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Perry Graham interacts with fair-goers during a recent fair in central Connecticut. | (Dan Jackson/The Citizen)

Carnival games ... they ain’t what they used to be

As fair-goers walk through the midway of one of the fairs in the area, in the deepening dusk lit by the lights of the carnival and perfumed with the smell of fried food, carnival worker Perry Graham calls out to them, inviting them to play his game.

Perry Graham has been to many of the agricultural fairs in the area as a carnival game worker. During opening day of the North Haven Fair Sept. 5, he was at his booth, a game where contestants tried to throw a basketball into a hoop a few feet away. A sign nestled among the stuffed animal prizes said every child was guaranteed to win.

“Come on, Dad! Let him play!” he told a father with his young son. They walked over, the man gave Graham a few dollars. The boy missed the first few times, but Graham gave him a few more tries. The boy couldn’t quite make the basket, so his father held him up and finally, his shot landed in the hoop.

Graham awarded the boy a stuffed dog.

A few weeks later, Graham was working the Durham Fair. Fair workers bustled to and fro, making last-minute preparations as he sat down with The Citizen before the fair opened Sept. 26.

The state was inspecting the games on the midway, and he didn’t want to get in anyone’s way, Graham said. He sat in the shade of the cow barn.

Twenty, thirty years ago, the carnival environment was very harsh, Graham said.

“People hated when the carnival came into town with the exception of the kids who saw only teddy bears and rides,” he said.

Some carnival workers were con men and thieves, he said, and people started complaining that they paid $100 for a stuffed animal. The State Gaming Division got involved and now, there is more consumer protection, more guarantees that people will walk away with a prize.

“It’s retail sales. You’re selling teddy bears,” Graham said.

He got into the carnival business after 9/11. As a New Yorker and a survivor of the terrorist attack, he became worried about the next attack. Maybe he would not be as lucky, he thought. A friend, who was in the carnival, suggested he try the business.

Today, Graham travels with the carnival five to seven months out of the year. During the rest of the year, he works for the Pizza Hut, training cooks every time a new franchise location opens.

He likes the business because of the interaction with people, of the way people smile after they win and they walk away with a prize.

“And for me, that’s what brings a lot of inspiration,” Graham said. “For me, that’s what keeps me around. I don’t think it’s really about the money any more because I don’t think you’re going to get super wealthy.”

He doesn’t recommend the business to anyone who has a family, but as he worked the business, he met other workers who left family to work at the carnival, who neglected education and hygiene to live the carnival life.

“That’s not good,” he said.

Carnival workers need to be good at retail sales. If they have that skill, they can succeed in the carnival, Graham said. Also, carnival workers should ask anyone — anyone — to play their game.

The industry has a saying, he said: “Don’t be afraid to ask anyone, 8 to 80, blind, crippled or crazy.”

He has helped blind carnival-goers win his game.

“Just because you can’t see doesn’t mean you can’t have fun,” he said.

Graham speaks three languages, English, Spanish and Russian, and he can help “carry you through the game” in those languages.

While the carnival may have changed over the last few years, he said consumers still need to be mindful.

“Everyone in there isn’t’ all on the same page,” he said, adding that people should walk around the fair, compare prices, to find the best deals. A fried dough booth may be offering a lower price than one a few rows away.

Behind the curtains of the carnival, there is politics, various companies vying for locations, everyone trying to get a few dollars of the fair-goer’s money through entrance fees, shuttle fees, food and ride tickets.

“The carnival looks good through the eye of a child,” he said.

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