Once upon a time in America, in a less complicated era, say the 1950s, a youngster queued up to the ticket man, plunked down a dime in a worn cigar box, and took his seat in carnival ride.
After filling as many seats as possible, the operator fastened safety bars and then gave a huge lever a tug, sending the riders into ecstacy.
Back then, things were pretty much limited to the Ferris wheel, dodge-em-cars and The Whip.
Things are far more sophisticated in the 21st century.
“Most of the new rides are all-computer,” said safety director Jeff Alberts, now in his fourth decade as an official of Reithoffer Shows Inc., based in Gibsonton, Fla., near Tampa.
In colorful lettering, a sign attached to its office building on the grounds of the State Fair of West Virginia reads, “The Aristocrat of Show Business.”
Tough to argue with that, considering the firm has been around since 1896, when the simple Ferris wheel was the big draw, and now boasts rides that are driven by technology and bear some hefty price tags.
“Our Stinger and Vertigo are basically touch screen, logic PLCs that run back and forth to the control and tell what they do,” Alberts explained.
“Our Stinger ride in each seat has three safety switches on it. So, if one safety doesn’t have power for one split second, it will shut the ride off. You’ve got 16 seats. So there’s 48 safety sensors that have to work to keep the ride running every single time.”
Back when Julius Reithoffer opened his shows, he introduced a steam-driven carousel to complement the ferris wheel.
Consider a few rides his descendants now offer. For instance, there is “The Stinger,” a sophisticated adventure that propels riders fully 86 feet skyward at its zenith, and flips a row of seats over and over. Passengers are warned to empty their pockets into baskets. Some don’t heed such advice, which explains why often at least 10 cell phones crash to the pavement.
Seven years ago, he noted, Reithoffer acquired a roller coaster aptly named “The Wild Mouse” for the sizzling price of $1.6 million.
Depending on the lighting package, the new “Vertigo” can run between $600,000 and $700,000.
“The Stinger” was fetched two years ago in Italy for $1 million.
“We try to make them as safe as we possibly can,” Alberts said.
Each state imposes inspections, and if the carnival has two bookings in one state, it means dual checkups.
“Basically, with us tearing them down and setting them up, we get to see every internal part every 10 to 12 days when we move to a different state, or a jurisdiction, and get them inspected again, no matter if we’re within the same state, or it’s a different state,” Alberts said.
“Then, we have our own safety program that’s one of the top-notch ones in the country.”
Alberts shied from making a critical contrast with rides left up year-round at amusement parks, save to point out the traveling carnivals hire experienced hands, employing their expertise day in, day out.
“Some parks have very good maintenance programs and annual testing and stuff like that,” he said.
“But for the most part, they hire kids from town that push a button and are summer help looking for a summer job.”
By contrast, he noted, Reithoffer has 40 or so workers with up to a quarter-century experience.
Reithoffer plays anywhere from 18 to 30 fairs a year, Alberts said.
As he talked Wednesday, in the 89th run of the State Fair of West Virginia, the company, the largest family-owned carnival in America, is now being run by a fifth generation of Reithoffers.
“We’ll probably close here Saturday about midnight,” Alberts said.
“If you come here at 10 a.m. Sunday, basically everything will be gone but two or three rides.”
Rides have grown so sophisticated, says Alberts, that the safety division and operators must attend schools to get instructions. Newer rides have hailed from several foreign countries.
With all the cost involved, he said Reithoffer has to play the bigger fairs to turn a profit.
“Our maintenance and safety programs are second to none,” he said.
“If they don’t work, and break down, they don’t make money, they don’t pay the bills. It’s just like a car. You’re going to have your car payment whether it runs or not, so you better take care of it.”
Now run by brothers Rick and Pat Reithoffer, the carnival owns some 125 rides, which are divided nearly evenly so two fairs can be served simultaneously.
“It’s not all fun and games all the time,” Alberts said.
“If it rains on Sunday, and there’s a monsoon, and a hurricane, we’re still tearing down. We have to make that contract up the next fair. We go from here all the way up to Burlington, Vt., 750 miles. We open there Saturday. It’s an experience. It definitely gets in your blood. You either make it, or it breaks you.”
What is a carnival without all the games, and side shows?
Keeping that tradition alive, John Wadsworth, had on display a mini-dwarf horse, fully grown at 26 inches tall, and 10 years old, going by the show name of “Tiny Tim.”
Besides the miniature steed, one could also buy tickets to see a 121/2-foot alligator, or “Robbie the South American River Rat,” billed as the largest in the rodent family, and giant pigs tipping the scales at 1,100 pounds.
And, of course, no carnival can be complete without offering patrons the chance to earn teddy bears, dishware, jewelry and the like — even an electric guitar — by simply bowling over square blocks and milk cartons, or putting a basketball through the hoops. All for a charge, naturally.
For 21/2-year-old Aeryn McGraw, daughter of Scott and Nancy McGraw of Crab Orchard, it was hardly a gamble at “The Duck Pond.” All she and other youngsters needed do was simply pull a plastic duck from a small pool of water, with the number on its underside corresponding to a prize.
“There are all kinds of good prizes — teddy bears, the Green Lantern, Superman, the Super Heroes,” promised Catherine Rivoire, fresh out of the Merchant Marines, and back with Reithoffer Shows.
“You have to deal with a lot, but it’s a good game. Nobody loses. They can win something every time.”
Alberts is no stranger to the State Fair of West Virginia.
“I’ve been coming here since we first came here,” he said.
“I personally love the West Virginia State Fair. It’s great to work with people like Marlene (Pierson-Jolliffe) and Randi (Nikolas) who run the office. We got here two weeks early. It’s very well-attended. People of West Virginia really enjoy their fair. You can tell that by all the camping across the street. The last few days there has been a lot of rain, but attendance has still been right there. They find buildings when it rains and when it’s all said and done, they come back out and enjoy the fair.”
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