Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Barker On A Walking Charlie

As I mentioned earlier in this series, my Dad was not one to stand still. He was, in many ways – and I do not mean this unkindly – like Ralph Kramden, Jackie Gleason’s bus driver from The Honeymooners. He was always after some new scheme that he thought would make money. However, whereas Ralph was spectacularly ignorant, my Dad was an intelligent man – which makes the following story that much more of a tragedy.

While we were working for the outfit that ran the Monte Carlo/Las Vegas nights, my Dad found himself between jobs with the airline industry. In the meantime, he found out about an opportunity for possible enrichment. The fellow who owned the gambling outfit made a good buck for himself every summer by traveling around with a carnival. He ran a money game. It wasn’t all that different from a casino game, really, except that it took place outdoors under a tent-top on the midway.

The game consisted of a bunch of muffin pans, set up side-by-side on a tabletop, and with the insides of each individual muffin cup painted a different color. Someone from the betting public tossed a bouncy rubber ball into the mass of muffin pans. Patrons could place a bet on what color muffin cup the ball would eventually settle into. Those who were successful in their prognostication received a payoff at odds, depending upon how many of the muffin cups were painted their chosen color. For instance, out of the 216 possible cups there were only three painted black. A bet on black paid off at 50-1. There were something like 45 cups painted blue. A wager on blue got you a return of 2-1.

A rudimentary grasp of mathematics was enough to tell you that the payoffs were heavily skewed in favor of the operator. However, there were more than enough patrons of carnivals who lacked a rudimentary grasp of mathematics, thus making this game an enormously profitable one.

(It should be noted that this game, and other money games, were not operated at every stop the carnival made. Obviously, it was straight-up gambling and therefore illegal in quite a few of the towns to which the carnival traveled. However, many of the local constabulary were amenable to… oh, hell, why couch it in pretty language? You could usually bribe the local heat.)

It was suggested to my Dad that he join the carnival, too. However, it wasn’t as simple as just working for this same fellow again, albeit in a different capacity. The muffin pan game already had all the help that was needed. And there was no opening in the gorilla gag, either. His daughter already had that gig.

(The gorilla gag was a mild scam wherein people paid to enter a tent where they would see an African princess transmogrified into a gorilla. It was a clever trick, done with mirrors. As the African princess sat in front of the crowd – behind a pane of glass, for the crowd’s protection, of course – a spiel was made concerning her unfortunate curse. As the speech continued, the princess appeared to be growing hairier. Finally, she completed her transformation into a primate. As the speech continued, with suitable excited warnings concerning the possible dangers inherent in this situation, the former princess - now a big, hairy, scary gorilla - would suddenly leap forward towards the crowd, growling and beating its chest. Without fail, most of the crowd would run out of the tent, sometimes with women and children screaming. The few wise guys who didn’t run, and who understood that they had been taken in, then became unpaid shills for the gag. Having paid their money for tickets and been bilked, they then talked their friends into buying tickets, and laughed heartily at them when they came running out of the tent.

This show ran every twenty minutes or so. I always got a kick out of the fact that the “African” princess was white and – although this might seem impossible – even more Irish-looking than myself. It didn’t matter. As with the fundamental lack of mathematical skill displayed by the patrons of the muffin pan game, the crowd at the gorilla gag never quite put two and two together.)

Anyway, the upshot of this lack of open positions in the established cons was that my Dad had to come up with his own. And he did, too. I’m not quite sure how he came up with what he did, but he certainly came up with something promising. What it mostly promised was hard work and heartbreak, but that never deterred my Dad. He had made his decision.

He had decided that his fortune would come from taking a Walking Charlie on the road.

Now, my Dad didn’t come up with the concept of the Walking Charlie – which I will explain to you, in a minute or so. It had been around, in one form or another, in carnival settings, for quite a few years. However, it isn’t as often seen as many of the other carnival perennials. For one thing, the actual construction of the game is complex. For another, it takes up a lot of room, and that’s an important consideration when figuring out your bottom line in a carnival. I’ll explain.

The carnival owner rents out the grounds for the carnival from the local jurisdiction or private property owner. In turn, the various operators rent space for their games or attractions per linear foot of frontage. In other words, if the counter space of your game takes up 12 feet, then you’re charged for 12 feet of frontage. On top of this, you’re charged a flat fee for an electrical hook-up. Then there are your additional expenses for paid employees, prizes, lodging, food, gas, and whatever else you may have as an outlay. Collectively, these expenses are known as your “nut.” Operators hope to make back their nut as early in an engagement as possible, since every dollar taken in thereafter is pure profit.

While a Walking Charlie has a tremendous profit potential, it also has a huge nut. This is because… well, I suppose it would be best, at this point, to describe to you just what a Walking Charlie actually is.

There are six life-size dummies, rigged out in various amusing and entertaining costumes – in this case, rubber monster masks and colorful tramp-type rags. These dummies are mounted on a large turntable that rotates at a medium speed when the game is in operation. The dummies have hooks on their ears, and from these hooks hang coffee mugs; the type sometimes found in cheap diners, very heavy and thick – no bone china here. The object of the game is for the mark – the patron – to throw baseballs from some 25 or 30 feet, at the rotating dummies, in an attempt to hit (and break) the coffee mugs.

The reason a Walking Charlie has such a big nut is because, first, it takes up a shitload of room. The Walking Charlie operator has to pay close to twice as much as other game operators because of the size of the game. Secondly, there was a breakable component that had to be constantly replaced – the coffee mugs. They were bought cheaply – unpainted and rough – from a wholesale manufacturer, but the broken crockery added up fast when the game was booming. Third, this was an honest game. Unlike many of the game operators, my Dad had to take into consideration the very real possibility of losing his plush.

(Plush = teddy bears and whatnot that are awarded as prizes.)

Yes, as you may have surmised from the previous paragraph, some of the games at carnivals are utterly impossible to beat. This is because, while an honest game can make just as much money as a dishonest one, there are many carnies that couldn’t live with themselves if they gave the marks an even break.

(Carnies = carnival workers.) (Marks = customers, a.k.a. suckers.)

Carnies are a peculiar lot. They’re as loyal as the most fervent of fraternal orders. If you’re one of them, you’ll never starve – as long as you don’t mind subsisting on fried dough, hot dogs, cotton candy and slush. And they don’t cheat their own. Every outsider, though, is a mark - a potential source of money - and nothing more. I say this having been one of them and a recipient of their largesse. They all treated me well while I was with them. But, while I was with them, I saw petty thievery and larceny that I wouldn’t expect to see replicated anyplace outside of a pickpocket’s convention.

Be that as it may, my Dad had decided on his racket and now he had to actually put it into operation. He made an outlay for raw materials and then he invested his sweat.

He bought an old 28-foot trailer. He modified one side of it, by cutting out the panel with a torch and putting the thing on hinges, so that it could swing out and up, creating an awning. He modified six large steel poles, installing a hinge in each one near one end. He bought department store dummies, screwed metal plates to their feet, and then welded these dummies to the other end of the steel poles. In turn, he welded these poles to a huge turntable, installing them so that the hinged end was near the turntable and thus able to be turned upright, into the body of the trailer, for transportation, but folded out to full-length while the game was operating. He installed an electric motor to rotate the turntable. He dressed the dummies in colorful clothing, glued rubber fright masks to their faces, and screwed hooks into their ears for the coffee mugs to hang from. He wired the whole contraption for electricity and strung colorful lightbulbs to attract the customers and spotlights to illuminate the game for nighttime operation. He worked hours on end, like the devil himself, doing all of this. He gave himself second-degree burns on his legs from the welding. But, damn it, he did it. It was an absolutely amazing feat for ONE man to have accomplished all of this construction.

He then bought crates of coffee mugs to hang from the dummies ears. He bought a couple gross of baseballs, for throwing at the coffee mugs hanging from the dummies ears. He then bought all of the plush, from a place called Nancy Sales that specialized in such stuff. He loaded up on small little prizes for those who broke one cup; regular-sized teddy bears for those who broke two; and freakishly gigantic pandas – five feet tall, and almost as wide – to be set out for all of the marks to see and greedily desire and to be awarded to the superhuman who somehow accomplished the ungodly task of breaking three mugs with just three baseballs. He modified one further section of the trailer to be used as a holding space for all of this booty.

He bought a canvas awning, and tent poles to hang it from. This would connect, with ropes (which he also bought) to the hinged metal awning. He had signs professionally painted – “3 Balls For 25 Cents” “ONE Broken Cup WINS!” – and he bought aprons with pockets in them, in which to hold the many quarters and dollars he imagined flowing from the pockets of those on the midway. He bought (or, maybe, “borrowed”) six or seven milk crates in which to hold the baseballs awaiting throwing.

He installed a trailer hitch on his car. He intended to pull the 28-foot trailer with his 1968 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon.

(And he did, too. Of all the acts of bravado that this endeavor required, that may have been the biggest proof that my Dad had brass balls.)

Last, but not least, with Walking Charlie finally ready to hit the road in pursuit of all the spare change in a 400-mile radius, he acquired the final piece of the puzzle necessary for success. He hired a Barker.


(More tomorrow.)

Part Two


Anonymous said...

Don't forget that your mom put a lot of sweat equity into dear old Charlie.

I can remember being in the car pulling that trailer up some mountain pass when it would start swaying from side to side and nearly dump us over the edge.

Unknown said...

Oh my goodness Suldog, you are a great story teller. I can't wait to read the rest of the story.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget my favorite part of the story, "Keel Him!"

fuzzbert_1999@yahoo.com said...

So, is your last name BARKER! It would be fitting!

Great story and insight into carnival life.

david mcmahon said...

Did it get played in all the towns, though, Jim?

Or did it have to be played in a clandestine fashion in some places?

Loved the one-liner about your Dad!

Vintage post, this ...

Chuck said...

Sounds like you definitely had some interesting childhood jobs, working with your Dad.

endangered coffee said...

Man, nothing beats a good carnie story.

Merisi said...

Oh dear, I'm hanging over the cliff and the wind's blowing. How long til you rescue us?

Anonymous said...

Dang, Jim, you just love to leave us on a cliffhanger. Off to read the 2nd part now.

Anonymous said...

OK - I know I'm late to this party, but I have to ask...

If the "nut" was what you had to make to break even, then is that where the expression "bust a nut" comes from? As in, "He really did bust a nut today - never saw anyone work so hard"

Suldog said...

Thim - I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. I suppose it's a possibility. Lots of carnie speak has entered the language proper, so...