Life is a carnival

West Coast Amusements founder has been taking his show on the road for more than 60 years

Bingo Hauser surveys his West Coast Amusements carnival domain during a recent stop in Penticton. After more than a half-century in the business he never tires of seeing the smiling faces of the young and old who come out to enjoy the midway whenever it's in town.

Bingo Hauser surveys his West Coast Amusements carnival domain during a recent stop in Penticton. After more than a half-century in the business he never tires of seeing the smiling faces of the young and old who come out to enjoy the midway whenever it's in town.

Making memories is what Bingo Hauser does best, and at age 85 he has no plans to stop.

It is also not surprising the founder of West Coast Amusements has a very big soft spot for the Peach City. After all, it was here more than 60 years ago he first began his foray into the world of live show business.

That was when he bought Simba the lion cub — which has since become his company’s logo — from Penticton resident Henry Meyerhoff in the late ‘40s. At the time, Meyerhoff ran Crescent Canadian shows, wintering his animals and equipment here in the off season.

“I should have listened to my friend Patty Conklin (Conklin Shows), who told me if it eats in the winter time, don’t buy it,” said Hauser, who was in Penticton recently with his midway. “But then I got another one and they had cubs and the damn things nearly ate me out of house and home.”

After a few years with the animals, which also included snakes, alligators and monkeys, he decided to go a different route and sold the critters to zoos. Then in 1950, he bought his first amusement ride, a used merry-go-round he still has today, and it was off to the races.

His fascination with the carnival first began while growing up in Brandon, Man. and the Barnum & Bailey Circus came to town.

Whether it was peeling potatoes or just cleaning up, he would find any excuse to spend as much time as he could among those he idolized.

As he got older, eventually the beckoning of the nomadic lifestyle fueled by the lights and sounds of the midway simply became too strong, and at age 16 he ran away and joined the circus, which in this case was Conklin Shows.

“I was very blessed because I got to work with some pretty clever people who took a shine to me and taught me a few things,” he recalled. “I kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut and that’s how I learned.”

He remembers sleeping in the trucks that carried the rides. “It’s not like it is now with the bunkhouses and showers and motorhomes, but it didn’t matter, we were young and just lived for the excitement.”

Hauser, whose real first name is Irvin but was changed to Bingo by elementary school classmates, remembers the tried-and-true performers of the day.

“Yeah, we had the bearded lady, magicians and sword swallowers, one big happy family is how I’d describe it,” he said.

Now based in the Lower Mainland, it is always a joy for him to come back to the Okanagan.

“I guess in a way this is home to me,” he said. “I have a lot of good memories of Penticton. When I come down Main Street and look at the trees, they have all gotten a lot bigger, but it all comes back.”

West Coast currently has over 120 rides in the combined fair units, with the season running March to October and travelling as far south as Texas.

Hauser’s wife Jackie has been by his side for over 60 years and his son and daughter, Robert and Laura, are also in the business. He also expects to have a couple of grandchildren and great-grandchildren on board in the future.

“I think we’ve created a monster,” added Hauser, who has been inducted into the Showman’s League of America and Outdoor Amusement Business Association halls of fame. “However, it’s the people and that challenge I love most.”

Still a kid at heart, the company founder is usually the first to try any new ride the company buys.

West Coast employs hundreds of people, many of them transient, but there are others who have been there almost since the beginning. One of those is Jack Price, who has worked as a carnie for his friend for 58 years.

“I’ve seen the whole thing grow, and Bingo and Jackie have been like a family to me. I don’t regret a single bit of it,” said Price, 82, who was just recently released from the hospital. “They didn’t know if I was going to pull through or not. I pretty near didn’t make it, but thank God I’m still here and the devil didn’t get me. I guess he’s not ready for me yet.”

Because of his health, the longtime ride operator is having to cut this season short and return home to New Brunswick, but he hopes to return just as soon as possible.

“I will sure miss it when I leave, but my plan is to come back next year if everything goes well and I’m already looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m going to be back again, and as long as Bingo is here, I’m going to be staying with him.”

The past year has been particularly hard with the passing of Hauser’s longtime friend and co-worker Eve Rennie and the loss of Wally Volk, who suffered a heart attack and also had to leave his world of choice behind.

“For myself and the others it’s our life,” said the carnival operator. “It’s like Jack said to me a year ago: ‘I want to die out here,’ but I said to myself, ‘Not if I can help it.’”

While it is becoming a little more difficult for him and increasingly expensive to run, Hauser plans to keep the show on the road.

He even admitted recently shrugging off a multi-million-dollar corporate buyout offer — “just how do you sell a lifetime?” was his question.

“It’s just something that gets in your blood and I’ve still got some things I want to accomplish,” he said. “This is also a big part of my family and I want my kids and their kids to continue putting smiles on all those faces and keep making those happy memories.”

See Wednesday’s Western News for the second part of the feature on life with the carnival.