October 16, 2019

FTV: 41st Annual Halloween Carnival

     Prior to the 40th Annual JH Student Council Halloween Carnival, this space ran a history of how the whole affair began in the fall of 1979 (FTV – Halloween Carnival 10-31-18).  While previewing the 2018 edition of the carnival, I realized that there were a lot of games that did not get mentioned in that history. With that said, let us do a ‘Paul Harvey’ (“and here is the rest of the story”) and take a peek at the history of some of the other carnival games that were not covered in last year’s spooky edition of From the Vaults.

     If one needed proof that they were raised by parents who lived through the lean years of The Great Depression and World War II, I need only examin the origins of some of the carnival games  to put my family history in perspective. Those with parents or grandparents of a certain age will tell you, “Even if something is broken, you never throw it away because you may find a use for it someday.”  This lesson must have sunk in pretty well because I see many examples of “you may find a use for it someday” in the carnival games. Certainly, some items were purchased ready made over the years, but using home built games proved to be a big cost savings for the JHSC.

     Two of the first games constructed with recycled objects were the Basketball Shoot and the Football Toss, both fashioned from discarded basketball hoops from the gym.  When we were still at the ‘old’ school building, we simply used the basketball hoops in the gym for the Basketball Shoot. Moving the carnival to the cafetorium at the ‘new’ school meant improvising.  Former maintenance man Rick Johnson had just replaced two of the rims in the gym and when I asked if we could use the old ones for the carnival, he was all for it. We attached one to an old wooden backboard but still needed a way to fasten it to the wall.  The welding class came to the rescue by attaching two hooks on the metal D-shaped frames behind the backboard so we could hang the whole thing on a folded up cafeteria table. The other rim was fastened to a wooden frame and set on the floor to act as a target for carnival goers to throw Nerf footballs through.  Finding a way to hold up the net (so it would catch the footballs) was always a little bit frustrating so that game eventually recycled a different kind of hoop as a target: an old tire. Saved from the landfill, these objects are still used as games, (and perhaps) inspiring future generations to do old school recycling like those of us raised in the shadow of the Depression and WWII.

     One of the most popular prizes in the early days were plastic inflatable footballs.  Watching kids kick them around after the carnival hatched the idea that we could use them in a Field Goal Kick game.  A little scrap lumber, two ‘L’ brackets and a couple of bolts were all that was needed to make the goal posts (authentic NFL quality right up to the orange ‘flagging’ at the tops to indicate the wind direction).  My kids were still pretty young then so they made great game test subjects to see how it would work. After painting the goal posts, the kids spent the better part of a month testing it in our basement before the carnival came around.  Like a wiffle ball, these light weight bags of air tend to curve a lot if they are not kicked exactly right. My kids learned the key to getting an inflatable football to fly straight was to kick it softer, not harder. People were amazed that these two miniature Don Chandler’s could kick them through the uprights time after time while the beefy football players couldn’t get them to go straight at all.  I would tell the student council kids running the game to tell the smaller customers, “Do NOT kick it hard,” but to let the older ones figure it out. We sold a lot of tickets for this game to frustrated Chester Marchol wannabes who just couldn’t figure out why “kick it harder” didn’t work for this game.

     What does one do when their trusty snow scoop falls apart?  The scoop part of my old snow tool bit the dust, but the tubular, U-shaped handle was fine.  Attaching it to a 4 X 4 foot piece of plywood with a hole near the center resulted in the game we called Tiltball.  In the early days of video games, a student council kid asked, “Why can’t we have an old fashioned pinball machine for one of our games?”  This seed of an idea evolved into Tiltball. The popularity of Tiltball hinged on how easy it was for little kids to win a large prize. Having a game that was easy to win seems to encourage customers to revisit the more challenging games and Tiltball remains popular even in the age of electronic games (and even bigger ‘kids’ like winning large prizes).

     Remember the old peg boards that used to grace gym walls?  I never liked gym climbing activities and this one frustrated me to no end in school.  Pulling the pegs out of the board and repositioning them to a higher row of holes to climb the board was challenging, but this seems to be another old fashioned gym idea that got the boot due to liability worries.  As with the old basketball hoops, I spied the two sections of the decommissioned peg board sitting in the custodian’s office and inquired if they could be used for a carnival game. The Ping Pong Roll game was created and put into action.  The only negative aspect of this game? The hardboard slabs these climbing peg boards are made from weigh a ton. Maybe we should have looked into putting them on wheels.

     What carnival worth its salt doesn’t have a fish pond or a duck pond?  Over the years, we have had both. We originally made ‘fish’ by attaching copies of a fish on a paper bag with a pipe stem loop at the top.  The bags hid the prizes inside and the ‘fisherman’ were given a wooden dowel fishpole equipped with a line and hook to snag the ‘fish’. A great idea for a game, but the little kids sometime had difficulty snagging the loops.  One bright student council kid pointed out that the little ones had just as much fun ripping open the bags as they did ‘catching’ them, thus rendering the need for fishing poles moot – the fishing game became Grab Bag. The duck pond started as an inflatable pool and floating plastic ducks, but this proved to be a pain to fill and empty.  It was also difficult for little kids to reach the ducks without getting soaked. A ten foot long plastic eave gutter modified by maintenance whiz Roger Ruuti (he permanently sealed the end caps for us) was the key to keeping this game in play even though it was still a bit of a pain to fill and empty. The game can be a little too easy if a sharp eyed youngster keeps an eye on where the last ‘winning’ duck is placed in the scrum of other ducks.  As long as the kids working the game mixed up the ducks a bit when placing them back into the trough, the game remained a game of chance and not an automatic winner every time. The 2018 game had to be modified once again when someone decided they needed the modified gutter ‘pond’ more than the carnival did (it was one game piece too large to lock in the carnival storage cabinets).

     The Wheels game was invented because we invested in a set of the old fashioned aluminum milk bottles commonly used at a county fair:  “Knock down the three bottles and win your sweety a Teddy Bear.” The problem using them indoors was the velocity that some of our customers could throw the softballs in their quest to win a prize.  Watching these high velocity projectiles flying across the cafetorium stage gave me the willies in much the same way as the sharp darts breaking balloons had. We had four hard plastic wheels in the science store room that had been donated with the idea of making some sort of Bill Nye like ‘cart of science’ that never got built.  Combining the unused wheels and the aluminum milk bottles gave us Wheels. The wheels tended to leave ugly black marks on the floor so steps were taken to protect the surface from the skidding wheels. With that problem solved, another game made out of recycled items was born.

     Watching a Bill Nye the Science Guy video in class one day inspired Ping Pong Pandemonium.  The episode was about probability and used a device consisting of two sheets of clear plastic with evenly spaced pegs between.  When steel balls were randomly dropped into the device, they bounced down the pegs and arranged themselves in a classic bell shaped curve.  Without plastic sheets and pegs available, we made due with another piece of scrap wood and used long wood screws in place of the plastic pegs.  Not only is it a ‘winner everytime’ type of game, it seems to mesmerize the customers as the ping pong balls make their way through the maze of pegs.

      A game called Roll ‘Em was inspired by watching my kids play checkers, or at least watching them when they got bored playing checkers.  They folded up the checkerboard and leaned it up against the box like a ramp. When they began racing the red and black checkers down the board, the idea of Roll ‘Em popped into my head.  A few scraps of wood, some paint, and a set of plastic checkers became a game that looks easy until one tries to actually roll the checkers into the large prize slot (which is protected by a diamond shaped ‘goalie’).  The Ladder Ball game was new to me when my nephew showed me how to play it at a family gathering. When I drew this up for then woodshop teacher Glen Guilbault, he dispatched a couple of his students to build us a sturdy version of the game’s ladder stand from wood.  With the tethered balls purchased, the game was on. A commercial version of a Frisbee Golf goal was purchased when it turned out to be cheaper than purchasing all the hardware needed to make a homemade version. With Frisbee Golf courses now available at the Porkies Ski Hill and the Ontonagon Township Park, the number of  carnival goers playing this game has increased. 

     The largest recycled game we ever created was inspired by another source:  The Oasis School Store. When the Voc Ed programs were being downsized, one of the casualties in Ontonagon was the old Oasis School Store that was run by the Voc Ed business students.  When the room was repurposed, the 4 X 4 foot metal grids that were used for clothing displays were heading for the dumpster. Once intercepted, we set about finding a way to use them for a game.  When wired together into an open top box, former WOAS DJ and tech wizard Tyler Moore was able to line the inside of the box with poster board. With cardboard barriers attached to the bottom of the box, the game only required the player to toss small balls over the top.  The barriers directed the balls to holes and the players eagerly watch for them to pop out in one of the rain gutter chutes at the bottom (only one of which equalled a large prize). Eventually, the poster board liner wore out. With a little engineering know how, Senior Service Class members Colton Heikkinen and Nathan Albrect replaced the game’s lining with wood paneling and wood barriers.  The refurbished Gutter Ball game is also bit large to store in the carnival cabinets, but we couldn’t find any good reason to take it all apart and rebuild it every year.

     There were a few other games that had their day but disappeared over time.  When those little carts that move as one sits on them and wiggles the front wheel back and forth were popular, we had a race track set up in the band room for a few years.  When these little carts were no longer a novelty, the game lost its allure and was discontinued. The old fashioned cork gun shooting range was always popular. The little window that opens to the kitchen made a great shooting gallery because it kept the bouncing corks contained.  This game went away when the guns got ‘cheaper’ but more expensive to replace. The ‘cheap’ nature of the rifles meant we wore one out every year (and sometimes as the carnival was in progress). After a while, it was hard to justify the increased cost of replacing them annually so we moved on without them.

     The money making king of all games is perhaps the simplest one to set up.  Maybe it is human nature for people to want to try and solve a seemingly impossible puzzle.  In carnival terms, this would be the Pop Toss. While it takes more luck than skill to get a plastic ring to land on the neck of a bottle, this is the first and last game in operation at just about every carnival.  The sign always says “Win the bottle you ring, no substitutes” but every year, at least a few customers will say “I would rather have a Root Beer instead of an Orange – can I trade?” My favorite was always “I got two small bottles, can I trade for one large one?”  No and No. One year, I watched one little tyke drop at least five dollars trying to win a bottle of pop as we were packing up the games around him. He was quite surprised when I finally handed him a bottle and said, “Here you go, we are cleaning up and you surely would have won one (eventually).”

     Carnivals are both a lot of fun and a lot of work.  If we wanted to have a big fundraiser of some kind, this probably wasn’t the best way to go because it costs money to keep things interesting year after year.  If the idea was to have a community service project that would stand the test of time, then I guess we got it right! The JHSC tip their hat to the Girl’s Athletic Association (GAA) whose past carnivals inspired Bruce Johanson to revive this Halloween classic in the fall of 1979.  Check this space in 2029 for the next update.

Top Piece Video:  What else?  The Monster Mash!