Chip Wilson Interview
(Paymaster for James E Strates Shows / Weight And Age Guesser for The Murphy Brothers)
Chip Wilson worked as a Paymaster for the only carnival moving by train-the James E Strates Shows. He then went to work as one of those guys who guesses your age and weight for The Murphy Brothers.
We talked to Chip Wilson about his experiences with the James E Strates Shows and The Murphy Brothers and the state of the carnival business in America today.
Q - Chip, you told Matt Cook’s Carnival Warehouse Newsletter that the Strates train no longer pulls coaches. Why would that be? The coaches provide the sleeping quarters for the workers. Where then do all the workers sleep?
A – The railroad wanted the Strates to put an exorbitant amount of insurance on the coaches because you have people living on the track. That was really the problem. When I was with Strates in the early 90s we’d live on a spur by a lot of times we’d be right next to a hot track, literally 6 feet away from hot track. I’m not saying it was the safest place to live. You never really lived in a great neighborhood because you always lived in an industrial neighborhood or a factory district in whatever towns. A couple years ago they told Strates they wanted them to get several million dollars’ worth of insurance to cover the liability of having people live on the railroad. Jay (Strates) and them decided it would be cheaper for them to Just go with the semi-trailers over the road instead.
Q - When you say “hot tracks” you’re referring to passenger and freight trains going past you?
A - Oh, sure. In the Boston area we were up there and we were literally right next to railroad tracks that were active all the time. So, the train would rock back and forth. You could feel the other trains going by all the time. Sometimes we would be in an off spur and we’d be further away and sometimes we’d be in a more concentrated population area. In Boston we were parked next to a mall there was a track right next to us that was an active track full-time. You had to get off the train on a certain side so you stay away from the other track.
Q - Did you get much sleep?
A - You learn to sleep. When you set up the carnival you literally stay up for 24 hours the first day, when you’re unloading the train. For the office staff we were the chase cars for the stuff coming off the train. They unloaded 52 cars and we’d follow the tractors with safety vehicles with lights on from the train which wasn’t always advantageously next to the fairgrounds. Originally that’s where they were but sometimes we have to travel 2 or 3 miles from where the trains were offloading to get to the midway, to get to the carnival grounds. We would get the location and they’d start unloading the trains and we would follow the tractor pulling everything for about 24 hours and then the green help along with the carnies were setting up the rides at the same time. So, you literally didn’t sleep for the first day. You worked for 10 days that the midway was opened. On the last day on teardown, you did the same thing, you’d follow tractors back to the train. I was making decent money at the time but when I added up all the hours I worked in a week, I made waitress tips. (Laughs). I was working so much.
Q - Did you know George Beecher?
A - Yeah. A big fan (of). When I was the Paymaster George worked in the main office. George worked for them (Strates) for years and years. He was a character. I think he originally was a circus guy and then he went to work for Strates. When George counted money he would tug every dollar and he was very methodical of counting money. It always drove me nuts because I would speed count and George would count every individual dollar very slowly.
Q - Did he retire?
A - I believe so. I saw George two or three years ago and that was 20 years after I’d been on the show. George was on the road for years and years. He was from the Northeast, Connecticut or Maryland. He was a funny guy. He was an amazing guy.
Q - Getting back to the coaches if they’re not being pulled by the train, where do workers sleep?
A - They would do semi bunk houses. It’s a trailer with bunk houses in it. That’s what they’ve had to evolve too. The story goes that in the 70s the circus got rid of their train coaches and strates bought them that’s what I lived on in the early 90s, late 80s, early 90s. It was a circus coach that had been retired 20 years earlier. (Laughs).
Q - And where are the coach cars today?
A - I believe Strates have them down in their winter quarters in Taft, Florida. There parked on a spur. They’ve got 40 cars down there with the railroad spur that they take the train to every year. That’s where they winter and maintain all the rides.
Q - You were with Strates for a year?
A - Yes. I started out in Foxboro, Massachusetts. That was my first show and I traveled all around. We did the New York State Fair, the Delaware State Fair, the North Carolina State Fair. At the time they were doing a bunch of big state fairs.
Q - Before you were with Strates what were you doing?
A - (Laughs). I was in a fraternity in the University of Florida. A fraternity brother with Jay Strates. It was funny. I walked out of the University and joined the carnival. I was in the construction industry my family had a business and I just really wanted to do something different. I hadn’t traveled extensively. I did the eastern seaboard with them. In the first year I went all the way to Syracuse and back. I met Jay’s dad, the “Chief”. He was a character he was an interesting guy.
Q - A former Marine, he looked tough.
A - Oh, yeah. Very much so. He didn’t actually choose the carnival. The carnival chose him because it was the family business. Of course they had the fire and the passing of family member (James E. Strates in 1959) he had to jump in and either get it rolling or lose it all. That’s what he did. He took it on. I’m friends with Jay. It’s funny. When I met Jay I asked him what exactly do your parents do for a living? He said, oh, were in outdoor amusements. And I had no idea what that meant. He said, well were carnies. But, Jay’s family is from Winter Park, Florida which is like a very upper-middle-class area in Orlando. So, it’s un characteristic of these people to own one of the last train traveling carnival in North America or actually live in a yuppie neighborhood, in a very nice area of Orlando. It was interesting. Jay begged me not to do it, but I did it anyway. He said, no. You can’t join the carnival. You’ll never get out. I did a year and then I got another offer and I did another year in another aspect of it at another show which was really different and I made a lot of money doing that.
Q - And that other show was The Murphy brothers.
A - Yeah. Murphy brothers out of Oklahoma. And, I want to tell you one thing that Strates Shows is a business and was always run like a business. The Strates family are business people.
Q - You were a paymaster for Strates. What does a Paymaster do?
A - You do the time for everybody that works there, and so you’re the payroll guy. It’s different corporations. Every guy that works on this ride works for this corporation or works for this group. And so you paid everybody. That was the thing every week. But also you’re an accountant which in the carnival is a very literal term which means you count money. That’s one of the things you constantly do, count and validate money. There’s a cash flow running through there that you constantly have to process and get off the midway. So, I would do payroll two, three days a week and count money, two, three days a week. Literally you would go into a room and they would bring money and you would count money and you would get out of the room and your hands were black from the carnival cash – which is cotton candy and soda pop and all kinds of other stuff. I was in the construction industry and eight hours of counting cash and your hands just look like you’d been on the construction site all day long. Money is really dirty. Everything we validated by hand. We had money counters but because the money was sticky and wet. If it rained the money just got disgusting. I had to hand count and verify everything. It was always a lot of checks and balances. It was interesting. You wouldn’t realize that business was doing that kind of volume. At the Carolina State fair we sold 1 million tickets in one day. And the tickets range from $.30-$.50 depending on what package you bought, but, that was one day on ten day show.
Q - Then you went to Murphy Brothers were you guessed people’s ages and weight. Did you have to have some kind of specialized training to do that?
A - (Laughs). It’s repetition and an acquired skill. When you go to the doctor, the doctor prescribes you the quantity of whatever he’s giving you based on what your body makeup is. Any nurse or doctor that’s in the profession that weigh people every day they know what your body makeup is. In other words they can tell you what your body mass is. In different states people weigh differently. In North Dakota you get another 10 to 15 pounds as opposed to everywhere else because it’s colder than hell in the state. In order to code it, it takes you a day or two to figure out the body makeup there. They’re also Scandinavian and Norwegian which is a bigger bone mass. People in Florida who are constantly in the sun look older than the rest of the country because we expose ourselves to the UV rays. So, you get to deduct five years in Florida from what they look like in say New York State. It takes you about three days. If you set up back at a grocery store on a beach with a scale you could guess weight all day long. It’s just repetition. I was doing 300 guesses a day, well; let’s say 300 to 500 guesses a day. After two or three days it just became second nature. But, I was good at it. I was a shameless self-promoter. I would find TV stations. There were always TV stations on the midway. You’d say, hey, there is this yuppie guesser down there. You should really talk to him. He’s really interesting. They’d come down and say you’re the guy? And I’d say yeah. If I could get on television I could make another thousand bucks a week. So, I would always get myself on TV. In North Dakota I had a location head of midway and I did to live remotes on the same 5 o’clock news hour. The next day there was a line, 30 people waiting to get their age and weight guessed because I was the guy from television. (Laughs). Not a lot going on in North Dakota.
Q- You probably gave it up because you got tired of it.
A – You got tired. You lived in a truck. With Strates I had a really nice Stateroom on the train which would be like a double cabin. Let me explain the train to you. The train had a caboose and it had Mr. Strates car which is an 80’ (foot) custom built car that they built for the family to stay on. We’re talking veneer paneling, polished oak. Really nice. Then we had the ex-Circus cars which was like 4 or 5 of those cars where the ‘carnies’ lived and you had two ‘carnies’ per suite. And then you got to where the office staff lived and we had one suite per office staff and then there was the generator car and the train cars that hauled the stuff. So, there were five living cars in a row there that housed the ‘carnies’. It went from Mr. Strates, which would be like living on Central Park Place to the ‘carnies’ suites which would be like living on lower rent districts to our suites. We just had more space. We didn’t necessarily have better accommodations; we just had more space than they did. Wherever the train was parked you had to find the train. Sometimes they moved the train day to day and you would have to drive in a big circle looking railroad tracks to see where they moved the train to. Then you’d have to find a place to park. Sometimes we’d walk half a mile down the train tracks to where we lived. It was a very unique experience. You started your day at 8 A.M. and then you worked ‘til midnight. That was for ten days you did that. Then, if you couldn’t find the train, you’re worn out from working all day and you drive around for 20 minutes trying to figure out where the hell they moved the train-------it was funny. It was unique. This is what happened.
Q- You know of course that after 60 plus years, the Strates Shows lost their contract with The New York State Fair. I believe they also lost the North Carolina State Fair. What’s going on? If anybody know the Midway business it’s Strates. Is it because other shows had bigger rides?
A – They had a ride that took eight semi’s to haul. They had all these rides. That wasn’t the reason. The reason was money. It was purely financial. That’s how they lost it. They call ‘em spectaculars. It wasn’t the lack of spectaculars because spectaculars exist. You can get them from other shows and you can get them on your show. But, when it came down to losing those fairs, it was all dollars and cents.
Q- Today, you’re at Schmid Construction Company and you do what there?
A – I’m a construction supervisor. My original genetic flaw in my make-up was my family was in the construction industry. I’ve always fought to get out of that my whole life. I always come back to it because the moneys good. I quit in the late 90’s. I went into television. I worked for West Channel 2 Broadcasting, West NBC affiliate in Orlando for 3 years.
Q- What did you do there?
A – I was a video editor. I went back to college and got my communication degree. That was actually my goal the whole time-----to go into television. I did that for 3 years and realized there’s no money in television. Enjoyed it. Enjoyed the job. I was married to a musician slash artist and you can’t have two musicians slash artists in the family unless you want to be poor. So, I went back into construction.
Q- Somebody’s making money in television?
A – Well, I’ll tell you what, it isn’t as much as it used to be. Think about it: you used to have three networks. You had NBC, CBS and ABC. So, you spread the advertising dollar over three networks. You’re talking millions and millions of dollars. Now you take that advertising dollar and you spread it over 200 channels and how many websites? So, the basic television advertising dollar has really gone away. When I was in it there were people making half a million dollars a year doing the news. Now, nobody’s making six figures. There’s no money. I also have a food truck and catering business that I do on the weekends. It’s my bad hobby which is very carnival like. I don’t do any midway stuff because it’s barbeque and I just can’t stand barbeque for ten days. It would kill me.
Q- Who’s running the Strates Shows today?
A – Mr. Strates is still very heavily in the mix. Jay has two other brothers John and Jim and they’re in the mix. Although they’re an old Greek family, so the women don’t play a primary role, Susan has always been a strong player in it and Sybil has always been in the marketing. The kids are still in it. Jay’s is still in it whether he wants to be or not. He lived it for 16 or 18 years, every day. He was on the road 9 months. But, he’s just stepped back. Jay’s got younger kids. They’re like 12 and 8. He finally decided hey, I want to watch my kids grow up. But, when you’re in it, you’re in it. Mr. Strates offered to buy me a ride the first year I was out. That’s how he would suck you in. He’d buy you a small ride and you’d start making a little more money and you’d buy a bigger ride and a bigger ride and in 5 years you’re in for $100,000 and you can’t leave because you’re making so much money you don’t know anything else. This is a great character story about Mr. Strates. I’m on the midway. It’s my first day. I’m 6’ (foot) tall. I weigh about 140 pounds. I’m a big, tall skinny kid. Strates says to me, ‘Go down and tell Mussolini we want the train washed’. We’re in Foxboro. We’re going to Boston. ‘Go down and find Mussolini’ that was the trainmaster and tell him, ‘I want the train washed before next week’. So, Scott Coons is standing next to me and goes ‘Are you going to find Mussolini really’? I said, ‘Yeah. I’m going to tell him Mr. Strates wants the train washed’. He said, ‘I’m just going to go to see how this plays out’. So, I go down and they say Mussolini is under the Tilt A Whirl. He’s working on a ride that’s 40 years old. He’s underneath it. I lean down, silk tie, button down shirt, Khaki pants, ‘Mr. Mussolini, my names Chip Wilson. Mr. Strates has requested that you wash the train for next week before we go to Boston’. And, this little sawed off guy, 5’ 6”, 5’ 7”, comes out, disfigured nose from being broken, scars up and down his arms and elbows from working on trains for years and he’s just the meanest; he’s just muscle from head to toe. He goes, ‘Who the fuck are you’? (Laughs) I said, ‘I’m Chip Wilson. Mr. Strates requested that you have the train washed by next week’. ‘You go tell Strates to go fuck himself. We don’t have time for that shit. Fuck you. Fuck Strates’ And he crawls back under the Tilt A Whirl. So, I go back up and Strates is standing there with his fedora, chewing a cigar. He goes, ‘So, what did Mussolini say’? I said, ‘Sir, he said they’d get right on it’. (Laughs) And, for the next three days I washed the fucking train because it had to get washed. So, Mussolini sees me on the second day and says, ‘What the fuck are you doing’? I said, ‘I’m washing the train’. He said, ‘No. It’s all fucking wrong. You’re using the wrong material’. He brings me brushes. He brings me buckets and he brings me help because by that time I had already washed an entire car by myself.
Q – What would have happened to you if you told Mr. Strates exactly what this guy Mussolini said? Would he have been fired?
A – No. Fuck, no. You don’t fire the trainmaster. The train crew is the last place you go before you get kicked off the midway. You start out in gaming. That’s where the money is. You slide in to running rides and then if you’ve gotten into a fight or hit somebody or done something the last crew you get on to is the train crew. It’s the roughest, toughest crew there is. At night you pick up garbage. You do the garbage route for the midway and then you sleep in the daytime and then you work on the train. They’re the hardest roughnecks of the midway. Mussolini is his name because he’s this ruthless ruler that rules this hardest, roughest band of guys on the midway. The test was did I back down to Mussolini or not? He knew Mussolini would chew me up and shit on my neck. He knew that would happen but, he wanted to see how I reacted to it. When I came back five days later and the train was washed he said, ‘I can’t believe you got Mussolini to wash the train’. I said, ‘Well you know, it wasn’t easy’. (Laughs) That was my first encounter with Mussolini. Seven months later we were in Miami and my parents came to visit the show. Mussolini grabbed my parents and said, ‘You got a great son here. Get him off the fuckin’ midway’. (Laughs) He loved me after he got to know me.
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