Carnivals are family affairs, and not just for customers.
Jesse Bogue was born into a carnival family.
He spent his first summer snoozing in a cardboard box beneath the counter of a game booth.
“Those were obviously different times,” acknowledges the owner of Boguey Concessions and assistant manager for Butler Amusements – both California-based companies whose rides, games and food booths are featured at the Spokane County Interstate Fair, which runs now through next Sunday.
Bogue has worked for the family’s business since his youth, and now he and his wife, Lisa, run the company.
The couple have been together 32 years.
Naturally, they met at a carnival.
During a recent interview, Bogue discussed corn dogs, cashless pay systems and the term “carnie.”
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Bogue: I was born and raised in Aspen, Colorado. My great-great-grandmother was the first female born in Aspen.
S-R: What’s your earliest memory of carnivals?
Bogue: I’ve been in the business my whole life. I started blowing up balloons and setting the milk bottles in games when I was 6.
S-R: Did you get paid?
S-R: Did your parents travel a lot?
Bogue: They split up early on, both remarried, and my dad continued doing this. I’d live with my mom and go to school in Colorado, then in the summertime travel with my dad. After high school, I planned to go to college. But I came out here instead and never looked back. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
S-R: Where did you and Lisa meet?
Bogue: At the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar. I was working with my dad, and she was working for a friend from Florida. I was 18, she was 19, and we’ve been together ever since.
S-R: Do you have children?
Bogue: Three – a son and two daughters. My son just graduated from college and works with me. One daughter is a senior in college, and the other is a high school senior in Palm Desert in Southern California, our home base.
S-R: When do you see your wife?
Bogue: During our winter break and the summertime. Next year, when the youngest is in college, she’ll be on the road with me full time.
S-R: What’s something your dad taught you about the business?
Bogue: Mainly his work ethic. He’s 77 and retired, but he still wants me to give him something to do. In the winter when we repair equipment, he comes out to our shop every day.
S-R: In addition to running your own concessions company, you work for Butler Amusements. Describe that relationship.
Bogue: I own all 25 of the games at this fair. I also help manage one of Butler’s three units that brings rides to fairs and other events – churches, schools, parking lots. We just came from our largest event – the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe. But the Spokane Interstate Fair is one of our top five stops, with about 35 rides.
S-R: How big is your crew?
Bogue: Including rides, games, food, we probably carry 200 employees.
S-R: Do you hire local people when you arrive?
Bogue: Not really. We’re heavily involved with foreign labor with H-2B visas – Mexico, South Africa. Safety is our top priority, and you can’t hire someone off the street, train them for a couple of hours and then throw them onto a ride and say, “Do the best you can.” These guys with visas work eight to nine months, then go home and return the following year.
S-R: Of your 200 crew members, how many are here on visas?
Bogue: I’d say 175.
S-R: What’s the age range?
Bogue: Nineteen to 60.
S-R: How about gender?
Bogue: Probably 70 percent are men.
S-R: How much do they earn?
Bogue: Most are paid a county’s prevailing minimum wage.
S-R: Where do they stay?
Bogue: We provide living quarters – bunks and kitchens.
S-R: How has the industry evolved during the past four decades?
Bogue: The games and prizes are pretty much the same, but the food is better. And the rides are unbelievable.
S-R: Where are they made?
Bogue: Some are made in Europe, others here in the U.S.
S-R: How much does a new one cost?
Bogue: Anywhere from $200,000 for a small kiddie ride to a couple of million dollars.
S-R: What’s the lifespan of a typical ride?
Bogue: Ten, maybe 15 years, because we do heavy refurbishing during the winter – strip them down, repaint them, replace bearings, add LED lighting.
S-R: If you closed your eyes while riding, could you tell the difference between a new one and an older one?
Bogue: I don’t think so. The motions are the same – you’re still turning and going upside down. But the new rides are easier to transport and assemble. Before, it was everyone grab a piece of steel. Now they go up with hydraulics.
S-R: Are they safer?
Bogue: Certainly. We do daily inspections ourselves, and everywhere we go we have state inspectors and electrical inspectors come out. The few accidents we have are usually self-inflicted by customers?
S-R: Such as?
Bogue: Kids horsing around on the big Yo Yo (spinning swings) will kick off a shoe and hit someone on the ground. Or a cellphone flies out of rider’s hand when they try to take a selfie on the Freak Out (high-velocity pendulum ride).
S-R: Did the recession hurt business?
Bogue: Not a whole lot, because people saved up to go to the fair. A family may have shared a large soda or popcorn instead of everyone getting one.
S-R: Does weather impact revenue?
Bogue: Definitely. Sunshine and temperatures between 70 and 90 is perfect. Rain is the worst.
S-R: How has technology changed the carnival experience?
Bogue: In most cases, it’s now cashless. You go to a kiosk, get an FRID (radio frequency identification) wristband and have that scanned instead of buying individual tickets.
S-R: What’s currently the most popular ride?
Bogue: The giant Ferris wheel and the Zillerator (roller coaster).
S-R: Who gets more frightened on rides – kids or adults?
S-R: Which rides are most likely to make people sick?
Bogue: I’d say Area 51 (a gravity ride).
S-R: What’s the protocol?
Bogue: Hose it down and clean it up as fast as we can, because there’s a line of people eager to get on, shouting, “Hurry up!”
S-R: What’s your typical day like?
Bogue: I’m out here from 9 in the morning until 1 in the morning. My crew works from about noon to 11, but they get multiple breaks.
S-R: During the season, how many days can you take off?
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Bogue: Building this every week and watching people come and enjoy it.
S-R: What could you do without?
Bogue: Moving more than 100 loads in a single day, then setting up again in two days. But can’t say I dislike it.
S-R: Do you describe yourself as a “carnie”?
Bogue: That term is considered derogatory. I prefer “showman.”
S-R: Are there misperceptions about your business?
Bogue: Quite a few. One is that people confuse circuses and carnivals – one’s animals, the other’s rides.
S-R: Do people assume carnival games are rigged?
Bogue: All the time. And we give out lots of toys. We’ll start this fair with three 53-foot-long trucks full of toys. As a business, you want to make people happy so they come back next year. But not every carnival has the same values I do, even though we all get lumped together.
S-R: Do you hope your children follow you into this business?
Bogue: I do, but I’ve never pressured them. It’s something you either like or you don’t, and I want them to do something they like.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this career?
Bogue: Someone with a good personality and well-rounded, because nothing is ever the same. When you’re not working fairs you’re tearing them down, rebuilding or driving a truck. And the hours are long.
S-R: What challenges lie ahead?
Bogue: Our biggest challenge is uncertainty in our visa program, because if we don’t get our visa workers, where do we go – the Home Depot (parking lot) and say, “Hey, can you give me a hand?”
S-R: What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Bogue: There’s no bucket list. I think I’m living that.
S-R: How do you relax?
Bogue: Hmmm … I don’t really relax too much.
S-R: What’s the most popular food item you sell?
Bogue: The normal stuff – corn dogs, funnel cakes, elephant ears, cotton candy.
S-R: Do you eat that?
Bogue: No. (laugh) I’ve had more than enough for one lifetime.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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