By Michael Sean Comerford

Guest Columnist

Chicago, IL, USA


The blow to the American carny is an American tragedy in slow motion.”   

                                                                                 –  Subhed


My original aim was to work in one traveling carnival for a year in the Silicon Valley in California to see America from the bottom of the Silicon Chasm – the chasm between the richest people in human history and some of the poorest in America. I wanted to see the way carnival people live and hear their stories. Everyone has a story. The world runs on the untold stories of the people who never become famous.


My year in carnivals was packed with reversals of fortune and unexpected lessons from page one of what became my newly released book, American OZ. I worked in 10 carnivals and in 10 states while hitchhiking between shows from California to New York, Alaska and down to Mexico. I traveled more than 21,000 miles by bus, train and thumb in search of carnival stories in America.

I was a journalist, but when I stopped just reporting on others, I started noticing my own thoughts and feelings on my life as a carny. If I felt stigmatized and broke, then so did the others on my carnivals. I gained those insights from living every moment of every day with carnival people in 2013-2014.


When American OZ was published this summer during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I started hearing from people on the traveling carnival circuit. I’d been “with it,” a carnival term for having traveled with carnivals. The carnival people who read and loved the book treated me like someone who might understand their current crisis because I was once with it.

Michael Sean Comerford hitchhiking through the Yukon

Carnival workers are some of the most vulnerable in our society and stigmatized because of it. Most carnival workers are part of a working poor family that cannot afford healthcare or even dream of sick days for quarantining.


The week when California first began social distancing restrictions at large outdoor events last spring is when the biggest traveling carnivals in the country cancelled the bus tickets for their legions of workers.


When state fairs, street fests and community fundraiser carnivals were cancelled because of the pandemic, carnival people became both financially and housing unstable. They don’t have work or the bunkhouse they lived in for nine months every year. Some carnival people live in motels from the town to town, but those are more expensive than most low-cost apartments and are out of reach now too.

Carnival workers typical summer bunkhouse

Some of the biggest traveling carnivals employ large contingents of Mexicans, sometimes more than half of their entire workforce. At the end of my carnival year, I journeyed down to a hamlet in the largely lawless foothills of the Mexican state of Veracruz, along the Gulf of Mexico side of the country. Nestled in the semi-tropical hill country is Tlapacoyan, a town that empties out of men every year in the spring as they head north to run American traveling carnivals.


In November, the ghost town resuscitates and becomes a carnival town as the men return with stories of their year in the United States. The men return to a town overpowered by banditos. My carny friends were afraid to go outside at night.


The exodus of men raised the wages and financial influx into the village, but it became a one-industry town. The chief recruiter for carnivals was elected mayor the year I was there.


The off-season is called “winter quarters” in traveling carnivals. In the United States, some carnival workers find other jobs. Some live off their savings. In Tlapacoyan, there is next to no work for returning carnies. The carnival workers I worked with in California and later met in Mexico had no work from November to February. By the time the season starts again in spring, they’ve spent most of their savings from the previous year.

Okefenokee Fair

My final carnival of the season at the Okefenokee Agricultural Fair in Waycross, Georgia was a revelation to me. Many of the American carnival people waited for their end-of-year bonus outside the management trailer but they were unsure where they’d spend their time in winter quarters.


Some men headed to homeless shelters and or to live with extended family. One carny was going to jail for a short stint hoping to be out by the start of the next season. Another carny struck up a romance with a local woman near the Okefenokee Swamp and she agreed to let him stay with her until the carnival rolled out again in spring. In good years, winter quarters can be tough to survive.


That year, the Amusements of America traveling carnival was going to spend the off-season in Lima, Peru where it is summer in November. This year, travel to Peru and many countries is blocked because the United States is a COVID-19 pariah.


“I just miss being able to do what I do best,” said Denise of Chicago, who has worked in food wagons in carnivals for years. “I’m lucky, I have support, but a lot of people don’t have any housing.”


An estimated 90 percent of the state fairs across the country cancelled this year. Most Americans think of all the rides, games and deep-fried crazy foods they are missing. People miss going the state fair and winning a prize on the midway. Going to the church parking lot and riding a carousel and eating deep fried elephant ears.


Millions of people a year are put into rides run by traveling carnivals. Millions more have memories of being kids and running from ride to ride with friends or cousins. Lovers remember rides and games they played together. Parents remember the fried food bacchanalia at state fairs.


All that is missing this year when traveling carnivals are in winters quarters all year long. The most devastating and visible losses of the pandemic are the lives lost, but the invisible cost is the joy and the memories lost.


The financial impact of traveling carnivals on our lives is hard to estimate. There are thousands of American and Mexican workers in traveling carnivals. The traveling carnival industry generates hundreds of millions in revenue each year. They are typically are family owned and highly leveraged. More than one major traveling carnival boasts a million-dollar midway. Losing an entire season will be devastating.


During my year in traveling carnivals, I found about 350 traveling carnivals listing themselves online. At the start of 2020, the Carnival Midways online site listed a just over 200 active carnivals in the U.S. It’s a good guess that there’ll be fewer next year.


Yet I’m optimistic about traveling carnival and the festivals and state fairs they serve.


Imagine a time when the Asian flu is sweeping the world and a great depression is at hand. Racial tensions are at a boiling point, riots and looting are breaking out. And yet it’s a time of breathtaking technological breakthroughs. In short, it was the best of times and the worst of times, times much like these today.


It was the summer of 1893, during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The 1893 pandemic killed an estimated 1 million people around the world, when the population of the earth was a quarter of its present size. Sixty percent of the earth became infected. The resulting depression rivaled the Great Depression of the 1930s and lasted most of a decade.


The technological breakthroughs featured at the fair included outdoor lighting. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison fought over the future of the American power grid. The newspapers called it the “Battle of the Currents,” AC versus DC electricity. Gas-powered and steam-powered rides lined Midway Plaisance in Chicago, including the first Ferris Wheel, which was 26 stories tall and could hold 2,160 people.


After the Chicago World’s Fair, wildcat entrepreneurs consolidated the entertainment concepts so wildly successful at the fair and put them on wheels. Traveling carnivals were born in America and ventured out amid economic chaos, racial strife and a pandemic deadlier than COVID-19.

Michael Sean Comerford in front of "The Cliff Hanger"

American society was being distorted by economic inequality and rapid technological change. Sideshows, Ferris wheels, games and outdoor lighting rolled into small towns and big cities across the country with the new concept of mobile, outdoor, multi-venue, high-tech entertainment.


This year we’ve been rocked by a pandemic, record unemployment, racial justice protests, riots and looting. The billionaire class is reaching new heights and the technological marvels are speeding up the pace of life and societal change.


Traveling carnivals were born in an American hurricane and the crossfire winds are back. Several traveling carnivals, maybe some of the biggest, may not survive the year in winter quarters. The invisible costs to our collective outings in search of fun will be even harder to measure. And the blow to the American carny is an American tragedy in slow motion.


Traveling carnivals are adaptable and, as a group, carnival people are survivors of pandemics, depressions and societal hurricanes. My most optimistic prediction for 2020 is that it will somehow transmogrify into another traveling carnival tale carnies tell each other in years to come. How they survived 2020 and, through American carnival know-how, still managed to stay with it.



Michael Sean Comerford


Michael Sean Comerford is an award-winning international journalist who has written for the Chicago TribuneChicago Sun-TimesDaily HeraldBudapest SunBudapest Business Journal and the Moscow Times.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.