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1st carnival in 2 years arrives in Hillsboro

Staff writer

Sun glinting off his dark wraparound glasses, Ed Burlingame whirls from corner to corner of his latest beachhead like a general directing landing craft for invasion.

“Watch that up there,” he chides a key lieutenant, one of two adopted sons under his command — this one carefully laying out installations and pathways with a rolling measuring wheel. “You can slide that one in over there.”

With military like precision, Burlingame is at once stern and grandfatherly as he flits from detail to detail in a sun-shaded golf cart that serves as his command car.

His beachhead: a converted parking lot at Marion County Fairgrounds.

His mission: Provide local fairgoers, deprived of carnival rides in recent years, a fair to remember.

“I promise them the most spectacular show they’ve ever had here,” he says from beneath his broad-brimmed straw hat as his crew of more than a dozen begins the task of assembling his attractions.

The rides unfold from atop semitrailers like origami — or, more to the point, like jovial surprises in a pop-up book.

Spills and chills are part of carnival life but, as Burlingame says, “it’s the flash that gets the cash.”

To that end he has assembled his fleet of attractions mainly as rebuilds, which he and his crew renovate and modernized — particularly with the addition of lights.

“The prettier it looks…,” he says, his words trailing off as his eyes roll back in imagination.

His pride and joy is a 20-horse merry-go-round with 1,100 lights.

“It’s like a ball of fire,” he says. “We do all the fancy lights ourselves.”

And all those lights are powered by his own “silent” diesel generator, capable of generating 410 kilowatts — enough power in one second to power a typical American household for half a month. The generator and its fuel tank he has tucked away in back, near the Hillsboro Museums visitor center.

Burlingame and his crew arrived in Hillsboro late Sunday and early Monday, setting up for today’s debut.

Included in the entourage were not just rides but also several camper trailers, including a semitrailer-size 12-person dormitory with showers to provide housing for most of his crew.

“It’s all the comforts of home in there,” he says. “You can even plug in a satellite dish.”

Most of his crew are seasonal workers. Many, he says, drive trucks in the off-season. On truck is how the attractions arrive, and most literally unfold after leveled and secured in position, which is what his crew was tending to on Monday.

“You no longer have to stick things together,” he says, half-lamenting the days when carnival operators had to double as structural ironworkers to set up their attractions.

Burlingame would know. He has been in the carnival business for most of his 66 years.

“I started when I was 7 years old at the Sedalia (Mo.) fair,” he says. “I was from a broken home as they say, living with my grandma — a wonderful Christian woman. She took me in when I was 2½ and raised me.”

At age 14, he says, he ran away from home and joined a carnival. The operators insisted he continue in school, however, and he avoided full-time carnival work for a few years when, at age 17, he joined the Navy. Four years in the service, with weekend duty at carnivals, and he was back in the business full time.

That’s not all he has done — or still does, for that matter. He has run a restaurant and currently runs a paint shop in Baxter Springs, a few miles from his home in Galena and his permanent carnival installation in Joplin, Mo.

“We came from a poor… family,” he says. “I like money.”

He estimates that he will have more than $1.2 million in rides on display in Hillsboro by the time the fair opens today.

And that’s less than half his full carnival, which operates under the name Pride Amusements. He often breaks his carnival into units when playing smaller venues. The other unit this week is playing in Oswego.

Exactly how many attractions — probably 10 or more — will be in place when the fair opens isn’t quite certain.

“I’ll keep putting them in until I run out of space or I run out of rides,” Burlingame says. “A fine gentleman over there just came out and gave a little more space. We’ll put the Aladin (a ride oddly spelled with only one D) into it.”

Pride Amusements was a late addition to the fair lineup because of a cancellation elsewhere.

“That other fair — they had a bad carnival in there for a few years and it really hurt the fair,” Burlingame says. “Hillsboro’s never been much of a carnival town, but it’s a fine place and has a fine fair and maybe we’ll give it a little more life this year.

“One thing I’ll guarantee you: They ain’t seen nothing like this in their area before.”

Last modified July 29, 2010

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