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From the other side: Keeping people happy, win or lose, is the goal in the fair gaming biz


So this isn’t really sports related, but it’s fair week in a county where it still says “The Most Popular Fair on Earth” on the back of the grandstands. Take it for what it’s worth.

To fairgoers midway games are a chance to take home an oversized stuffed animal by beating the odds, but there is more to Skee Ball and Tubs of Fun than just dollar bills changing hands.

There are the names and faces and stories to tell from the men and women running the games. While many of them shy away from the cameras, and would rather just do their jobs that than talk with the media, there are those that genuinely enjoy each day on the midway, making it about the patrons and the experiences — even with a tough economy shrinking their take-home pay.

Michael Liangane, 35, of Jackson, has been working at fairs on and off since he was 18, and his responsibility this week is to man the Tubs of Fun booth, where people take a shot at getting three plastic balls into slanted blue bins, with stuffed Tweety Birds or giant bears waiting to be won.

He said his job is obviously to draw people in to make a profit, but he loves it when “sunshine helps his cause” and plays a part in drawing larger crowds to the fair.

Liangane said he enjoys nothing more than seeing someone get excited after making a great shot — and that’s not a bad thing for business either.

“A lady at the last fair threw three balls in a row in and won a big prize,” he said. “I love when a crowd is around watching and someone wins and I can just yell ‘Winner! Winner!’”    

As anyone who has ever made an attempt to win something for their sweetheart or a friend knows though, it is often easier to imagine winning a big prize than actually doing it.

To make sure none of the games are rigged, city police do an inspection of each attraction as the fair gets underway. 

“People from department will stay and watch for awhile and make sure people are winning every now and then,” Liangane said. “As you can tell from looking at my stock right now, it’s obviously a winnable game.”

Liangane said he practices the game everyday, but isn’t much better than anyone else, so he sympathizes with people who get frustrated after several failed attempts. He goes as far as refunding people their money and giving out prizes to regular spenders to help keep the atmosphere positive.

“If they get mad, I don’t have any problem giving them their money back. I don’t want to be making people angry,” he said. “If they spend $5 I’ll give them a prize, especially if it’s a kid. I don’t want them walking away without a smile.”

While Liangane might give a few dollars back once in a while, it ultimately comes out of his own pocket, according to 20-year carnival veteran Donald Azbell of Ohio, who is in charge of Skee Ball and a dart throw stand this week.

“We work on commission and at the end of the day we pay our manager a percentage and keep the rest,” he said.

Most people have less expendable income in the current economic climate compared to past years Azbell said, something that has had a dramatic effect on the entire fair industry.

“Years ago we made thousands a day at these games, now we make hundreds,” he said. “With the economy hurting not as many people are playing our games and it affects us.”

Azbell got involved in the fair business thanks to a connection with a cousin who worked as an office manager for
fair shows and he’s been lovingly referred to as “Cuz” by his co-workers ever since.

He has an affinity for Skee Ball, which he explained the many nuances of while rolling six practice games to demonstrate some of the techniques.

“Every fair has different slopes because of the land it’s on, so each lane really has different things going on,” he said. “You have to learn how to bank them and use the sides, because it’s pretty hard trying to go straight up the center — it’s kind of like bowling.”

He said he has never had a perfect game, — a 300 score, six balls in the 50 spot — while playing at someone else’s booth, but he has rolled flawless games while setting up a couple of times.

It’s 50 cents a game and 140 points will win a small prize, while a perfect game can earn a boombox or karaoke machine among other items, but the 300 scores are few and far between, Azbell said.

“Usually we have 10 or 12 of them a summer, but sometimes you go a whole week at a fair without one,” he said. “Sometimes people say it’s rigged, but you’re going to have that. Kids can hardly roll the ball up it sometimes, and it comes right back down or hits the gutter.”

While he can’t make every guest happy or guarantee any type of plunder, he said he will continue to enjoy his job from dawn to dusk, traveling to fairs in mainly Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.  

“Being outside working everyday instead of clocking in at a factory or something like that is great,” he said. “I’ve worked at a factory before and it’s clock in at 8 (a.m.), clock out at 5 (p.m.) and do the same thing, day after day. Here it’s always different and that’s fun.”

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About rjwalters

I am what you think I am — a journalist. Actually when I was hired at my current job, which by the way is Sports Editor of the Hillsdale Daily News in Hillsdale, Mich., I applied for a position titled "Wordsmith", so at my best I'll call myself a writer attempting to be a wordsmith extraordinaire.

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