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Tommy LaMotta Changed Midway Games through Innovative Merchandising & Showmanship
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Thomas Vincent LaMotta, a man who overcame physical diversity to become one of the most influential and iconic game concessionaires in the carnival industry, passed away on March 27, at the age of 81, following a brief illness. 

Known as Tommy, LaMotta is recognized as being a pioneer in many areas of midway gaming and merchandising whose career spanned six decades and went from coast to coast.

“Tommy brought many innovations to games concessions,” said Frank Zaitishik of Wade Shows, who worked with LaMotta at the Rod Link Shows, where Zaitishik eventually became manager and LaMotta handled the game concessions, an association that from 1966 to 1980.

LaMotta moved to the west coast, booking with Ray Cammack Shows as well  as independently, with his son-in-law, Michael Winchester, operating Diversified Amusements until his retirement in 2010. 

Among the innovations now standard throughout most carnival midways that LaMotta is recognized for first bringing to the outdoor amusement business was elaborately merchandizing plush, his showmanship,  and I continued play games – where winners of small prizes can “continue” playing until they win a bigger prize and higher stock throw percentages. In addition, 

LaMotta added splash, color and excitement to the game trailers themselves – he would buy the trailer frames, then design and build each game even hand painting the finished attraction. 

Pioneering Innovation

LaMotta pioneered making the game concession segment of the midway as fun, exciting and family-friendly as the rest of the midway.  In actuality, most of his innovations he learned growing up on Coney Island, where his father Carl was a game concessionaire during the heyday of New York's famed boardwalk and amusement park. 

“He worked the carnival games the way they worked build-ups in Coney Island,” said Zaitishik. “Now, most carnivals give out small prizes. When we would talk about games, win or lose, he wanted everybody to have entertainment value. You never left not laughing or feeling you had a great time for the money spent. He was enormously quick witted, he could have been a comedian. 

Through his gift of gab and salesmanship he made sure everybody had a great time for the money they spent, even when they spent more money than they intended to spend.” 

“Way, way ahead of his time,” is how Sid Karmia, owner of The Toy Factory described Tommy LaMotta. “The amusement industry lost one of the greatest concessionaires of all time.”

Innovative Merchandising

Karmia's friendship with LaMotta spanned several decades. “Tommy was a real people person. You always knew where you stood with him,” he said. “He was a very funny guy, a practical joker. He loved to joke around. People were blessed to have known him.”

Aside from the warm wit and engaging personality, Karmia noted that he was at the forefront of midway merchandizing of game prizes, replacing the kewpie doll prizes with contemporary pop culture plush. “He was a sharp buyer,” said Karmia. “He always bought the right prize for the right time. He was always on top of the trends and in tune with what was hot. You can't make a nickel on a bad item.”  

In an era when superheroes, emojis and Pokémon draw fairgoers to games of skill, it may be difficult to imagine a time before merchandise connected with pop culture, but LaMotta is widely credited with giving what the potential customer wanted. 

In the 70s, the breakthrough item was the Pink Panther, both a film and Saturday morning cartoon series. In the 80s and 90s, the then cutting edge plush LaMotta was the first to market included Spuds MacKenzie, California Raisins and the Red Bulldog. “It was something no one else had ever done, merchandise like the way Tommy did. He dominated any midway he was on. All the other concessions copied him too.”

?In addition to being remembered for both his good humor and carnival industry accomplishment, LaMotta was also a man who overcame tremendous physical adversity. LaMotta was stricken with Dystonia, a progressive neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscle spasms and twisting of the limbs. The condition could impede his speech patterns and mobility and he often worked the midway with crutches or with the aid of a walker, but his enthusiasm and engaging personality never stopped beaming. 

Family Business

“He loved the carnival industry,” said Winchester, now president of Diversified Amusements, the game concessions company LaMotta formed in the early 70s. “He truly cared about his business associates. He wanted everyone to make a living.” 

Winchester noted that LaMotta also invented games, such as the Buoy Pitch, and through his merchandising skills and showmanship, he proved that with the right games, the right inventory and merchandising techniques, the game concessions could see huge grosses.

“When he was with RCS, he had games that could make $180,000 at one fair, which at the time, in the 80s, was unheard of.  He was an innovator, he changed the way games do business.” 

“It was always a family business to my father,” said Janine Winchester – LaMotta's daughter, and husband of Michael who also works with Diversified Amusements, noted that he first entered the business with his brother Joseph. Through Diversified, LaMotta's route moved westward, playing such high profile gigs as the LA County Fair, and sometimes even expanding to Canadian Fairs. “I was a young girl at the time, and we were playing Canada and it was good money, but a very hard route. I still remember the whole carnival lined up in North Dakota for 18 hours waiting for customs.” 

He never seemed to stop drawing on his Coney Island roots, with many of his tricks being copied by other game concessionaires on their way to becoming industry standards.  One gimmick was “3-for-5 darts, which was big in New York in the 1950s, but nobody out west had ever heard of it before he brought it out here, and now it's a staple.”

?During stints with Carnival Time Shows and RCS, LaMotta was elevated to Lot Manager, where he implemented policies such as uniformed staff, and branded canvas awnings. “He loved being able to mess with the customers, in a natural way, that built excitement for the games,” she said. “We had a core group of about 30 employees, and they stayed with my father for 25, 30 years, the same group. How often do you see that in this industry?” 

Diversified Amusement was renowned for their flashy trailers, most of which LaMotta designed himself and built from scratch, starting with an only a trailer shell or frame. “He would cut the wood and pinstriped the wood himself, which made it look nice, gave the games character,” he said.

He also became known for his hand-painted decorations – sometimes painting with his arms in a brace due to the dystonia – on the games, especially his pictures of clowns and other evocative nostalgic midway imagery. In his retirement, painting became more of a passion and many of his clown and similar artwork are prized possessions of  family, friends and former business associates.'

Another strong memory for Janine is her father's powers of observation. “He would watch for hours, watch for traffic flow and game business. He would notice things nobody else would, like if a garbage can was out of place. He would direct people to do things that made the games better. He would sit there for hours, always studying. He had a very sharp mind.” 

LaMotta was born on September 10, 1937 in Brooklyn, New York to Carmelo and Josephine (Messina) LaMotta. Tommy was preceded in death by his father, Carmelo, and his mother, Josephine, his sister Mary Ann Mistretta, and brother Joseph LaMotta, and his first wife, Gerry. He is survived by his wife, Betty, his daughter, Ann Marie (Steven) Seitz, his daughter Janine (Michael) Winchester, and daughter Diane King, and his eight grandchildren, Tyler, Jonah, Adam, Mason, Presley, Gavin, Bella, and Hailey.

Left to Right:  Frank Zaitshik (Wade Shows), Tommy LaMotta, Donny Anderson, and Joe LaMotta
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