According to the Showman’s Guild of Australia, there are more than 700 agricultural shows held each year in Australia.
- People who own and operate rides in sideshow alley are known as ‘showmen’ or ‘showies’, never ‘carnies’
- There are more than 700 agricultural shows held each year in Australia
- Up to 400 show families travel around, following the show circuit
The guild has more than 1,000 members who, collectively, own in excess of 300 major rides, nearly 600 children’s rides as well as amusements, games and food stalls.
Those who own and operate the rides in sideshow alleys are known as “showmen” or “showies” — but never “carnies”, a derogatory American term.
It is estimated that showies pump more than $1 billion a year into the rural communities they visit across Australia.
Dagwood Dog guy
Jessie McDonald is a fifth-generation showie whose family started running amusements back in 1917.
“Back then it was horse and carts and kerosene lamps,” Mr McDonald said.
“Then it was done on the trains and railways. Now we have trucks and caravans.”
Mr McDonald said he loved his job and that it was more about the lifestyle than the work: “What other job allows you to travel to Far North Queensland in the middle of winter?”
“We follow the sun. We are in North Queensland in the winter and in summer head back down south.”
Even though Mr McDonald has a house in Brisbane, he spends between up to 10 months a year on the road.
“Every family is different, as we are all individual businesses,” he said.
“Some other families spend close to 12 months of the year on the road.
“Our caravans are like apartments. You have all the luxuries that you would have in a house.
“During lockdown I was stuck in my house and, after a while I started thinking, ‘Gee, I miss the caravan.'”
Mr McDonald is known as ‘The Dagwood Dog Guy’ after last year’s COVID-19 lockdowns
Even though Dagwood Dogs can now be bought at fish and chip shops and service stations, Mr McDonald said that these were not the same as show dogs.
“A good Dagwood Dog is made with fresh batter, a fresh frankfurt and given straight to the public,” he said.
“The ones in the shop are made by a wholesaler.”
At decent-sized agricultural shows, there can be more than 500 showies, ride operators and staff who live beside the show, which can end up looking like its own mini town with its own café and school.
“Nowadays our kids have the option of either going to university, working in the family business or doing whatever they choose.
“When I was growing up, I was already working for my parents by the time I was 10 years old.
“I would like see the family business continue but, if they want to leave and become a doctor, I won’t stop them.”
Big-time ride operator
Jamie Pickett is another long-term showie whose grandfather started selling soft toys to other traveling showies.
“It’s a family business and, during school holidays, we would help my parents,” Mr Pickett said.
“When I left school, I started my own sideshow games and slowly, over the years, you build your business up and now I have some of the biggest rides in Australia.”
One of Mr Pickett’s rides is The Beast, which weighs 80 tonnes and needs three trailers for transporting, taking more than eight hours to erect.
“This is the biggest pendulum ride in Australia,” he said.
“It swings 45 metres into the air and the customers will pull about 3g mid-ride, but when it gets to the top it gives you a sense of weightlessness.”
Mr Pickett said the show circuit was in his blood.
“My parents showed me how to work hard and how to earn a living,” he said.
“I don’t have to do this, but I absolutely love it.
“When all the kids are with us, it can get a bit cosy in the van, but we get to visit some of the nicest places in Australia as a family.”
In 2020, a woman was injured in Cairns after she fell 30m from a ride. It’s something Mr Pickett said was almost unheard of in amusement ride circles.
“The legislation states that we have to have an independent engineer inspect our rides at least once a year,” he said.
“With our rides, we can have up to four inspections a year and, prior to operating, every ride has a maintenance schedule that we have to adhere to.
“On top of that, we have our COVID plan, which means every ride gets a deep clean, so they are safe and clean when people ride,” he said.
Gordon Richards from the Showbag Warehouse has been selling the themed bags for more than 45 years.
“I started when they were still sample bags. I started travelling, loved the lifestyle and stayed at it.
“Once it’s in your blood, you stay at it and keep doing it.
“I am 70 years old now and still travelling and working. It keeps me young.”
Mr Richards said he was with the first company to put out novelty showbags.
“The first novelty showbags were Micky Mouse, Spiderman and Wonder Woman and we still sell those same characters today,” he said.
Over the past 45 years, Mr Richards has seen a lot of fads come and go
“Some of our biggest selling showbags were the Ninja Turtles, Alf and Frozen, which still continues to sell well,” he said.
Even though Mr Richards’ family grew up on the road, they are now all moving away from the show circuit.
“My son says I worked him too hard when he was young,” Mr Richards said.
“I would like my son to take over the business when I retire, but I understand why he wouldn’t want to.”