Carnie Knowledge in Canada

For more than 45 years, West Coast Amusements, ?a homegrown multi-generational travelling carnival business, has brought a pirate ship of fun to millions of thrill-seekers ?on its way to becoming the largest mobile ?midway outfit in Canada.

Three generations of the Hauser family (and soon a fourth) have taken the plunge and devoted their lives to the high-stakes business of seasonal carnivals. From left: Hausers Tarah, Kessler, Jacqueline, Kelly, Rob.

For more than 45 years, West Coast Amusements, 
a homegrown multi-generational travelling carnival business, has brought a pirate ship of fun to millions of thrill-seekers 
on its way to becoming the largest mobile 
midway outfit in Canada.

To find the Hauser family under one roof, or in any fixed structure, you have to show up long before the Whack-a-Mole comes out of hibernation. By late March, B.C.’s most enduring carnival family departs from winter digs in the Fraser Valley and splits into four mobile midways, travelling throughout B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan. In RVs and some 200 trucks emblazoned with vivid carnival paintings and the West Coast Amusements Ltd. (WCA) trademark lion logo, the units carry over 100 rides, 85 concessions, 80 games and all the infrastructure of a self-sufficient midway (20 bunkhouses for the up to 500 seasonal employees, 12 generators and three cookhouses) to a series of small events at B.C.’s malls and parks before hitting one of the more than 100 summer fairs and expos across Western Canada. 

“Everyone’s got the itch to hit the road,” says WCA’s 84-year-old founder, Irvin “Bingo” Hauser, as we enter one of the two giant aircraft-hangar-sized buildings at the company’s 14-acre winter compound on Lickman Road, just north of Chilliwack. The spring itch is a common trait among carnies, but this close-knit family of 10 adults and seven children is not simply craving momentum and adventure. After spending the off-season (October to March) visiting carnivals in Europe, attending outdoor amusement trade shows in the U.S. and shopping for rides and equipment to the tune of about $1.5 million, says Hauser, “We need the money, honey! Doesn’t matter what you made last season – by spring you’re ready for the road.”

For the incredibly spry and steadfastly hands-on patriarch, that road remains a profitable one almost 70 years after he got his start on “the show,” as the carnival is called. Hauser won’t reveal WCA’s revenues or profits, but the company’s bread and butter remains the midways it takes to various fairs and expositions. WCA pays each fair board anywhere from 10 to 50 per cent of its gross revenues, with the lion’s share of those revenues coming from large expos such as the Saskatoon Exhibition and Vancouver’s Pacfic National Exhibition (the latter of which owns 30 of its own rides, but has an exclusive contract with WCA for another 20 rides and some games and concessions). According to the U.S.-based Outdoor Amusement Business Association, North America’s approximately 350 carnival operators generate an annual economic impact of some US$2 billion, with large operators (those with more than 50 rides) capable of grossing up to US$20 million each season. 

Still, with so many speed bumps along the road – soaring fuel costs, increased bureaucratic expenses, labour shortages, shrinking budgets from fair boards and a growing array of entertainment choices vying for the public’s disposable dollars – many once-successful show families have fallen by the wayside. Others have been consolidated by a large U.S.-based conglomerate called North American Midway Entertainment (NAME), which bought Ontario-based Conklin Group, one of North America’s iconic carnival operators, in 2004. Today, only the most enterprising and dogged carnies remain independent family affairs. 

WCA has not only survived the wild ride; it’s now the largest homegrown outfit in Canada. In addition to having a lock on the PNE – Canada’s third-largest summer fair, with close to a million annual visitors – WCA has the majority of the carnival operator contracts of B- and C-circuit fairs (anything with annual attendance figures under 200,000) west of Manitoba. These include B.C.’s second-largest annual fair, the Interior Provincial Exhibition and Stampede in Armstrong (with 159,000 expo visitors), and the Cloverdale Rodeo (with 70,000 visitors). The company also partners with NAME at The Saskatoon Ex, Red Deer’s Westerner Days and Canada’s second-ranked fair, the Calgary Stampede. 


Image: Nik West
Irvin Hauser, known as Bingo.

Bingo Hauser, the patriarch

Bingo Hauser’s love for the carnival began in rural Manitoba in the early 1930s. His most vivid childhood memories are of the Barnum and Bailey Circus coming to his hometown of Brandon and temporarily transforming the dull, dusty town into a colourful and exotic playground. During the Second World War, the rail lines and expo sites favoured by the big carnival operators were largely designated for military use and the dominant U.S. carnies stopped touring Canada, opening the market to Canadian entrepreneurs who played at local parks, empty lots and smaller agricultural fairs. In 1942, Patty Conklin’s carnival came through Brandon and Hauser, at age 16, took the leap and joined the show, working odd jobs – including as a carnival barker – and making about $15 per week. Within months, he’d moved up to a $50-a-week management position. 

When the big regional fairgrounds reopened after the war, the industry began to boom. In the summer of 1947, a handful of private companies operating the PNE’s “Happyland” midway grossed $245,000 over seven days, relying in part on small independent operators for their sideshows, concessions and games. Hauser, smelling money, decided to get in on the action. He bought a lion cub named Simba and started a lion tamer show, touring with a number of big outfits throughout Canada and the U.S.; within a year he had a small zoo of animals including a bear, a monkey, an alligator and an anaconda. 


Image: Nik West
From left: Hausers Rino, Mirko, Stephanie, Diego,
Wendy, Dylan, Bob, Laclyn, Darcy, and Levi.

While touring Vancouver in 1948, he met Jacqueline Christmas, whose parents ran cotton-candy booths at several local expos and fairs. Bingo and Jackie married in 1950, bought land in Langley for their winter base and had two children, Laura and Bob. As the public’s taste shifted from shows to rides, Bingo got a bank loan for $40,000 and bought The Scrambler, a popular ride that hovers just above the ground and whips riders around in circles. 

“The classic rides are like money in the bank. We have six of those Tilts,” says Bingo as we tour his Chilliwack compound, pointing out a 30-year-old Tilt-a-Whirl that’s getting a fresh coat of paint. “I always ride them first and I’ve never bought a dud.” 

Through much of the ’50s and ’60s, Hauser toured as an independent contractor for other carnival operators, cultivating relationships with fair boards in towns with mining, forestry and agriculture booms that wanted the thrill rides to attract bigger crowds. By 1964 he had earned enough money to run his own show and West Coast Amusements was born. His first fair contract was in Port Alberni, but soon WCA was operating midways in Prince George, Cloverdale and Abbotsford. All of these partnerships endure to this day. 

“My parents’ success was all about building trust and solid, sincere relationships with fair boards,” says 59-year-old Bobby Hauser, who shows up halfway through our tour to join the conversation. Bobby inherited his dad’s stocky build, winsome smile, mechanical skills and safety-first ethos. He also got his mom’s talent for customer service, having spent every summer vacation of his life on the show. The younger Hauser began investing in his own rides in his mid-20s and now runs the largest of WCA’s units, which plays approximately 65 fairs, including the PNE and the big Prairie fairs. “Every week we go to a new place, and no matter how big or small, they’re our boss that week. We treat every fair like it’s the world’s fair.”


Image: Nik West
Strolling the midway.

Inside the carnival business

The carnival business is inextricably linked with the non-profit societies that operate annual summer festivals. These events provide most of a carnival operator’s venues (and hence, revenues), while the fairs need the sizzle of the midway to draw crowds and offset a significant chunk (up to 20 per cent) of their costs. Of course, like farmers, carnival operators are very much at the mercy of the weather; one rainy weekend “can wreak havoc” on the bottom line, according to Bobby. So the Hausers diversify their revenue stream in various ways, including renting rides and concessions to B.C.’s film industry and for corporate parties and staging one-off events, such as concessions at the 2010 Olympics’ Surrey celebration site. 

Bobby says that, weather aside, the industry is “pretty bullet-proof,” even “recession proof,” noting that WCA grosses about $1.60 every time a person takes one of its rides at the PNE, where ridership numbers total three million. “But fuel and insurance are the big expenses and it costs as much to operate at a tiny fair as at the PNE,” he adds. “My unit alone goes through $40,000 a week on fuel. Liability insurance costs $200,000 a year. Then there’s ride inspection costs and truck insurance. Back in the day, we didn’t have all of these rules and regulations. It’s always been a tough, hands-on business. Now you have to work five times as hard to earn every dollar. But there’s nothing I’d ask any of my employees to do that I wouldn’t do myself.”


Image: Nik West
The thrill seekers.

Many WCA employees I first met in 2009 on the midway at The Port Alberni Fall Fair – with names like Shorty, Barn Dog, Tonka, Tank, Sonny and Maw – confirm the Hauser family’s work ethic, saying that labouring side-by-side with millionaire bosses inspires loyalty. Several of these veterans have worked for the company for decades, a kind of loyalty that represents a competitive advantage for WCA as other operators scramble to import temp workers from other countries. 

The crucial aspect of WCA’s success, though, is that it remains a family-run business that’s flexible to the changing winds, with each new generation injecting innovative ideas and energy into the business. Bobby has been integral to modernizing and “blinging-up” the midway’s aesthetic appeal – adding flashy neon marquees, staff uniforms and impeccably custom-painted rides, trucks and even garbage cans. He also oversaw WCA’s expansion into the Prairies in the mid-’90s, forging new bonds with fairs and developing a partnership with Conklin Shows, now NAME. 

“We were rivals with Conklin, but figured it’s better to have a piece of the pie,” he says. 


Image: Nik West
Eyes on the prize.

West Coast Amusements on the road

WCA contributes about 10 rides to the Calgary Stampede, as well as the majority of midway rides and equipment for fairs in Saskatoon and the entire midway in Red Deer, with NAME paying WCA a percentage of revenues generated by single-ride tickets and all-inclusive wristbands. The U.S. conglomerate was so impressed with WCA’s show and their plum Western Canadian fair partnerships (50 per cent of which are minimum five-year contracts) that, in 2005, it offered WCA US$22 million to buy the Hausers out, plus salaried positions for family members wanting to continue in the business. 

“We flew to New York and met with a bunch of heavy hitters,” says Bingo. “We listened to their sales pitch, but we turned ’em down. We worked so hard to get to where we are today. The fairs are like family and some of our staff – I call them my pensioners – have been with us for 60 years. What would they do? You want to see your kids and grandkids carry on the business, not a bunch of hay-shakers.”

Having spurned the foreign buyers, the Hausers are now grooming a third generation to take over WCA. Bobby’s three adult children, Stephanie, Jaclyn and Bobby Jr., have invested in concession equipment and games, and their own children (Bingo’s seven great-grandkids) now spend their summers on the show, just as Bob had as a kid. Stephanie and Jaclyn, with their husbands Rino Buttazoni and Darcy Benson, work on Bob’s unit, while Bobby Jr. is foreman of Jackie’s unit.

Thirty-one-year-old Bobby Jr. admits the financial side is a tightrope balancing act, pointing to the impending $30,000 ferry bill for his unit’s first set of shows on Vancouver Island. With two small kids of his own and about $1.5 million invested in games and concessions, he says, “We’re always trimming the fat. There’s no such thing as gravy any more in this business. But grandpa built all of this from nothing and I’d love to see my kids take over the business one day.”


Image: Nik West
Closing time.

Will WCA be able to stay lean while maintaining its long-honoured reputation for safety, aesthetic sizzle and a deep connection to the communities it serves?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Bingo, as his son Bobby washes his hands of ride grease in preparation for lunch at a nearby strip mall (Bingo’s buying). The patriarch admits that he’s entertaining the idea of trading his five-acre Langley spread for a winter house in Phoenix or Hawaii, though family and friends later tell me he’d rather take his last breath on the show. 

“Most of the colourful characters are gone,” he says, lamenting the passing of the show’s early sword-swallowers, bearded ladies, illusionists and games hustlers. “I guess you could call bureaucracy the freak show now.”