The Midway of Old
Memories of a carnival worker
And Sally Rand would never be able to perform her nearly-nude fan dance at today’s Kansas State Fair.
Lewis “Wayland” Schrader recalls the carnival of his youth, from watching the Flying Wallendas execute high-wire feats to the knife thrower whose precision never hit the woman spinning on a wheel.
Even the rides are different, says Schrader, who walked the Kansas State Fairgrounds five or six years ago with a bit of disappointment.
“There isn’t the oddity or the exotic stuff anymore,” the former carnival man from Hays says sadly. “The way they do things now, it doesn’t appeal to me.”
The Ferris wheel’s neon lights have been replaced by energy-conscious LED ones. And sideshow “freaks,” as they once were called, have faded away in an era more sensitive to human abnormalities. Fairgoers no longer pay to stare at a fat man or a dancing little person.
But the smell still lingers across the rows of rides, a familiar odor that draws Schrader back to his carnival days when he traveled the state fair circuit in the 1950s and ’60s as part of his family’s Kinsley-based business – Brodbeck and Schrader Shows. For him, the last day of school was the first day of the carnival season.
“It still sounds the same, too,” Schrader says. “It is an odd kind of thing – those things have never changed. But the view has changed: Everything is a spectacular ride. And there is no exotic part of it; it is gone.”
Summer highlight In many rural towns across America, the hot summer highlight was the fair.
That included the state’s top expedition, which opened in September 1913 with its own midway entertainment.
“Right from the beginning, even predating the Hutchinson fair, they had a small carnival with rides – that was one of the fundamental things fairs had right from the start,” says Thomas Percy, a Hutchinson Community College history professor who wrote the book “History of the Kansas State Fair.”
Before television, sporting events and everything else took up Americans’ time, the carnival was a cheap thrill.
“You look back at the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, that was the heyday,” Schrader says. “In the Depression they were a poor man’s entertainment. You could go a long way on nickels. And we weren’t competing with other entertainment. Amusement parks weren’t around. We got only a few channels on the television. There were no video games.”
The midway of old was a bit more shocking and not politically correct. Besides sideshow “freaks,” others had shocking performance abilities – human cannonballs, sword swallowers and fire eaters.
An ad from the late 1930s in The Hutchinson News advertised the carnival’s three Ferris wheels, which sat side-by-side, along with magicians, midgets and “melodious melodies.”
Some people had famous ties and found a life making a little money from it. John Dillinger’s father was an attraction in 1935, right next to a show featuring Hollywood movie monkeys.
Early carnivals also exhibited scantily clad women who performed in different shows.
Famous fan dancer Sally Rand performed in 1951, The News advertising her as “Her sexcellency – Sally Rand. Last show starts at midnight each day.”
Entry was $1, and kids got in free with their parents.
Other acts were at little more revealing.
In 1959, Ricki Covette, labeled the world’s tallest exotic at 6 feet, 8 inches, performed a burlesque show at the fair, touring with the Gypsy Rose Lee revue. According to one website, she did well, with Billboard magazine that year reporting her being the No. 1 “money-getter” at the Kansas State Fair.
Schrader says he knew about the girl shows, adding that his parents were good friends with Sally Rand, who even babysat him during her annual stops through Kinsley.
“There were girl shows, but I didn’t get in,” Schrader says. “I remember those having a stringent age restriction, or at least you had to look like you were 18.”
Greg Payton, of Payton Optical, however, recalls how he and his friends would sneak into Club Lido in the 1960s, a burlesque-type show geared to the white audience. The Harlem Revue advertised for the black audience, he recalls.
Both were eye-catching. A five-piece band would perform “hoochie coochie” music, as Payton calls it. A barker would tell folks to step right up and soon five or six girls dressed in feathers and glitter would emerge from the tent.
Inside, little took place.
“There probably was more of a tease outside the tent,” he says with a laugh.
He says it is interesting how the carnival is more conservative at fairs today than when he was growing up.
“There was a lot of nudity at the Kansas State Fair for a long time,” he says. “You could go to these ‘(video) arcades,’ as we called them, and for a nickel watch a girl take her clothes off.”
Fewer carnivals Mike Williams, who once owned the largest traveling amusement in the world, North American Midway Entertainment – the company that still plays at the Kansas State Fair – says sideshows were becoming passe by 1975. That’s when Williams graduated from college and took a job operating a little carnival company he would later purchase.
Girl shows were also going out of style by then. Most could see the same skimpy clothing from the general public walking down the midway.
Moreover, few of the carnivals from those simpler days have survived into the 21st century. In the 1930s, some estimate there were nearly 300 carnivals touring the country.
Many already had shut down by Williams’ carnival beginnings, and he estimates that only half of those operating with him in the 1970s are still in business today. As years passed, Williams knew that to survive he would have to get big or get out.
His Farrow Shows eventually bought out several small carnivals and, in 2004, the company became North American, employing 2,000 and typically doing six fairs at a time.
Being big had its own situations. The financial investment was huge, which included owning a few hundred semi trucks to haul the equipment. Meanwhile, a Ferris wheel costs nearly a $1 million these days. Even a kid’s ride is about $300,000.
Carnivals of today also have more competing activities, he says. Years ago, the only time people rode a ride might have been at a fair.
“Now they are exposed to amusement parks,” says Williams, who now lives in Colorado. “They go to Disney World. The carnival is not the novelty like it used to be.”
Carnival family At one time, Lewis “Wayland” Schrader’s hometown of Kinsley was known as a carnival town, with his family operating as many as six carnival companies from around 1904 to the mid-1980s – with at least three that operated at one time.
But high insurance rates caused his father to sell out in 1969, when Schrader was 16, bringing an end to a family legacy than had begun at the turn of the century. Great-grandfather Charles Brodbeck had ventured to an eastern Kansas fair. He became fascinated that people would ride a horse and buggy a considerable distance and then pay to ride a merry-go-round.
Charles Brodbeck saw better money in the amusement business than in farming. He sold a small parcel of land and purchased a carousel, setting it up on his farm.
Brodbeck’s three sons got involved, including Schrader’s grandfather, Fred, and each had his own carnival. In the late 1930s, Schrader’s father, Lewis M. Schrader, married his mother, Alfreda, Fred’s daughter.
“My dad was studying pharmacy, but he decided just out of the blue that the carnival business was more lucrative.”
Lewis M. Schrader went into business with his father-in-law, becoming Brodbeck and Schrader, the second- or third-largest touring carnival in the United States. The company played at the Kansas State Fair in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
It was a grand experience in a time when many of his friends had never left the state, says Schrader. His first job was taking tickets at an early age. At age 8, he was running a merry-go-round.
Recalling acts like the electrifying girl who would sit in an electronic chair and glow of fluorescent light for all to see, Schrader says, “There was a curious mix of science and showmanship that is kind of missing now.”
There were some things, like the two-headed woman, that he knew weren’t real, “but you wanted to see if it was real, and it did look real. It really did.”
He says his father brought the 180-pound anaconda home for a few years during the off-season, but he eventually got rid of those acts.
“They were too much trouble,” Schrader says, noting that they donated the snake and an alligator to the Garden City Zoo.
His father sold almost everything before he retired in 1969. Schrader has since donated some of the banners, the ticket booth and posters to Kinsley’s National Foundation for Carnival Heritage.
His father, however, didn’t sell his trailer – a stainless-steel office he rolled with him to every fair. Lewis M. Schrader still had hope up until he died in 1991 that his son would revive the business.
“He was sure I was going to start things back up,” he says. “My last few meetings with Dad, that was his wish.”
But Schrader knows it is a hard life, and even harder these days. Things had obviously changed as he walked the midway a handful of years ago – enough so that he doesn’t care to go back to the fair anytime soon. Instead, he has been a teacher, an assistant principal, and taught at Fort Hays State University, among other things.
“It was hard work, but yes, I do miss it,” he says of the carnival life. “But it is a different world. I’m not in the right realm anymore.”