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Published July 11 2012

'Always an adventure': Life on carnival circuit carried on for generations

FARGO - Back in the day, everybody at the fair had a nickname, just in case the anonymity came in handy. The games weren’t always on the level, but everyone working the grounds “was one big happy family.”

Wilder times, says Robert “Smokey” Benham. Different times.

And when it comes to the fair, Benham knows a few things about different times.

The 73-year-old Atlanta native has been on the carnival circuit since 1950, when the sounds and sights of a merry-go-round first captured his imagination.

He’s spent the bulk of those years with Murphy Brothers Exposition, the company that supplies attractions for the Red River Valley Fair and similar events in the region. He’s traveled the country and the world, selling spectacle and entertainment.

And while it’s not the same as it was in the days before television supplanted wild animal expos and risqué carnival dance shows as the best entertainment in town, he says he’ll be doing it “till they put me in the pine.”

“I just love it,” he said. “I just love the outdoor life. I love seeing the smile on the kids’ faces.”

Benham, who nowadays serves as a jack-of-all-trades and helps keep the show running smoothly, is among the carnival veterans who man the Murphy Brothers crew.

In the summer months, they’re the ultimate road warriors, traveling from state to state, setting up and taking down whole midways in a flash, sleeping in trailers and motels, and carrying on a tradition that many of them have carried for generations.

“It’s a fun life,” said Cathy Murphy, the show’s operations manager. “It’s an adventure. There’s always something happening.”

When it’s show time, the pace is frantic. The Oklahoma-based company had just a day and a half to set up its attractions here and will take them down just as fast.

Employees work morning, noon and night during fairs, and motor from venue to venue in huge caravans of equipment and people.

Murphy, who married into the business 24 years ago, said it’s a family affair, with many sets of spouses and children working side by side.

“This is the only thing we know how to do,” she said.

Her own son, Austin, 14, travels with the show during the summer, along with several of her other children. He grew up around the carnival and is working to learn the ropes so he can run the show himself one day.

“I want to be my grandfather,” said Austin, 14. He’s referring to Jerry Murphy, the paterfamilias of the company.

It’s not an easy life, Benham said. Margins are thin, overhead is high and a stretch of bad weather can lay to waste weeks of preparation.

“I wouldn’t want to be a show owner for nothin’ in the world,” he said.

But in other respects, it’s not the shifty, fly-by-night industry some people might picture, he said.

“A carnival is just like any other job,” he said. “If you do your job, you get paid.”

Today, Benham wears a badge with his photo and real name on it. He doesn’t get into trouble – and even if he did, at this point in his career, “I know so many people that if I found myself on America’s most wanted, I’d have to flag down the first thing with a badge.”

Stick around the show long enough, he said, and you might just learn something.

“In this business right here, you don’t have to go to college to get an education. You can learn it all right here,” he said, from technical skills to business lessons to crowd-pleasing tips on keeping the public happy.

“Whatever you want to do, you can get it done right here around the carnival.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502