May 30—Even after a nearly two-year pandemic-prompted hiatus, nobody in the River Hills Mall parking lot seemed to be having any trouble remembering what to do at a carnival.
Hundreds of people smiled as they tilted, whirled, scrambled, bumped and went merrily around. Little boys insisted that, no, the rides didn't scare them at all. Kids looked up pleadingly at adults, asking if they could go again. The parents forked over money for more tickets.
And Greg and Gail Hughes were back in business.
The Mankato couple has owned Family Fun Shows for 25 years, and Greg has worked in carnivals since he was 14. In nearly a half-century in the industry, there had never been a year like 2020.
"It was my first year off in 47 years," Greg Hughes said. "... First year I didn't have a paycheck since '74."
Hughes spent summers working for the Klein Amusement Co. carnival while attending West High School. One summer, he told carnival owner Henry Klein that he was going to stay rather than head back to Mankato for school. Klein begged to differ. Hughes insisted he was staying. Klein really begged to differ.
"He said, 'No, you're fired. And if you don't go to school, you're not going to have a job next year.'"
Although Hughes got his diploma, he'd already purchased a pair of carnival games during his senior year — a spinning color wheel and a basketball shooting game.
"My mom and dad were totally against the idea. And, I quote, my mom says 'I didn't raise you to be no (unmotherly adjective deleted) carny rat.'"
Hughes responded that she'd raised him to be honest, hardworking, God-fearing and fair.
"And I said, 'That's what I am and that's what I'll always be.'"
His father, an independent trucker, tried a different approach, one focused on economic reality. When Hughes arrived home after his first endeavor as a carnival game owner, his father sarcastically asked to see "all that money you made." Hughes spread the greenbacks out on the floor and totaled them up, reaching $940 for three days' work. Then his dad insisted that his son subtract what he would need to pay his helper, for fuel and for the teddy bears and other prizes he gave away to winning contestants. Hughes explained he'd already paid those expenses, that this was the profit.
"I said, 'Don't get me wrong, Dad. It was hard work. It was no 8-hour job.'"
Hughes won them over. His father helped him buy his first truck. And when he later purchased Luverne-based Serie Fun Shows, his mother volunteered to work.
"Eventually, my mother sold tickets in the ticket box. Eventually, she loved it."
His parents are deceased now, but the new name Hughes picked when purchasing his carnival continues to reflect both the target audience and the people running the show. Gail was literally his childhood sweetheart, with roller-skating dates starting at age 11, before they went their separate ways in their teens, reconnecting as adults.
While Gail directs media inquiries to her husband, accurately saying "Greg has the gift of gab," he insists that any newspaper photo include his wife.
"Gail is part of everything."
And so is their family. Two sons are ride owners, a daughter is a food concessionaire, grandchildren are now pitching in.
So, yes, for the Hughes family, 2020 was a very different year.
Hughes said he could have done some shows last year, particularly in South Dakota where few pandemic restrictions were in place, but chose not to for the sake of preserving the health of employees and customers.
"I believe in science, put it that way," he said, adding that he didn't see the sense of some states having strict protocols to avoid the spread of the disease while others had virtually none. "One analogy I heard, it was like saying 'You can pee in the pool, but just in that corner.' I don't want to pee in the pool."
Instead, they tapped into COVID relief funds where they could, although Hughes was baffled why carnivals weren't included in a special assistance program that provided funds for theaters, music venues, fairs and even circuses. Most of the seasonal workers survived on extended unemployment benefits.
Now they're back, all but two weekends already booked up for the late-spring, summer and early-fall schedule that Family Fun Shows traditionally operates. Unlike most seasons, the carnival didn't kick off the season with fundraisers for the Boys and Girls Clubs on a pair of South Dakota Indian reservations. With pandemic restrictions only recently falling in Minnesota, Hughes didn't think he could get everything from insurance to staffing ramped up in time.
So that's why the weekend at River Hills is the 2021 debut for Family Fun Shows and the first time the midway had sprung up, other than inspection runs on the Hughes' rural Mankato property, since late-summer of 2019. Many of the seasonal workers are from the reservations of South Dakota, returning with little prompting from Hughes, including one 18-year-old who's wanted to join the carnival for years.
"He just graduated from high school in Mission, South Dakota," Hughes said. "I always told him he could come to work for me — if he graduated from high school."
Family Fun Shows, located near Barnes and Noble in the River Hills Mall parking lot, is scheduled to be open again from noon to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday.