’s Associations. He was the recipient of the International Independent Showmen’s Association Hall of Fame Award, the South Carolina Friend of the Fairs award and was Man of The Year for the Miami Showmen’s Association. He also served as an Outdoor Amusement Business Association Director.

Throughout his life, Morris was a treasure trove of stories of carnival history, regaling family, friends and guests with wonderful stories from his many years in the industry. More importantly to him however, he was a devoted husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother and uncle, and friend to almost everyone he met.

Rest in Peace, Mr. V
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