A lifetime at the fair, Scooter remembers 33 years on the road
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 5, 2006 1:55 PM
Running away to the join the carnival ... it sounds like a cliché - something every child dreams of doing and maybe even threatens once or twice. But who really does it? Who really leaves home at the age of 7, hitchhikes nearly 700 miles and goes to work on a carnival midway?
Who does something like that?
Scooter Ryales did.
And for 33 years now, his candy apples, popcorn, cotton candy and lemonade at Scooter's Concessions have been among Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair's most popular treats.
Which booth is his? It's the sparkling clean, bright yellow and red trailer with potted plants around it at the top of the fairgrounds.
"I don't want to move anywhere else on the fairgrounds. It's a spot that folks look for because people know where Scooter's going to be at. You can't miss it," he said.
But he hasn't always been there. In fact, he's come quite a long way to get to that spot.
The year was 1954 and Scooter was 7 years old.
He was living with his mother, father, three brothers and two sisters in the back of an RV park in Darien, Ga., where his father did maintenance work.
"At the time I didn't know what a carnival person was. The carnival had never come to town," Scooter said.
The park, though, was where carnival workers often stopped to rest in between travels.
One day, as he was helping his father clean up around the park, Roy Allen, owner of a nearby road joint - a roadside restaurant and rest stop-- asked Scooter if he wanted a job mopping and doing the dishes. He offered him $1 a day.
He jumped at the chance.
"I was thinking, all of this for a dollar a day. I was thinking it was a dream."
A few months later, while Scooter was working, Billie Garber, Allen's mother-in-law, came in for a visit.
"She was telling Mr. Allen that she was looking for a balloon boy. Roy said, 'There's your kid right there.'"
She was looking for somebody to travel with her on the carnival circuit and blow up balloons for a balloon game.
She offered $2 a day.
"They were trying to make me a millionaire," he said.
But there was a catch. He had to ask his mother.
And, of course, she said no.
"She didn't understand," he said
And that could have been the end of it -- had Scooter's father not been an abusive alcoholic.
"I came home one night and Dad was in one of his stupors and he gave me the beating of my life. That's all it took."
He put on his shoes -- old tennis shoes with the front of the soles cut off to keep them from flopping -- took a brown paper bag, stuffed in an extra shirt and pair of pants and left.
"That was all I had," he said. "We were poor country folks."
He had no change of socks or underwear, but he was headed to Owensboro, Ky., 700 miles away.
It was where he'd heard the carnival was going next.
The trip took him several days.
His shoes were in disrepair -- "I wasn't thinking about food. All I could think about was what it'd be like to have a new pair of shoes." -- and he spent more than one night sleeping in a ditch. But, he said, the people who gave him rides were all nice.
Some offered him sandwiches, but most just left him alone.
Finally, he arrived in Owensboro and caught one last ride out to Labert's Field where the carnival was setting up.
"You can imagine a child who'd never seen a carnival ... I walked onto the carnival midway and it was like walking onto a good twilight zone. I'd never seen anything like that," he said.
Walking up to the first tent he came to -- to the surprise of those inside -- he asked for directions.
"When she opened that door and saw me, she was just ecstatic," Ryales said.
He stayed with her until he was 15 years old.
"She looked just like a grandma, but she was meaner than a snake."
Earning the agreed-upon $2 a day, he was only paid for days the carnival was actually open. The rest of the time he did odd jobs for one of cookhouses. There, he was paid in food.
"I had it covered every day," he said.
And every fall, when the carnival's season was over, Ms. Garber would take him back home and he would go to school.
"She (his mother) thought I was a movie star. I could tell her about places I'd been and things I'd seen ...
"They didn't know what to think because they didn't understand what was going on in this world, but my mom realized I wasn't losing any weight and that I was eating and not getting in trouble ... She was sort of proud of the fact that her kid had done what I'd done."
But at the age of 15, Scooter's life took another turn.
After another long, and he felt successful, season, he was headed home once again for the fall.
Because Ms. Garber held his drawer (his payout) until the end of the season, he was sure he had at least $200 coming his direction. But when she dropped him off at the bus station in Tampa, she only gave him his ticket home and $25.
Surprised and disgusted, he gave the money back to her -- only to realize she had more than $10,000 in her purse.
Even still, he climbed aboard and went home to Darien.
He never made it, though.
Because he had a return ticket for the next season, as soon as he got home, he hopped the next bus and went right back to Tampa and the carnival.
This time, however, he went to work for Whitey Richards, who'd been after him for years.
He eventually worked his way up to running his own balloon game and earning a percentage of his own take.
The year was 1964 and Scooter was 17 years old.
It was Labor Day weekend and the carnival was in Marshfield, Wisc.
This time he had his own 15-year-old balloon boy.
After closing up shop one evening, the two teenagers went out for dinner at a local pizza joint. There, Ryales said, a beautiful girl walked in with several of her girlfriends. His balloon boy, who just happened to know the girl, introduced them.
Beverly was an 18-year-old high school senior and a nurse's aid.
"We sat there and talked and ate our pizza," Ryales said.
But the carnival had to be on its way and soon left for Monmouth, Ill.
"Next thing I knew, she showed up in Monmouth. She said I asked ... I don't remember ... but there she was."
She had run away, too.
"Who know's what you're thinking at that age," Beverly said.
Needing something to do with her while he worked, Scooter set her up in a ticket window her first night there. Afterward, he convinced Richards to give her a game to run so he could keep a closer eye on her.
"She didn't have any idea about any part of the business. She was absolutely and totally lost. I'd been in the business for years and she was walking in cold turkey, but she was a natural at it."
The two of them were a natural fit, too, and on Nov. 26 -- just days after Scooter's 18th birthday -- they were married.
"We got along good and we decided to get married. Everybody said we'd never make it, but here we are 42 years later," Beverly said.
Shortly after getting married, Scooter and Beverly decided to strike out on their own.
They pooled their money, bought a beatup pickup truck and set up their own balloon and one-ball games.
"That's how we got our start. It's hard work, but we work today the same way we did in 1964," Scooter said. "Her and I are left arm and right arm. We're together 24/7."
And their operation grew.
They bought more games, concession stands, cookhouses and even rides.
"We put in some serious hours and did some very hard work," Scooter said.
They had two children -- Kenny Scott Ryales (who now has his own operation on a separate circuit) and Rhonda Sue Menendez.
It all lasted until about 1972.
Things started coming unraveled when a ride almost collapsed on Kenny during set-up.
"My wife said, 'no more ...'"
The final straw, though, came when their employees decided to hold a union-style meeting.
Despite already providing their employees with some of the best accommodations on the circuit, Ryales said, they wanted more.
In Crown Point, Ind., in August, on the Thursday before the last weekend of their stop - their biggest weekend -- he paid them all and let them go.
Scooter returned home to River View, Fla., with his family. By December, they had sold all their equipment.
They had nothing left, but they also were able to pay off all their debts.
"My wife asked, 'What are we going to do now?' I said, 'I don't have a clue.'"
It just so happened, though, a friend was selling a popcorn stand and offered it to them.
It was a move Scooter said he was leery to make.
"I ain't never made a box of popcorn in my life other than in the microwave," he said.
But they took it and struck out once again on their own.
Their first year they lost $3,500.
The problem was location -- they didn't have one.
But things have changed over the years. They bought a new trailer, their operation expanded, and now at the fairs they go to, people look for their distinctive yellow and red booth with potted plants around the outside.
"I've been on that corner there for a long time (more than 20 years). You don't want to change locations because people look for you there," he said of his spot at the Wayne fairgrounds.
Life on the road
"Every kid dreams about running away and joining the carnival. It's a great life. It's the hardest life, but I wouldn't trade it. I met my wife at the fair. I've led a fascinating life," Ryales said. "This is a town we set up every week. We move from city to city, county to county and we completely erect a whole city. This is no longer a carnival. It's a traveling amusement park. We're bringing the people something extraordinary for the value.
"This is my living."
For Scooter and Beverly the season kicks off each year in January in Florida.
By May they're in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. Come Labor Day, they're in North and South Carolina - they came from Wilson and are headed to Spartanburg, S.C. And by November, they're home again in Florida.
But despite the fact they'll both turn 60 this year, those three months aren't quiet.
There are conventions to go to, work to do on the trailer, and for Scooter, volunteer work to do for the Shriner's Hospital for Children and the Hillsborough County Senior Citizen Program.
"Kids and elderly people, I've got a special place in heart for them," he said.
It's that love for people that's driven him for the last 53 years.
"It's all about the people. It's a personal relationship. You treat people the way you want to be treated," he said. "You come to this fair here and it's like coming into a family reunion. Every week it's like that. I've got a big family strung out along the U.S."
They've been a part of the Wayne Regional Fair family since 1973.
"A lot of the people who came up to our trailer in 1973, today they're bringing their kids and grandkids. I look forward to seeing these people every year," he said.
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