Carnival of chaos

Thursday, August 25, 2011 - 06:15
Golden Wheel Amusements an Alaska State Fair fixture

Palmer may be home to the Alaska State Fair, but the fun comes from Chugiak.

It’s been that way since 1967, when Paige Morton founded Golden Wheel Amusements after traveling to Anchorage from Washington state one winter to purchase a carnival ride. Morton’s daughter, Jacqueline Leavitt, said her mom bought the ride (“The Octopus”), but was persuaded by locals to stick around for the upcoming Fur Rendezvous.

“She thought they were crazy,” Leavitt said.

But not that crazy. Morton accepted the challenge of setting up a carnival ride in the winter, and Golden Wheel has been turning ever since.

“She just gathered together a bunch of her friends and hired some locals and did it,” Leavitt said.

Organized chaos
Leavitt and her husband, Joe, now own Golden Wheel, which they run with the help of their four kids, a handful of full-time employees and a seasonal staff that can grow to more than 200 at the height of the state fair.

In addition to running the midway at the Alaska State Fair (which begins today in Palmer), Golden Wheel also sets up its carnival in Kodiak, Homer, Kenai, Anchorage, Eagle River, Delta and Fairbanks.

On Monday, Aug. 22, Leavitt spent much of the afternoon sifting through job applications and interviewing potential fair workers. As she did so, the fair’s dozens of full-time summer help scurried about, putting together games, washing rides and putting up prize displays. While the scene may have appeared chaotic, Leavitt said there’s actually a method to all the madness.

“It’s kind of hard to be a person who is very organized and lead this life,” she said. “But the truth is you can’t do it if you aren’t.”

Worldly workforce
One of Leavitt’s biggest tasks is hiring and firing employees. At the beginning of the summer, the company brings in about 50 workers who sign on to join the carnival for the entire season. Many of the workers are foreign college students looking for a way to see the United States while earning a bit of money, while others are regular hands who join Golden Wheel each summer.

Varvara Rafikova, 20, of St. Petersburg, Russia, operates a balloon-popping game with Ukranian Ann Grytsenko, 19. The women said they are using their carnival jobs to finance vacations later this summer.

“I already have a plan,” Rafikova said. “I will travel to Los Angeles and then Las Vegas and Grand Canyon, then I go to New York, spend a couple days there, then go to Niagra waterfall.”

Rafikova said her whirlwind tour wouldn’t be possible without the carvinal.

“I will make enough money to live, so I’m really, really happy,” she said.

Leavitt said the student workers add an interesting cultural element to her work force.

“I love the chance to work with and get to know a little bit about their countries, and my kids love having them around,” Leavitt said.

Family affair
The Leavitt’s four children — Chase, 22, Bailey, 21, Hayden, 17, and Alexis, 10 — grew up in the carnival, and all four continue to work in the family business. And when the state fair rolls around, it’s a lot more business than family.

“We tell them, ‘If you’re not bleeding, don’t bother. When the carnival is operating, the carnival comes first,’” she said.

But the carnival season only runs through the summer, which leaves the Leavitts more than half the year to devote solely to their kids.

“When the carnival is closed the whole world revolves around them,’” she said.

Leavitt is no stranger to the demands carnival life puts on a family. In fact, she said her mother’s first choice for a crib was an empty prize box.

“She actually had me and brought me home and put me right under the counter,” she said.

On the road again
One of the big perks of the lifestyle, Leavitt said, is the travel.

“The really cool thing is there’s a lot of freedom,” she said.

The family gets to start its spring in Kodiak before gradually working north to Fairbanks and back again. After more than 40 years of visiting the same Alaska communities, Leavitt said she’s come to form strong ties with the people who live there.

“Every one of them is my hometown,” she said.

Leavitt said she especially enjoys the close ties she and her family have forged with local churches in the communities they visit. Faith is important to her, she said, and the company for the past two years has employed a carnival pastor to help its employees with their spiritual needs.

Pastor Bill Root is in his second summer with the carnival. He met the Leavitts at his church in Arizona, where the family has been spending winters recently. Root said he enjoys getting to minister to a more diverse flock than he sees back home.

“They have different and special needs,” he said.

Rafikova said that many of the foreign workers rely on Root to help them with issues like language barriers and homesickness.

“He makes our lives easier,” she said.

Make or break time
Leavitt said the revenue generated during the 12-day fair dwarfs what Golden Wheel makes at other events, and the season-ending event is the key to the company’s success or failure.

“It’s the end of the season, and everything depends on it,” she said.

The economic recession has hurt the carnival business, Leavitt said, but not because people are sick of riding the Gravitron.

“The increase in fuel has really put a major dent in our bottom line,” she said.

With high gasoline prices, Leavitt said the company is stuck between a rock and a hard place because it’s difficult to raise ticket prices accordingly.

“You can only charge so much for a ride,” she said.

And making cuts isn’t easy, either, because of how much time and money goes into making sure the rides are safe.

“We splurge on the safety and save on the small stuff,” she said.

Time to go-go-go
Officials expect about 300,000 visitors to this year’s fair, and Leavitt said the company’s employees — herself included — will be going nonstop. Between maintenance and operations, she said the carnival is basically a 24-hour gig.

“In the summer you’re working all the time,” she said.

Leavitt said she doesn’t mind the hard work because she’s got a dedicated crew of workers around her who know the business inside and out.

“I would say the overriding philosophy is that you start with good people,” she said.

During the fair, Leavitt said she doesn’t have much time to stop and reflect on the job. Instead, she said she’s too busy trying to make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to — basically, keeping her eyes (and ears and nose) on things.

From the time she was a kid, the Chugiak High graduate said she’s had a sixth sense about what should and shouldn’t be taking place around the carnival. If something isn’t right, she said, she feels it.

So she likes to spend her days patrolling through the crowds, using her lifetime of carnival knowledge to bring order to an otherwise chaotic world.

“I walk the midway and I listen and I watch,” she said. “Remember, I was born here.”

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