Amusing Ways of Life

Three Central Texas traditions continue to make fun a destination

Amusing Ways of Life
Photo By Anne Harris

Thomas Carnivals

It's a flawless spring twilight at the Founders Day carnival in Dripping Springs, but tonight the stars will compete with 25,000 light bulbs and the expectant faces of local teenagers who, squealing and shuffling together in tight groups, are determined to chew every bit of sugar out of this Saturday night. Pausing to consider how they keep the ice cream out of each others' hair, and determined to exhume our inner-Peter Pan, or at least Tinker Bell, we brave the sticky toddlers, gobble corn dogs and cotton candy, and ride the most nauseating, grinding metal they've got (the dreaded Kamikaze).

Tom Atkins, who along with his brother-in-law John Hanschen owns Austin-based Thomas Carnivals, has seen many Saturday nights just like this. From the beginning of February until mid-November, an extended family of crew, Atkins, Hanschen, and various Thomas offspring, will light up towns like this one with 40 carnivals in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, and Idaho. Sound like a small family business? Not when you look at the numbers.

"When everything is all together in one place we're about 250-275 people working," says Atkins. "We've got about a hundred semis up and down the road every week, so that's a lot of drivers, a lot of transportation costs." Along the way, they will distribute 10,000 pounds of cotton candy.

Married to sisters Margaret and Carolyn, Atkins and Hanschen carry on the business founded in Lennox, S.D., in 1928 by their wives' grandfather, Art B. Thomas. A maverick who began with two attractions operating in the southeastern area of South Dakota, Thomas at one point had three different carnival units on the road, each playing 60 dates a season. Operating those 180 carnivals over a four-state area, they usually moved every day. As they took to the road, Depression-era culture defined much of the early years. People craved spectacle in rural areas but couldn't afford it, so Thomas brought in free stage shows featuring acrobats and singers. "It was good, because they would bring entertainment to small towns that no one could afford to leave. They were the only form of entertainment that town had seen for a while, so it was a good turnout," says Adkins.

Were there freak shows, too? "Oh yeah, sure. That was an accepted form of entertainment at that time, and actually they were out there able to make a living on their own." As the business grew larger and the Thomas' route expanded southward, the harsh climate and rising energy costs in South Dakota motivated the family to make the move to Austin in 1978.

Of course, many things have changed in the carnival business since Art Thomas' time. Not surprisingly, one of those changes is rising overhead. The costs of insurance and compliance with government regulations has skyrocketed despite reports from the Consumer Products Safety Commission that more injuries result from basketball pickup games, exercise equipment, and billiard games than from carnivals. In fact, according to the Commission, over 80% of all carnival-related injuries are caused by "horseplay" and failure to follow safety instructions. The rides must also be certified. Some states require off-season inspection programs using non-destructive methods like ultrasound testing, magnaflux particle testing, and x-ray technology. Transportation and permit costs have also risen.

Amusing Ways of Life
Photo By Gerald E. McLeod

Almost all carnivals today are sponsored by (and benefit) nonprofit organizations, according to the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. Carnivals help fund scholarships, purchase badly needed fire and rescue equipment, and otherwise bring money and awareness to the needs of the communities they visit.

"It's still a good way to make a living," Adkins says of carnival life. "The people make it fun. We've been doing some places for 50-something years, so it's fun to go back."

Entertaining up to 125,000 people at a time, the Thomas operation generates 1500 kW of its own power to operate favorites like Pharaoh's Fury, the Century Wheel, and the Gravitron. Their full array of more than 34 rides and 16 games will be required at some mighty large outdoor events this year, including the Oklahoma and Arkansas state fairs, the Eastern Idaho State Fair, and the big kahuna, the Minnesota State Fair. The Minnesota fair alone will entertain 2,000,000 people, so Thomas Carnivals will be one of several participants, and currently holds the electrical contract for that event.

While life on the road can be demanding, it still has allure for the family. "We like Texas in the winter and Montana and the Northwest in the summer," says Adkins.

There is a sense that anything can happen on the midway; the excitement is real. The carnival is one of the few corners of American leisure to escape corporate pillage. While the rest of the world may succumb to manufactured excitement, so many of Thomas Carnival's contemporaries like Strates Shows and Degeller Attractions in Florida, and the Bates Brothers and Gambill Amusements in Ohio, still operate as small businesses run by multi-generational families who live, work, and travel this authentic, American life on the road. -- A.H.

The Orange Show

Houston postman Jeff McKissack dreamed of an amusement park where visitors would come to have fun and learn about health, nutrition, and hard work. He named it the Orange Show, after his favorite fruit. While on rounds delivering mail in downtown Houston, McKissack often scoured trash bins and construction sites for odd treasures -- some of it identifiable, some of it of questionable origin. By 1956, the pile had grown into a junkyard collection. McKissack received a building permit to construct a beauty parlor in the lot next to his house. Sometime later he added to the bottom of the permit: "Beauty parlors going out of style -- have better idea -- The Orange Show."

Over the next 25 years McKissack built a maze-like monument to the fruit. From the street, the Orange Show looks like a backyard patio project on steroids. Metal umbrellas sprout like large flowers and wrought iron railings seem to go everywhere around the top of the building surrounded by a short, white cement fence accented with colorful pieces of tile.

The inside of the Orange Show is even more strange than the outside. One of the strangest contraptions is a machine made of pipes, canisters, and assorted metal objects meant to explain how oranges work in the body. But it all seems perfectly normal next to corridors lined with colorful rocks or stairs with iron wagon wheels for handrails.

Amusing Ways of Life
Photo By John Anderson

The park officially opened in May 1979. McKissack expected hundreds of thousands of visitors. The reality was that only a few neighborhood kids came to witness his masterpiece. McKissack's death the following January almost ended the dream.

More than 20 years after its opening, an art foundation keeps the fruits of McKissack's imagination alive. Marilyn Oshman of the sporting goods family admired Jeff's work. With an appreciation for self-taught artists, she adopted the Orange Show as a personal project. The Orange Show Foundation has since grown to offer art classes and a low-rider bicycle workshop for kids.

The Art Car Parade is the foundation's greatest effort to encourage and preserve folk art. Held during the last week of April/first week of May, the annual festival attracts more than 300 artists to the streets of downtown Houston. -- G.M.

Peter Pan Mini-Golf

Wedged firmly in between a KFC and the Devil's own fast food joint McDonald's, and who knows how many more faceless chains staring in from all directions, the giant "stone" Peter Pan looks out over his fence, daring anyone from Corporate Dullsville, USA, to try to encroach on his empire of Old American weirdness.

Since 1948, when WWII was still a fresh memory and television a novelty, Pan has steadfastly held his ground, bolstered by his bizarre troops: Giant Rabbit, Pudgy Sheriff, T-Rex the Dinosaur, Humpty Dumpty, and a dozen others. Together they protect visitors who come and pay their tithe to frolic and play among the massive effigies. There are happy families with young children, college kids out on a goof, rock & rollers, Satan's Cheerleaders, you name it, and they're here.

Pan employs the occasional human to ease communication between his visitors and his mammoth iconic pals. After all, says the work-human, sometimes Pan's guests get a bit rowdy -- especially after sundown. "We have more problems with the drunken dot-commers than any of the usual suspects," whispers the work-human, quickly adding that really, the antics never really get all that out of hand. The gouged-out eyes of Hector Heathcote and Perky Puppydog attest that some people just shouldn't be handed a golf club.

Still, my lovely companion is impressed that there are limits: "Looking here at where the Pinky Flamingo's anus would be," she observes seriously, "there's hardly been any desecration at all!" Hey, at least nobody's swinging those things at each other, and anyway, while you're standing there with a blunt object, waiting for the 14 members of the family ahead to get all their balls through the space at the bottom of the Totem Pole, what else is there to do besides stab a giant cartoon character in the face? The work-human attests that the mayhem invariably takes place after all the kiddie parties have long given way to back-of-the-car naptime.

As far as the name of this independent island nation, the employee insists that in addition to big Pan himself, there are a few other seeming references to the Neverland story among the décor along the course, though they are not particularly obvious. However, he adds, the name Peter Pan is a pretty darn appropriate one for the place. After all, at any given time, looking around at the humans meandering the grounds -- be they customers, employees, or homeless loiterers from beneath the nearby bridge -- you'll find that they all have one thing in common: "Everybody here," the work-human points out, "is someone who never really grew up."

Let's hope they never do. -- K.L.

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Peter Pan Mini-Golf, The Orange Show, Thomas Carnivals, midway, amusement parks, carnival, mini-golf, miniature golf, putt-putt golf, rides, McKissack

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