When the carnival comes to town on a humid southern evening, you may see Lester Colegrove strolling down the midway of your local carnival, his aged hands in the pockets of crisp khaki shorts with a blue polo tucked in neatly at the waist and a baseball cap covering a head of gray hair. Amid the blinking, multi-colored lights and the screams of excitement emanating from all corners of the fair, he is easy to miss. But every ride operator, concessionaire, and barker acknowledges him when he strolls by.
Colegrove pays little attention to them. He is more interested in scanning the faces of the crowd, taking note of their expressions, and making sure everyone is smiling.
“You can walk around the midway and just watch people and you can tell if they’re having a good time or if they’re miserable,” Colegrove said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it does. 99 percent of the time they go home with a smile. Empty pockets and they go home with a smile.”
Colegrove is a legend in the carnival business. He has traveled with the carnival his entire life of 82 years and has worked on (and sometimes owned) carnival rides for all but four years of his life. Currently, Colegrove operates rides for South Carolina based B & K Carnival Company .
“I was born in December of ’34 and out [working in the carnival] in the spring of ’35,” he said. “And I’ll be 82 in December. There were four years I didn’t: two years in the service in Korea, and two years for cancer.”
Colegrove was raised as a carnival showman by his parents, Myron and Hilda Colegrove. They owned and operated various carnivals concessions and would travel all over the east coast, from their home in upstate New York to Florida. His mother even listed him as an employed showman in the 1940 census when he was only five years old.
Through his grade school years, the family lived in Hemlock, NY during the colder months and traveled with Sunburst Exposition Shows when the weather warmed. Together the family played (carnival speak for “working a location”) towns all summer long.
“I couldn’t wait to get out in the summertime,” Colegrove said. “When school was out I was gone. When school was in, I would come back. Little town there was so small that the neighbor there knew what I was going to have for breakfast before I got up.”
Upon graduating high school, Colegrove set out for Sarasota, Florida, a veritable Mecca for circus and carnival culture thanks to early 20th century investments from the Ringling brothers. He briefly worked for the Railway Express during winters, but was compelled back to the carnival every summer. Eventually it became a full-time profession in which he would go on to start a company, Sarasota Amusements, and even become president of the International Independent Showmen’s Association.
In his 82 years, he has come to know the rhythm of erecting and tearing down rides in innumerable towns and the unpredictable nature of the money each town represented.
“I’ve been a millionaire twice, I’ve been broke half a dozen times,” Colegrove said. “Hey, in the morning you can be broke and when you close at night you can eat steak dinner sometimes. Money is very flexible in the carnival business.”
Along the way he’s seen carnival attractions rise and fade in popularity. He especially enjoys reminiscing about the way rural farmers flocked to the once-common dancing girl shows.
“In the sixties we used to play the county fairs of North and South Carolina and the farmers would come with bib overalls and the money tucked in the bib up on top,” Colegrove said. “They would give the money to the kids and the wife for to go ride the kiddy rides and they would go to the girl show.”
His arsenal of jackpots (the showman’s equivalent to war stories) includes tales of times when he accidentally ate horse meat at a McDonald’s in Canada, survived various bomb threats, and courted a tiger-wrestling opera singer.
One of the common threads in many of his stories is that most involve Luke Skroch, his friend and employee of 44 years. The two met when Colegrove bought a large German-style funhouse in the 1970s and needed Skroch’s experience assembling the ride. Now, years after Colegrove sold the ride, the two still come as a “package deal” according to Bri Honeycutt, a concession employee who has worked with them for the past four years.
“If you could ever have the odd couple in real life it would be Luke and Lester,” she said. “[They] are just, like, two elderly guys that are stuck together for the rest of their lives.”
Together, the two brought some of the first “big rides” – called so because they require at least three trucks to transport them – to Canada. They logged thousands of miles on their trucks playing cities like Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Edmonton. Their tour culminated in an invitation to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, the country’s largest annual fair.
“You’d see more people up there in one day then you’ll see here in the whole fair,” Skroch said. “When we played the Canadian route, we had these counters and they go to 9-9-9-9 and then they go back to zero. If it didn’t click over every day, there was something wrong.”
Colegrove and Skroch worked together long enough to learn each other’s quirks. They can even measure time in the various wives and girlfriends that have come and gone. And, like any couple, odd or not, they know how to make the other angry.
“He used to get mad real quick,” Skroch said. “Especially setting up and tearing down. I know he missed me across the ride with a hammer one time. I wasn’t putting the right pins in the right places I guess, I don’t know. But he took a 24-ounce machine hammer and flung it across the ride at me. Missed me by about three feet.”
These days, with the respect he garners from his age and experience, Colegrove doesn’t need to rely on his temper to be taken seriously. All of the younger showmen and women admire his wisdom and work ethic.
“He’s everybody’s Grandpa,” Honeycutt says. “To be at Lester’s age, I can’t believe he does what he does. He’s out here at nine o’clock when these guys are; he’s out here sometimes later than they are when they go in at night. You’ve got to give it to him, buddy: the old man’s got it.”
When Colegrove is not traveling with a carnival he winters at his home in Sarasota. There, rather than taking time off, he helps maintain rides in the large barns and warehouses where out-of-season showmen take apart rides piece by piece and reassemble them for the next tour.
“We’ll tear a ride away completely, just nothing but parts laying on the ground, and start putting it back together again,” Colegrove said. “If it’s a bad bearing, put a new one in. If it’s wearing someplace, find out why it’s wearing. Paint it. Sandblast it. Clean it. Bring it back up to snuff and then you’re ready for the spring and you go on to the next one.”
Colegrove’s entire life might be described as “going on to the next one.” It is a steady stream of the eager faces of children and their beleaguered parents, late-night setups and teardowns, miles of highway, and endless fairgrounds.
Despite his gradually deteriorating eyesight and hearing, Colegrove doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. In fact, he jokes that the day he stops working will be the day he is found “laying underneath the merry-go-found dead.” Even then, his last request would be as grand as the life he has made for himself.
“When I do die, I want to be buried on the moon,” he said. “I want to be able to look down and say ‘You guys are suckers down there.’ I want to be the first to stay there, not just go up and visit and come back.”
One can imagine that from his viewpoint on the moon, Colegrove could continue to watch carnival-goers on warm summer evening, making sure they go home with empty pockets and a smile.