Fair workers keep the show going

COSTA MESA — For years, Todd Wright toiled as an ironworker for a union in Seattle.

He used pliers, tied wires and reinforced concrete in the city's skyscrapers. He earned just under $30 an hour.

Now he's a carnival worker.

His past life as an ironworker "was back-breaking. I blew out a cylinder," said the 49-year-old Wright, pointing to his left-shoulder injury that now earns him a disability paycheck. "If people think working at the carnival is tough, they should try being an ironworker."

On Thursday, Wright was hanging up teddy bears and all sorts of stuffed animals at the "Balloon Bust" carnival booth.

Talk about the working man's sabbatical. Wright was a far cry from the skyscrapers, arranging the balloons and darts where contestants, hopefully, win something special for their bedroom — or for the family dog to chew up.

It's a booth Wright has been managing since February for Ray Cammack Shows, or RCS Inc., a traveling carnival whose most recent stop was the Del Mar Fairgrounds and whose next stop is the L.A. County Fair in Pomona.

But for the next month, starting Friday, it's all in Costa Mesa at the Orange County Fairgrounds, where Wright will dress daily in his finest, hide the green-and-blue tattoo on his right biceps to the best of his ability and work 12-hour days, which essentially require calling out to customers to give their skills a try.

"It's not that bad," said Wright of his six-day workweek. "My kids are grown and I'm not married anymore, and I get a disability check once a month. This just adds to the income. Things could be a lot worse."

Wright is just one of some 100 carnival workers who work behind the scenes, setting up shop in a matter of days so that thousands upon thousands of fairgoers can enjoy the booths, rides, food and drinks.

Once done, they emerge from behind the scenes and hit the midway.

They're the men and women who call out to you while you're innocently passing by with your cotton candy or unassumingly munching on a corn dog. Somehow, they convince you that you can actually win that unreal huge stuffed polar bear.

"Man, if I could bring that home to her?" you think.

Soon enough, if you win, what little money you have will be gone, replaced with what will eventually become an artifact for the attic or a piece of nostalgia over time. But for the moment, for the here and now, it did not exist had it not been for the people like Wright who hung it from his rafters.

In many ways, regardless their backgrounds or the places they've come from, they're the unsung heroes. They're sort of like roadies who set up the stage, without whom there would be no concert. They live and sleep in 40-foot trailers. Their jobs on the road are difficult. They get paid very little.

And yet the show must go on, although they're not necessarily thinking about it in those terms.

It's more about the paycheck.

At least, that was the case for a pair of guys from South Africa, whose economy, as in Europe, has been in decline with layoffs — or "retrenching," as they call it.

"I was an architectural draftsman back home before I got retrenched," said Louis Sonnekus, 25, who left a wife and child back home in Johannesburg to work for the carnival company.

But life on the road can get lonely, he said, adding that the $300 a week isn't the greatest of salaries.

His buddy, Christian Theron, 30, agreed.

"Life is pretty difficult in Cape Town," said Theron, a diesel mechanic who worked on buses and trucks before losing his job.

"Any job is a good job at this point," Sonnekus said.


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