All the dumb things

A cautionary tale in development

Momma don’t let your babies grow up to be carnies

Posted by razzbuffnik on May 2, 2007

This is part one of of a three part chapter from my “all the dumb things” series, about my time as a laser light show operator.

Back in 1980 I used to work in the U.S. as a laser light show operator in the carnival with a company called “Laser 1”. We used to do the carnival circuit in the warm months and car shows in the winter months. Russell Rauch, the originator of the original “Roach T-shirts” was the owner (with a few partners) of the Laser show and he started in the carnival business with strobe light in a tent, at a time when strobes were still a new thing to the public. Russell had a fairly long history of making money out of new or novel things. 

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The laser show was performed in a 50ft (about 15m) diameter air inflated dome attached to the side of a semi trailer that had a folding sheet metal façade housing the entrance and control room. Two large blower fans supported the dome and the entrance was a revolving door with rubber seals (to keep the air in). The dome had a capacity of up to three hundred people, who would watch the show while lying on their backs on the carpeted floor.

At the time, it was a real rock and roll, dream job, for a guy of my age (24).

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We’d pump out a show every fifteen minutes and we used to often turn in14-hour days. Show after show, we’d take turns, selling tickets, spruiking and performing the shows.

The beginning of the spruik went a bit like this:

“Laser 1, the ultimate in light and sound!”
“A dazzling display of laser lights in fantasy flights!”

Sheesh, it sounds so corny now, but at the time, when we were on the mike, we thought we were just so cool. There were also lots of people who wanted to meet us and it is the closest I’ll ever come to being a rock star. We were sure we had the best job in the carnival. There were usually only three of us working, Buzz, Jordan and myself.  Because of the rock and roll nature of the show and our head spaces at the time, Buzz Jordan and I looked like the Furry Freak Brothers, which was cool in the big cites in the northern states but it went down “like a fart in an elevator” in the south. We all had beards and long hair. Buzz had long brown loose curls, Jordan a big dirty blond Afro and I had blazing red, shoulder length hair. The people who ran the Kansas State fair (in Hutchison) told our head office that, “they didn’t want people like us, back”.

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Buzz, a New Yorker, was the manager and was educated in the technical side theatre. Buzz was definitely the brains of our little group and he was always calm, organised and decent. Buzz took things in his stride and not many things disturbed his calm aura. He once beat at a game of chess while he was driving the truck. As the manager, Buzz tended to look after the financial side of the business, which meant he also used to spend most of his time in the ticket selling tickets and spruiking.

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Jordan, from Philadelphia, despite his “peace, love and mung beans”, outward appearance, was into modified cards and was basically a music loving motor-head in freak disguise. Jordan’s father was (from my naive perspective at the time) the last word in cool and he had a car collection that included a 1969 Lamborghini Miura, which he once took me for a ride in. Up until I’d met Jordan’s father, I thought all fathers were remote and out of touch.

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One time in central Florida (I think it was Ocala), our truck’s timing chain broke and we had about four hours to kill while it was being repaired, so we went to a bar. I guess the first mistake we made is that the three of us walked in, imitating the “Three Wild and Crazy guys “ sketch from the T.V. show Saturday Night Live. We were always ready to have some fun and we thought this would be a good strategy to start the ball rolling. Everybody in the bar (about five guys), as one, got up and walked out, before we got half across the room. In retrospect, I suppose I should be glad that’s all that happened. 

No big deal, we ordered some drinks from the nonplussed bartender and put some money in the juke box. There was only country and western, which I knew very little about, so I chose several Charlie Rich songs. As soon as the music started, the bartender came over and told me that my music was too loud. I, in return pointed out that it was his jukebox and that, should he desire, he could turn it down.  He pulled the plug out of the wall. By this time the three of us had picked up on the vibe (I didn’t stop being insensitive until I was about 40), but that didn’t deter us and we stayed in character for the rest of the afternoon, playing pool like Steven Martin and Dan Ackroyd would’ve as the “Wild and Crazy guys”, laughing our heads off. We though it was hilarious and had the bar to our selves for the rest of the time we were there.

I hadn’t seen the movie Easy Rider back then. Now that I have, I thank my lucky stars that the “good ole boys” who left when we first came in, didn’t come back with their friends and some sporting equipment to put us in touch with their feelings.

Another time in Van Horn, Texas, at about 11.pm, Buzz, Jordan and I were playing pinball in the lobby of the Holiday Inn where we were staying. When a stereotypical southern redneck Texas Ranger (you know the type, chewing tobacco, huge beer gut, wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses, indoors even at night) came up to us and told us to stop playing the game and get out of the lobby.  We told him we were paying guests of the hotel and had a right to be there. He pulled out his baton and told us if we didn’t stop playing and leave the lobby, he was going to crack our heads and arrest us for disturbing the peace. If I had seen such a thing in a movie I wouldn’t have believed it. Up until then I thought such stereotypes were just a counter-cultural bogeymen.

Part 2

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