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Of Cotton Candy and Zeitgeist

Logo https://story.goethe.de/of-cotton-candy-and-zeitgeist

Of Cotton Candy and Zeitgeist

Caroussel, oompah music and the aroma of bratwurst and spun sugar – then as now, this makes children’s eyes light up and their parents indulge in reminiscences.

Traditional fairs are held each year in many cities and towns in Germany: they‘re called “Jahrmarkt”, “Rummel”, or “Kirmes” – and some have been around for centuries. The carnies have often operated their rides over generations.

But what looks like tradition requires much innovation – and a good sense of the zeitgeist. How do carnies reinvent themselves and their rides without sacrificing their legacy?

Between family tradition and modernity: a tour of the traditional fair.

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Josef Diebold, children’s carrousel

Children with shining eyes – all in a day‘s work for Josef Diebold. Together with his wife, he runs a children’s carrousel, the Orient Express. Here on two levels, police cars and fire engines, locomotives, cars with Mickey Mouse and Goofy chase each other. Lights flashing everywhere, music playing, children shrieking with joy and waving at their parents.

It’s an idyllic little world turning up and down there and one sees that much heart’s blood, but also a lot of sweat, has been put into it. Planning, investing, profit and loss.

After a few rounds the Orient Express brakes and stops. For Josef Diebold this is the best moment: when the children don’t want to get off and want to go for another ride, because then he knows; “We did everything right”.

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Like most carnies, Josef Diebold also comes from an old carnie family. The rides are often several decades old and are passed down from generation to generation – time and again renewed and burnished to a high gloss. So called lateral career switchers are rare, as today a new ride can cost several million Euros.

But technology, speed and design alone do not guarantee success, says Josef Diebold, because „the soul is missing, the heart. And that is the person at the till, the one with the mic in hand animating people. That’s what being a carnie is all about.”
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Josef Diebold himself had to get accustomed to the idea of running a children’s carrousel, of all things; “As a young man growing up with the auto-scooter, with cool music – that was tops, of course, wow! Then you get married and start with a children’s carrousel – that’s a culture shock!”

Today Josef Diebold would want to own no other ride than a children’s carrousel. Each year the same families come to him – and even after the children have long outgrown the carrousel, their parents pay Josef Diebold a visit: “We talk with each other, are happy to see each other.”

And carnies are also pleased when their children are enthusiastic about this profession and want to operate their own ride later on. “Handing on the flame, not the ashes, is our motto,” says Josef Diebold. You are a carnie out of passion. “It‘s not always easy, but it is simply wonderful.”
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At Home on the Road

The fair season begins at Easter. Then carnies are on the road until autumn: they visit about fifteen fairs and stay at each one for two to three weeks. During this time their caravan is their home, in the midst of the fairgrounds. Transporters, snack booths, rides all stand packed together – and the others’ campers. They meet up with each other each year, swap tips on trends and technologies, and help each other out.

The children also travel with their parents from one fair to the next. They go to a different school in each location. On the fair grounds they make friends – and sometimes find the love of their lives.

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Angelika Weiß, shooting gallery

Angelika Weiß found her love at 18. She runs a shooting gallery together with her husband, the “Preisschießen” (shooting for prizes). The booth runs under her name, her husband is her employee.

In the carnie business, separation of the private sphere and business is practically impossible. That’s how we grew up as children, for us it’s completely normal, says Angelika Weiß.

Tubes, tin cans and stars – she has different targets for beginners and pros. This has stayed pretty much the same over the decades.

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But the public has changed. It’s not just young men who come to Angelika Weiß’ shooting gallery, but women as well and increasingly children. If someone has never fired a shot before, she first calmly explains everything. Most learn fast: inexperienced shooters can also win their first trophies.

The prizes have changed, too. There are still corkscrews, lollipops, plush toys. But in particular children – at other booths as well – want whatever is in right now – this year the fidget spinner or the Minions figures from the film Despicable Me above all.

But what would a shooting gallery be without roses?

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Carnies call at about fifteen fairs each season. They have to apply with their ride a new each time, often almost a year in advance.

Fair organisers, for the most part the respective cities and municipalities, then select the attractions for their fairs: what rides will be offered? How big are they? How family-friendly? How eco-friendly? How contemporary? These questions play a part in the selections.

A spot at a fair is coveted: In Augsburg, for instance, there are three times as many applicants as available places.
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Bruno Noli, auto-scooter

Once a carnie, always a carnie? Bruno Noli also grew up on fairgrounds. Later on, when he began an apprenticeship as an electrician, life on the road was over for the time being. And he missed it. Getting up every day at seven in the morning, going to a plant and knocking-off time at four in the afternoon – that was hard for him at the outset. “There was nothing better than getting on the train on weekends and going to my parents on the fairgrounds.”

After completing his training, Bruno Noli returned and at 19 purchased his own first ride. Today he runs an auto-scooter and a sweets booth together with his wife and daughter.
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“I was 17, she was 16. Back then we still had a chairoplane, and she took a ride on it.” Bruno Noli got to know his wife at a fair. “The way you do that as a young fellow, spun the seat, then she went once more, then we chatted, rode the auto-scooter, and I cautiously placed my arm around her.” Year for year they met – “… and at some point – there she was!”

Bruno Noli’s wife is a career switcher, she does not come from a carnie family. But evidently it was not hard for her to adjust to life on the road. Because carnie life isn’t all that unusual, says Bruno Noli. “We also have a steady life, just that in summer it’s on the fairgrounds.”
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Bruno Noli is a sixth-generation carnie. Spun sugar, Chair-O-Plane, shooting gallery – seen from outside, fairs have hardly changed. The auto-scooter is part and parcel of every fair as well. Despite this, it is a symbol of what has changed at fairs – and in society too.

In the past the auto-scooter was the meeting-point for young people’s rendezvous. Like Bruno Noli back then. But they also came to hear the latest music. Now they all have it on their phones – and a fixed meeting-point is also no longer needed because everybody arranges to meet via Facebook or WhatsApp. Today, it’s mainly parents with children who take Bruno Noli’s ride.

He would like to completely hand over the auto-scooter to his daughter soon. But despite this he cannot imagine totally abandoning the fairgrounds. An older carnie colleague once said to him: “What am I supposed to do at home, I don‘t know anybody there, in summer my friends are at the fairgrounds. When I’m home I’ve mowed the lawn three times in two weeks.” Clearly, once a carnie, always a carnie. “I think you have no other way but to live on the fairgrounds,” says Bruno Noli.

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Innovation ist Tradition

For many, a fair means tradition – but for the carnies innovation as well. They renew and further develop their rides continually.

To remain attractive to the visitors and townships where they stay over, they repaint their sweets booths, replace the carrousel‘s lighting, buy new cars for the auto-scooter, offer trendy prizes at lottery booths.

The latest technology is always in use on fairgrounds, and must prove itself in cold, humidity and high capacity utilisation. If an invention proves itself on the fairgrounds it can also pass the test in industry or the household – like the LED lights that were tested for the first time at fair rides about twenty years ago.

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Michael and Christina Baier, Musikexpress

The Music Express has been travelling from one fair to the next for about almost 50 years now. It first belonged to the grandfather, then the father, and Michael Baier has been operating it since 2000. The family comes from the region around Bremen. Unlike his carnie colleagues, Michael Baier takes part in fairs throughout Germany. In the past, his parents and grandparents did not go any long distances, and only took to the road in the Lüneburg Heath.

But there aren’t as many fairs there as in earlier times. Michael Baier must therefore go to fairs that are several hundred kilometres away.

When they are underway they need six vehicles all told: three heavy-duty transporters for the Music Express and three caravans for his family and currently four employees.
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During peak season Michael Baier hires one or two more people. While he supervises the personnel and setting-up and dismantling the ride, his wife handles everything in the office. Back home, his mother handles the mail. The administrative burden has increased for carnies as well.

A ride is actually a small enterprise. Employee protection, TÜV safety regulations and a new DIN standard for so called mobile constructions: the demands on carnies are getting stricter. Thus, individual parts for certain carrousels and roller-coasters must now be calibrated to greater passenger body weights than in the past.

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Michael Baier and his wife Christina must continually keep the Music Express up-to-date – the technology, paintwork and motifs, the hits on the playlist.

To the left of the gondolas, almost a bit concealed, is the Music Express’ control centre: here tickets are sold, the ride steered and suggestions made: “How ’bout it, wanna go again? – Not loud enough!” This is how a barker – male or female – animates visitors to get in, and entertains them during the ride.

Michael and Christina Baier keep an eye on the riders, select the music and work the lighting system, all at the same time. They relieve each other every two hours.

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Novredana, fortune-teller

Tarot-card reading, palmistry, dream interpretation: fortune-teller Novredana turned her hobby into her profession. She and her husband were leather dealers in the past, and she read customers’ and acquaintances‘ palms only now and then.

“I’ve always had the gift, even as a child – and I always said to my husband I’d do it professionally.” And Novredana absolutely wanted a caravan at the fairs: “I could also have had an office, but I was ambitious and wanted every kind of person, not just one type.” Judges, public prosecutors, police, business people and caregivers of all ages come to her.

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Novredana has been travelling from fair to fair with her caravan for thirty years now. Compared with the other caravans it is quite small and has wood panelling.

Her customers mount two steps to enter the caravan. There sits Novredana on a large office chair behind a table. Those who come must first keep silent: “I do the talking, and then they can ask questions.”

It’s the great themes of life that they have on their minds: love, profession, health. Just no talk about death.

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In the past, Novredana’s grandmother sold bobbin lace doilies. She went from door to door with her granddaughter, and also read her customers’ palms – “That’s how I picked it up”, says Novredana.

She knows that not all of her customers believe in fortune-telling. But that doesn’t bother her. “I also can’t say that I’m always right.” Her profession has changed in any case: many customers want her advice more than an actual prediction.
By the way, Novredana can’t read the cards for herself!

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Cinnamon Stars instead of Spun Sugar

The fair season ends in autumn. The carnies, who were on the road all spring and summer, return home. What their caravan was in summer, their house or flat in their home town is in winter.

The caravans and rides are winterised and put in storage. In winter, many carnies have booths at the Christmas markets in their home towns. In Nuremberg, Angelika Weiß sells Nativity figures and wood carvings from South Tyrol, and Josef Diebold sets up a nostalgic children’s carrousel in Augsburg.

Things get going again in mid-January, after the winter break: the rides are cleaned, serviced and modernised – and at Easter the new fair season begins.

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Concept, realisation, production and editing:
Ute Elena Hamm and Jakob Rondthaler

Edith C. Watts

© 2017 Goethe Institut
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Kapitel 1 Of Cotton Candy and Zeitgeist

Of Cotton Candy and Zeitgeist

Kapitel 2 Josef Diebold, children’s carrousel

With Hand, Heart and Mind

Kapitel 3 At Home on the Road

At Home on the Road

Kapitel 4 Angelika Weiß, shooting gallery

A Shot – and a Hit!

Kapitel 5

Kapitel 7 Bruno Noli, auto-scooter

A Carnie for Life

Kapitel 8 Innovation ist Tradition

Innovation Is Tradition

Kapitel 9 Michael and Christina Baier, Musikexpress

In Operation

Kapitel 10

Kapitel 11 Novredana, fortune-teller

Don’t Talk about Death

Kapitel 12 Cinnamon Stars instead of Spun Sugar

Zimtstern statt Zuckerwatte

Kapitel 13 Impressum


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