Job is worth it for carnival staff

March 09, 2001|By DORA DEPAOLI, Staff Writer

"Rain, rain, go away,

Come again some other day,

Little Johnny wants to play."

Rain is the enemy of carnivals.

Kurt Vomberg, general manager of Butler Amusements, now at the California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta in Imperial, said the carnival generally loses only about four days a year due to foul weather.

In Imperial, recent rains have left the partial asphalt and dirt lot with some mud and water puddles but the area is quickly drying, Vomberg said. The messy spots didn't daunt fair-goers Thursday night as thrill-seekers threaded through a packed carnival area, tiptoeing through the mud and finding firm spots amid the remaining puddles.


Vomberg, 55, is a hands-on type manager. A college graduate, Vomberg earned a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in plant management from the University of Oklahoma.

"We work seven days a week for eight and a half months," Vomberg said, "and we work 12 to 16 hours a day."

During the three and half months he has off from the carnival circuit, he spends time at his ranch outside of Tulsa, Okla., or his home in Mississippi.

Money, the opportunity to travel and the three-and-a-half-month vacation are key to his work enjoyment.

"Number one," Vomberg said, "it's the money."

Butler Amusements employs 150 people for the fair. At carnivals in Bakersfield and Fresno, the company has up to 250 workers and usually hires 20 to 30 people locally for temporary labor. Occasionally students touring the United States from Europe hire on for a month or two.

Set-up time for the rides and booths can take up to two and a half days. Tear-down takes less than 24 hours.

"Wherever you go, if you are open-minded, you appreciate the culture you are in. You definitely have Spanish, Mexican and agriculture people here who are very nice," Vomberg said. "When you get around the Bay area, the friendliness isn't there."

Dick Miller, 66, is an electrician with the carnival. He was a fair director in Northern California for a time, and when he retired from his farm supply business he went to work for the carnival.

"This is not a career," Miller said. "It gives me something to do. It is challenging and I do it about four months a year. I like Indio and Imperial Valley. The weather is pretty good and the people are nice. I like that the local people get involved with this fair."

Lori Nunemaker, 31, of Phoenix has been in the business for 18 years.

"I ran away and joined the carnival," Nunemaker said. "I did go back and finish high school and took a couple of years of college."

Nunemaker runs a water race game and thoroughly enjoys the lifestyle.

"It is the travel, the camaraderie," Nunemaker said. "You get to know a certain group of people and you share the same experiences. If it rains we all starve together. I kind of have a transplanted family with the carnival. Everyone has good uncles and bad uncles. Sometimes the traveling takes me to where my family is.

She will see many of her family members when the carnival arrives in Portland, Ore., for its annual Rose Festival this summer.

"It still does me good to see a kid have his first ride on a carousel. It is still a thrill," Nunemaker said. "We work very hard. We do more work before noon than most people do all day."

Felicia Giambra, 38, of Victorville, a friend of Nunemaker's, owns games with her husband and father-in-law. Giambra is a third-generation carnival worker.

"I grew up with the independents," Giambra said. "My parents had the old-time photos when I was a kid. I met my husband because my parents fixed me up. Then I married into the carnival side of it. My husband works from February through October. The kids are with us four months and the rest of the time I commute. I think a couple here homeschool their kids."

Giambra and her husband travel in a 40-foot fifth-wheel trailer complete with a washer and dryer. They maintain a regular family life.

Giambra usually cooks dinner, but if she is too busy they eat at the cook house. The cook fixes a special meal for the carnival workers every evening, and Giambra said the food is very good.

Andy Blakney, 44, who has food stands, started working at the state fair when he was 12 years old.

"This is all I have ever done, it is all I have ever wanted to do," he said.

"I don't know if I could do a regular 8 to 5 job and stay in the same place for a long time. Some men have been with me 15 years. We get pretty close and we become like family."

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