Tom Rhoades: Carnival man

By John Butters, Mt. Pleasant News


When you ask Tom Rhoades how he got into the carnival business, he gives a quick, terse answer.

?One thing led to another,? he said.

Friendly with the gift of gab, he?ll bend your ear with stories of the famous and near-famous. ?I guess some of it gets kind of deep,? he admits. ?I could write a book, though.?

Powerfully built with massive forearms and a grip that could crush a walnut, Rhoades doesn?t appear to be anywhere near the 70 years he claims. But a closer look at his face reveals a web of lines and creases, a roadmap of the places he?s been and the places he?s going to.

Gravity is starting to win the battle of time with his physique, but the eyes are bright and shrewd with the look of a man who has created a place for himself in the world.

Rhoades brought his carnival to Winfield this past weekend for the town?s annual Crooked Creek Days celebration.

For 35 years, his shows have been providing family entertainment for fairs, festivals, community events, and corporate picnics throughout Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota. He didn?t always own a carnival. A paint and body man by trade, a serious knee injury ended his career.

?After my knee was shattered, I just couldn?t do the work anymore. I had to find another trade,? Rhoades said.

He opened a restaurant in Des Moines that became famous for selling a rabbit burger. ?We were doing well. We advertised on every TV station. Then our landlord sold the building out from under us. I tried another restaurant in Missouri, a really upscale establishment, but there was no money in it,? he said.

Things got tough and then they got tougher, but Rhoades didn?t give up. Cats always land on their feet.

?About that time video games really took off. So I bought three and did really well, he said. Soon he owned so many, he opened arcades in Oskaloosa, Ottumwa, Grimes and Rochester, Minn. He soon noticed that business fell off in the summer and returned in the winter, so he took his arcades on the road in the off-season.

For 27 years, he traveled with Davidsons United Shows, a renowned carnival owned by Marge (Grandma) and Bernie Davidson. He and his arcades wandered the Midwest while he learned the carnival business from Grandma. During that time, he acquired two new features to add to the show: a Moonwalk and a coin-push game.

When Grandma died, her carnival ended, leaving Rhoades to find another venue. He attended an Iowa amusement convention to seek another carnival and found that, with only the three amusements he already owned, he could get bookings. He heard opportunity knocking again.

He hit the road with his own show, traveling to the small towns seeking amusements for their local festivals. As his bookings made money, he added new features, building his business.

Today, Amusement Associates offers more than 26 rides and activities. His tour of the Midwest starts in April and sometimes continues into December.

Not every stop in a small town makes money, he says, but by asking for a guaranteed fee, he can limit losses. ?Last week, we lost $5,000 on one of our stops. Rainouts hurt business the most, but some towns just can?t support a carnival,? he said.

The toughest part of the business isn?t the constant set-ups and teardowns, he said. It?s the labor shortages that put the most pressure on him.

?The most stress comes from having six people scheduled to work and having none of them show up. It puts a lot of pressure on me to fill those positions,? he said.

His help is a mix of full-time and part-time. Some employees come back year after year.

His daughter Vienna Briner has been traveling with him since the age of 13. Now, she runs a food concession. For her, the toughest part of road life is the travel. ?It?s the driving. The travel is like a cobweb. You go here and there and back,? she said.

Sometimes the trade gets rough after 10 p.m. ?When people get lit up, it becomes a little more difficult,? she said.

Rhoades is most frequently found on the midway. Wearing a work shirt and pants with suspenders, he is usually bent over a piece of machinery, wrench in hand. ?I?m not a licensed electrician so I have one that travels with me. Otherwise, I make most of the other repairs myself,? he said.

He looks up and scans the midway, surveying the crowds collecting in front of the rides. The smell of popcorn, hot dogs and cotton candy hangs heavy in the August heat.

He says he likes the travel, and the people in the small towns he visits are generally nice. When the shows end in winter, he returns to his farm near Chariton where he raises Arabian horses. ?They have good bloodlines,? he said.

How long will he keep doing it? He evades the answer by giving yet another terse response.

?In the morning I don?t go to work, I go to play,? he said.

What advice might he give to someone entering the carnival business? The shrewd look comes back into his eyes. ?First, get a $10,000 guarantee upfront,? he said.