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The State Fair Of Texas: More Than Fried Food

There are certain ‘classics’ that define the State Fair of Texas: Big Tex, fried foods, thrill ride screams, and the voices of the carnival barker.

That's the song of the Midway. And this year, among the chorus of carnival criers there is a voice that stands out. It's not a Texas twang, it's an Aussie accent. Chris Vaniher, from Australia stands on a platform above the game-players shooting water from a gun into the center of a target. Four foot tall stuffed bananas with dreadlocks and big smiles hang behind him like backup singers. Vaniher has not always been the lead vocalist of a Midway game. He used to be a chef.

“I worked aboard luxury yachts, private luxury yachts – a private chef," Vaniher said. "It fell apart after September 11th. Nobody chartered boats anymore, went out to sea anymore. Everybody was too scared. I had to find something else to do. So, here I be at the carnival.”

He's here along with his wife, who works a game a short distance away. The couple travels the carnival and fair circuit almost year round. The Vaniher’s are part of 1,000 game and ride operators working the State Fair. Transportation and lodging are part of the workers’ salary packages. They don’t get overtime for the 12-hour days. When the gates close at 10pm, many workers walk to the fringe of the fairgrounds and an RV Park hidden behind a privacy fence with 24-hour security.

Rusty Fitzgerald runs the Midway and the RV Park. He provides a store in the middle of the park, stocked with snacks, soft drinks and stuff. There are washers and dryers, showers, and a cafeteria where they can get something that's not fried.

There are also smaller break areas scattered along the Midway. Vaniher says those are much appreciated, too.

“The hours become very strenuous here at these fairs. They really wear you out,"said Vaniher. He says everybody expects exuberance and a smile even though the carnival workers on the circuit have gone from fair to fair for the last three months without days off. "We try," he says.

Fitzgerald says the current day carnival game owner/operators and their traveling crew members belie the old ‘carny’ stereotype of kinda shifty and scary. He says one ride operator this year is also an attorney.

“The ones, the owners and stuff nowadays, they’re college educated. It’s a business," Fitzgerald said. "And, they’re really friendly people.”

Chris Vaniher says that’s the carnival game business: be friendly, entertaining and get people to play. He says you have to read the Midway, make eye contact and read the crowd.

"It's more like sociology," said Vaniher.

And when the long, workday is done Vaniher says has a beer.

When the fair's 24-day run ends, Vaniher and his wife plan to take a couple of months off to recuperate.

Cheers, mate.

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.