Cherry Fest carny life: 'what happens here, stays here'

Jul 10, 2015


Behind the bright colors and dizzying rides at the National Cherry Festival is a group of people who work long hours and love their jobs. Carnies are a community, and Matt Cunningham says they wear the carny title proudly.

"I love being a carny, you know," says Cunningham. "It’s a lifestyle. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle."

The carnival at the Cherry Festival looks like a Kodachrome picture - bright primary colors and signs with old fonts. It has that classic fried food smell, and children on rides are squealing the requisite amount.

Matt is running the balloon store with three other guys - Spider, Wolf and Oscar. He’s paid on commission so he’s trying to get the people walking by his game to play. He runs through some of his lines to get people off the sidewalk. These lines are for a couple on a date.

"It’d be like 'hey, Romeo, you’ve got your prize; now let’s win her a stuffed animal,'" Matt says. "Or 'alright, Miss, you’ve already got a stuffed animal; now let’s win you a prize.' And they always laugh about that."

This is how Matt's game works. You bust one balloon, you win a prize. Simple. Matt gets cocky and tries to show me he can hit the balloons without looking. He throws three darts behind his back. Misses. He tries one more throw, and hits a balloon.

Sherry Bolin runs Firetruck Derby a few games down from Matt’s balloons. She says carnies get to travel and meet new people. They also get to spend time with the carny family. She say Arnold Amusements looks out for their employees. They may work twelve to fourteen hour days, but they get sleeping quarters on-site and other perks too.

"I got a new hat yesterday," Sherry says. "They take care of you. It's an Arnold show hat, and I guess they bling-blinged it all up so I have yellow diamonds all over it. Rhinestones, of course." 

Sherry says the hat makes her "Queen of the Crazies" because she’s crazy to still be doing this at her age, but she says crazy people have more fun. 


Sherry Bolin waits for customers at Firetruck Derby at the Cherry Festival.
Credit Morgan Springer

"I've done this all my life," Sherry says. "I retired four years ago, and I couldn’t stay home. So I come to work for the Arnolds, and I manage six of the owners' games. I just love it. Keeps you young. I’m seventy-three years old and going strong. [It's] another day in paradise.”

Sherry says carnies like her get stereotyped and some people do have criminal records. 

Timothy Wood just got out of prison in April. He came up here from Tampa, Florida. 

“I mean, I have a record," says Timothy. "And people look at you from your past and stuff, but these people here, they’re good people. A lot of people won’t hire you. That’s why I say I fall back from the partying and all that stuff because this is my second chance."

After doing three years time, Timothy left prison with 25 dollars, a pair of shoes and no job. He has a ten-year-old daughter and an ex-wife down south but couldn’t find a good job there. Then he met a lady who said he should try working for the Arnolds. He got hired, and bought a one-way bus ticket from Tampa to Michigan. Now Timothy's right where he feels he's supposed to be.

"I’m going to be a carny for life now," he says. "I’m stuck. I’m addicted."

Employees do have to go through a background check before they’re hired. They’re drug tested every month, and there’s no drinking on the job. Timothy says one of his coworkers was fired two weeks ago for drinking. 

After long hours, some carnies do break loose, partying and drinking, but Matt Cunningham says they won’t talk about it.

"Carnival life is like Vegas," he says. "What happens here stays here. If you want to know what it’s like, come work for it."

Matt and a few others carnies say everyone should work at a carnival at least once in their lives.