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Golden Wheel behind many Alaska carnival rides

Posted: July 9, 2012 - 12:02am

ANCHORAGE — If you’ve ridden a Ferris wheel or put your child on a carousel in Alaska at any time since 1967, chances are a company called Golden Wheel Amusements was behind the carnival.

The company treks the state each summer from Fairbanks to Kodiak with a ready-made fair — giant corn dogs, oversized midway-prize stuffed bears and crazy-mirror funhouse included — in tow.

On a recent Sunday of patchy sun, Golden Wheel finished up a weeklong stint at Cuddy Family Midtown Park for the Anchorage City Fair, new this year.

Sitting in the trailer that serves as a mobile office during the summer traveling season, owner Jacqueline Leavitt listens for a moment to the sounds of the midway outside: a Lady Gaga song competing with a Rihanna song competing with the happy shrieks of people on rides like the Cliffhanger, Tornado and Apollo.

“That sound is like a heartbeat to me,” Leavitt said.

The carnival is in her blood: Her mother, Claire Morton, took the family to Alaska in 1967, where they planned to buy a repossessed ride called the Octopus. They ended up running a cotton candy wagon at Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage and stayed.

Morton, now 77, went on to become the first female president of the Showmen’s League of America, a post once held by Buffalo Bill Cody.

Leavitt grew up working in her mother’s carnival business in the 1970s when Alaska, she says, was a rougher place and when some of the workers were members of outlaw biker gangs.

“I loved being raised around every kind of person,” she said. “Nobody puts me off.”

Now Leavitt and her husband, Joe Leavitt, run the business. Their three children help out.

The owners say their Christian faith is the foundation of the operation. A pastor travels with the carnival and managers wear jackets with the New Testament verse 1 Peter 5:2-4 (“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing”) embroidered on the sleeve.

Each summer, Golden Wheel employs a crew of 80-120 carnival workers, a varied group that includes Lithuanian and Bulgarian students working under J-1 visas, four different pastors’ daughters and people trying to start a new life after jail.

Safety is paramount and Golden Wheel does background checks and drug testing on all employees, says Leavitt.

But she’s serious about giving people chances and says carnival workers often get an unfairly sleazy reputation.

“Sometimes this job is their first step on their way back up,” she said.

To work for Golden Wheel a person doesn’t need a permanent address or a work history. They’ve hired felons but no one with a criminal record that involves children. Crew members travel with the carnival and sleep in bunkhouses recycled from movie sets. Some have been with the company for 10 years or more.

Operating a traveling carnival in Alaska presents complicated logistical problems. They must transport the unwieldy components for their 42 rides creatively. For the Kodiak Crab Festival, they ride the ferry. To get to Fairbanks, they sometimes load parts on the train. The weather, too, is extreme: They’ve run the Fur Rondy carnival in minus 40-degree temperatures, with wind chill. There might not be any other carnival in America that’s done that, Leavitt thinks.

The best part, Leavitt said, is showing up in remote places like Kodiak with the whole show: the volcano fries and pickles on a stick, the Ferris wheel with the rainbow blinking lights, the rideable elephants that made kindergartners giggle, the Hoop Shoot and the Roll-a-Ball Racing games.

Kids out there look forward to carnival time all year, she said.

Outside, Jeff Okuley, wearing an eagle-and-flag belt buckle and a smile, does a shuffling dance to the pop hit “Pumped Up Kicks” as he waits for the swinging pendulum ride he operates, the Apollo, to fill with customers. He’s worked at the carnival for six years now and loves it. He dances because he’s happy. Sometimes people see him and start dancing too, he says.

“It’s hard not to have fun.”

Information from: Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.adn.com

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