Bob Goldsack Interview
The James E. Strates Shows
America's Only Remaining Railroad Carnival
Bob Goldsack has put together an incredibly detailed and beautifully illustrated book on the history of The James E. Strates Shows.
Filled with black and white photos and color photos, it is a fascinating story.
So, we decided to talk to Bob Goldsack about his book – The James E. Strates Shows, America’s Only Remaining Railroad Carnival, A Pictorial History.
Q – Bob, do you feel part of the interest in the James E. Strates Shows might be that they are the only carnival to travel by rail?
A – I think to most people it is. Years ago, so many carnivals traveled by train and now we’re just down to the one show. It plays mostly along the Eastern Seaboard. I just hope they continue to use the rails. There, was a time when it got a little iffy because railroads stopped going places. (Laughs). I should say railroad tracks stopped going places. There was a lot of talk in the Strates Shows about converting. They now have their wagons fixed so if they do run into any kind of a problem they can haul them over the road, but, that’s a long process and a tough one to face when you’re more or less relying on the train to be your way of transportation.
Q – What problem might they encounter? The railroad tracks would be flooded over?
A – Well, no. A lot of railroads have just deserted their tracks. There’s some parts of the United States. It’s very difficult to go to smaller towns. You can always go from New York to Boston let’s say, but, I know Ringling has a problem just getting to Manchester, New Hampshire. They have to leave all their sleepers in Nashua, New Hampshire and then bus their people up to Manchester which is roughly a 20 mile trip everyday for the performers because they did away with all the storage tracks up in Manchester. So, over the years the rails have deteriorated. From everything I read the rails are slowly coming back. To give you an example, they started transportation from Portland, Maine to Boston awhile back and it’s been successful. They’re now again speaking to Nashua. They’re trying to get fast moving trains from Boston to Nashua and eventually to Manchester, but, they are all looking for government money to finance it and the government isn’t coming through right now. But, the interest is there now to get some of the railroad tracks back.
Q – Why is Strates the only carnival still on the rails? Is it because it just got too expensive for their competition?
A – I think basically Strates remained on the rails mainly because of it’s route. They played mostly all big fairs in big areas and the tracks were still very good to get there. I do know they did have a problem in New Jersey. They played what they tried to call the New Jersey State Fair. That name didn’t go. It was at the Giant Stadium. They had a problem because they couldn’t get their train near there. So, they had to haul their wagons as I recall about 20-25 miles from where they unloaded to the Giant Stadium parking lot where they had the Fair. But, other than that, most of their places they were able to go to without too much trouble.
Q – As I understand it, Strates lost Raleigh, North Carolina. What happened there? Do you know?
A – There was a problem. As I recall, the person that ran the Fair, I think it was a lady, she was found doing something illegal. They lost Raleigh, but that is not a bad thing. Carnivals, the big thing with their competition is the new boys on the block with the newer equipment are always knocking on the door and making proposals to fairs. Many fairs turn over their carnivals year after year after year. Strates has had a great run at New York in Syracuse and at Hamburg. They’ve had those Fairs for 60 years I guess.
Q – That’s right.
A – They’ve been very fortunate in being able to do that. As you go down South, a lot of those fairs put out for bids. They want to get the newest and the latest. They just don’t want to get in a rut. With Strates, I never considered being in a rut, because Jimmy Strates always brought in the latest and the best. It’s a situation where you win some and you lose some.
Q – With all of your knowledge about the Strates Show, why didn’t the Strates people hire you on in some capacity?
A – Well, I guess because I never showed any interest as far as being hired on. To me, it was more or less a hobby. I was a newspaperman all my life. The interesting part was, I wasn’t a writer. I came up in the business end of it, in the advertising and got into management. I was with two large newspaper organizations, Gannett and then the Thompson Newspapers. When I was with Thompson I worked out of their corporate headquarters. The carnival was more or less a hobby. I was only gonna write one book and that was ‘Remembering The World OF Mirth’ which was a huge railroad carnival from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. It was out of Richmond, Virginia. It came to my hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey as long as I can remember from when I was a little tot. It was just fascinating because they’d come in and haul those wagons. Like most big carnivals at the time they had over 100 wagons and they’d haul those. You never knew what was gonna come out of those wagons each year, the rides and the shows. Back in the 30’s and 40’s, most carnivals had as many shows as they did rides, midget shows, motordroncs and sideshows and girl shows. You name it. The list just went on and on. But, anyway I was fascinated by this show because it came every year and I often wondered, the people are here for a week, and then where do they go? Where do they live? What are they like? As I got older, I started to try and piece things together. In my travels I would often go to a place where the show played. I would go to their library or historical society and get as much information as I could. Finally, you know how it is when you’re writing a book and you hit one person and that person can give you the name of 10 more people and those people can give you 5 more people and I started being able to do all kinds of research. The interesting part here is when I started doing that, it was the only book I was going to write. But, at the same time I thought, you know, the James E. Strates Shows was almost parallel to the World Of Mirth. That show also played my hometown every year that I can remember. So, I did the research for Strates and put that in a separate file, and did the World Of The Mirth. And then I came out with a book not knowing who was going to buy it and if anybody was interested. I think I had 500 copies printed the 1st time. A lot of Circus fans bought the book. All of a sudden I got a call from Florida from a carnival fella. He said, ‘We have a tradeshow every year. Would you come down and sit at our booth and sell your books and sign ‘em’? I said, ‘Yeah. Sure’. So, I went down and I was very apprehensive figuring carnival people are kind of a tight knit group. Would they accept me as an outsider because I’d never worked on a carnival? I’d never been a part of it. I made so many friends that 1st time down there. They kept saying we gotta get you to write more books. After I got home people started sending me all kinds of memorabilia and information. I did a series of books, The Johnny Jay Jones Shows, CW Parker, Royal American Shows. I used to go to Florida every year and sign the books at the trade show, in Gibsonton. I’d always stop over to the Strates Shows. I know a couple of fellas who had been on the Strates Shows. I got to know who I call young Jim who is my age. The reason I call him young Jim is because his father was James and he has a son James. I would spend some time talking to him. I could go all over the winter quarters and take pictures, talk to people and get all kinds of information. But, I always said to him, ‘Jim, I’d like to do a book on your family show’. And, he would always talk around it. He would never give me an answer. I tried to pin him down and he’d go off on a tangent. I continued this for a few years and finally I said the heck with it. I have enough information to come out with a book and if he doesn’t like it, there’s really nothing he can do about it. IT was something known to the public. I’m not revealing any secrets. I had them printed and I sent the first copy to him, and kind of waited with baited breath. Within a week I got the nicest letter back from him saying, ‘Bob, I want to thank-you so much for what you did about the show, my family’ and he went on and on. It was quite a relief (Laughs). The book has sold very well. It’s probably one of the most interesting carnivals from a fan standpoint because when I first knew it; all the wagons were red, painted red. But, I think they started in ’59 or ’60, they hired a show painter by the name of Duke Ash. Duke traveled with the show for several years and he painted everyone of their wagons. Carnival fans thought that was just the greatest thing since sliced bread. (Laughs). After awhile he went to different colors. I wouldn’t say this to him, but, I don’t particularily like the last color scheme he had which kind of reminds me of The Coast Guard. So, it’s been very, very interesting.
Q – His (E. James Strates) lack of cooperation surprises me. Do you think he is working on a book about his family?
A – I doubt it. The reason I say that is, I don’t know if maybe he thought maybe one of his kids might do it or maybe in the back of his mind he thought maybe I’ll do it. But, I guess he never got around to it. After I got that nice letter from him, I received an order for roughly 40 books that I understand he distributed to people who worked for him and to Fair Committees. Then about a year later I got another order for about 30 (books). So, I feel his kind of satisfied with the book.
Q – Any idea of how much money it took to launch the Strates Shows in 1923?
A – I don’t. It could be in the book. I wrote it 9 years ago. (Laughs). When he started that show and it was called Southern Tier Shows in the beginning, you didn’t have to have too much to get a show started. He was a very successful wrestler. He was on I think the World Of Home Shows during a couple of seasons, he and a fella by the name of ‘Mick Bozianas. They became very good friends and very good wrestlers. Then they took their own wresting show out on the road during the Winter. They used to play like Elks clubs, organizations like that that sponsored them. They made a lot of money in those days. We kind of think of Wrestling as being an innovation of television, but, wrestling was very popular back in those days, but it was ‘live’ wrestling. I remember there was one Winter they all lived in this rented house. Six or seven guys living in one house. So, they were very frugal. Back in the old days you could start a carnival and you might only have one or two shows yourself, but you could get somebody that owns a merry-go-round to come on your show and pay you a percentage and you would do the booking and you could do the same with a guy that owned a Ferris wheel and get a couple of other people to do some shows, get some shows set up, buy some old beat up trucks and you’re on your way. And actually, that’s the way they started. But, they were the type of people that every year they would put the money back into the show. By the time they became the James E. Strates Shows and went on the rails…..
Q – And what year was that?
A – 1933 I believe. But, they were a very small show in the beginning. They were only on 5 cars the first year. Then they bought 5 cars the next year. It just accelerated every year. By 1939, they were on 30 cars and they just kept going up. Of course they had a disastrous fire in 1945 where they lost practically the whole show. The only thing they were so lucky in saving was the train because that was away from the big building where they kept all the equipment. At the same time they had sent 3 cars down to a fair in Miami. There was a couple of rides, three flat cars and some wagons that did not burn, but everything else did. But, he was well-liked in the business. All the carnies came to his aid. Sold ‘em, loaned ‘em, gave ‘em equipment and everything else to get him going for the next Spring. He took his show out. He could’ve collected insurance and retired from what I understood, but he was just a Carny who wanted to rebuild his show and go out again.
Q – You actually met James E. Strates didn’t you?
A – Yes, I did. I think it was like 1958 when I met him. He died in ’59.
Q – Where did you meet him?
A – In Plainfield. See, that was my hometown. They (the Strates Shows) came there every year. They didn’t always play in Plainfield. In fact, the year of the fire, that Spring they played in the suburbs of Plainfield. I can’t think of the name of the town. They were on an old sheep farm. It rained for 2 weeks. I mean you talk about disaster! Here he’s trying to put together a show after a terrible fire and this was like the third week they were out in the Spring. They had rain the first week and they couldn’t get off the lot so they had to stay a second week. But, the whole time they were working I remember them painting and building and doing everything over there. At the time I didn’t know about the fire. I couldn’t understand why the show looked so different from the year before. Even the wagons were different because they’d bought wagons from carnivals that had gone out of business. Anyway, they always played around Plainfield. It was always a Big Show.
Q – I don’t think they go to New Jersey anymore do they?
A – I don’t think they go to New Jersey anymore. The World Of Mirth would always come in over Memorial Day. Strates would either try to come in the week before. The World OF Mirth had a lot sewed up. It was called Arbor, a suburb of Plainfield. The Arbor Fire Dept. always sponsored The World Of Mirth so Strates could never get in there. But, they always played right around. Anyplace they could get, South Plainfield. They played there many years. So, I would always go visiting if I could. They’d always come in on a Sunday and I’d watch the train come in and unload. Then later on Sunday afternoon I’d head up to wherever they were playing to watch them unload the wagons and start setting up.
Q – How did you find Strates to be? Was he all business? Was he friendly?
A – I just met him; I don’t know how you would say this, as a fan. I didn’t meet him as a businessman or even in the newspaper business. I found him to be a very personable man. Kind of a little rough on the edges. Like he could be tough if he had to be. I’m sure to be in that business you had to be tough.
Q – His son seems pretty tough. You no doubt have met him.
A – Yeah. You gotta remember he’s a college graduate. He’s an ex-Marine, an officer. I would have to say compared to his Dad, he’s much more polished. But, like anything the Senior came up the hard way.
Q – I assume when the son, E. James Strates retires, his son Jimmy will take over. But, what if there comes a day when no one in the Strates family wants the show. Does that mean the Strates Shows are over?
A – That’s a tough question. All the boys are part of the show. Young Jim, the real young Jim, he’s a real, real nice guy. He’s also an ex-Marine. He was a naval aviator. I get from a lot of different people that he might not be the one to take over. One of the other two boys may be the one.
Q – There’s two other boys?
A – Yeah.
Q – What are their names?
A – I think it may be in the book. (Laughs). The business is more than the carnival. They own a couple of fairs. One of the boys kind of works in that area. Then they had a huge concert stage, I’m not sure if they still have it, that they used to rent. Rock ‘n’ Roll concerts. The oldest daughter Susan, she’s married to a fellow by the name of Magid. Tim Magid. She’s the oldest of the children. They have their own carnival. He had a huge funhouse and I think he has a new one now that he books. He books that on the Strates Shows. But, they play a whole series of winter dates in Florida and then they play independent dates and then he books some of his equipment on some of the real big Fair dates. It’s one of those things. I don’t know who the heir apparent would be. Knowing Jimmy because he’s always had that family feeling, he’s always wanted the whole family involved, he might want it run by a group of his kids. I don’t know just what will happen. I really don’t.
Official Website: Strates.com
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