Lawrence Maturo, the former owner of Greater American Carnival Company and a member of a multi-generation carnival family known widely in Kentucky and Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area, passed away on June 2nd, following a brief illness. He was 87 years old.
Greater American Carnival Company was widely known for smaller fairs and events, including county fairs and church fund raisers. But in spite of the size of the shows the company played, Lawrence Maturo insisted that the midways be as professional, clean and family-friendly as any state fair.
Considered a visionary in terms of midway presentation - cleanliness, customer amenities and a neat and presentable crew - while now nearly common place throughout the industry, when Lawrence Maturo introduced these
aspects in the 1950s, they were considered breakthroughs. "He had washrooms for the public, had the staff wear uniforms, made sure that the midway was broom-swept and trash bagged every night," said Greg Maturo, son of Lawrence and owner of Great American Shows, an offshoot of his father's company. "Every week, all the equipment was cleaned, and every burned-out lightbulb was replaced. He raised the acceptable standard for the midway, and we do the same thing today but back then, nobody was thinking like that in the industry."
The family's entry point into the business - more than 100 years ago - is through Maturo's grandfather - Erasmus Mosco, who married Angelina Maturo, and owned a merry go round and other rides that he operated at Navy Pier in Chicago in 1912, the first amusement rides on the famous Chicago destination. Lorenzo Edward Maturo (Gaetano Maturo, Angelina's first husband, passed away before she married Erasmus Mosco, and Lorenzo was a product on her first marriage) better known as Lawrence - went on to found Angelus Amusements -named for his mother - Angelina - and he was the one who made the family's amusement business mobile, bringing the show on the road.
Lawrence Maturo grew up working for Angelus Amusements, before starting his own company as a third generation carnival company owner, Greater American Circus in the 1950s. The selling point for this venture was a carnival company that featured circus animal acts. The circus attractions were free to the public, acting as the customer draw - come see the animals, then go on the rides.
Eventually, the animals were phased out and the show was renamed Greater American Carnival Company. In the 1992, Lawrence Maturo retired from the amusement business as owner of Greater American Carnival Company, selling much of his equipment and some of his route to Miller Amusements of Chicago. Greg, along with his brother, Rick, founded Great American Shows, carrying on the family tradition, albeit on slightly smaller scale. Greg's son, Shawn has also started in the business, as a riding bull operator, marking the family's fifth generation in the show business. Lawrence Maturo was married to Lilly Mitchell for 61 years, who passed away in 2009. She worked with her husband with Greater American Carnival Company.
Great American Shows currently operates an active route in the greater states of Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, playing some of the dates Greater American Carnival Company played. After his retirement, Lawrence, when he wasn't fishing or spending time with friends and family, could be found in the machine shop helping out with repairs and recondition of midway equipment. He also acted as a consulted to Great American Shows, and provided a "lot of moral support," said Greg Maturo. "As the son of a carnival owner, you realize you are one of only about 200 people who run a carnival company. We weren't the biggest or the richest, but you were able to put smiles on people's faces and my father said this is the business we are in."
At its peak, the Greater American Carnival Company had 28 rides and played a route that included Western Kentucky - where the company had its winter headquarters, and the Chicago area as well as surrounding states. The company's route grew to the extent that they had to split into a second unit, which was managed by Greg Maturo. The season lasted about six months, with the core being smaller county fairs and the Catholic Church circuit, which at its peak were more than a dozen spots where the Greater American Carnival Company rides served vital fundraising functions. But the company's footprint was present at larger fairs through subcontracting arrangements, including the Lake County Fair, the Lincoln County Fair, and the Nut Festival in Evansville, Ind.,
"We had the Flying Bobs, Sky Diver, Hurricane, Octopus, Tilt-A-Whirl, and a Ferris Wheel," said Greg Maturo. "My father was a perfectionist, he liked straight linear lines on the midway, with all the entrances to the rides perfectly lined up."
"Every committee loved him," said Jean Brake, sister in-law to Lawrence Maturo, who at 17 years old joined her sister, Lillian, to work in the family business. "People came back to the same location, and the churches liked him. Carnival companies with bigger equipment would come but they would stick with the company they liked."
Hard Working/Kind Hearted
According to Brake - "Lawerency"- the nickname his family and close friends knew him by, was "an old-school carny," who worked hard but "made sure all the people who worked for him had places stay, made sure the help always got paid first. Once you are in a carnival family, it gets in your blood. You have to work very hard, but he loved the carnival business."
According to Brake, original uniforms were white coveralls, and the daily washing of the uniforms usually meant a trip to the laundromat. "Every day we got the uniforms cleaned. We eventually moved to golf shirts and caps but Lawerency insisted on everybody being clean cut, everybody there represented the company."
"I pretty much grew up on the midway," said Rick Maturo, whose duties included driving, set-up/tear-down and game manager. "We had the regular games, the simple games, but we had honest games. People who played would definitely win something. My father had the idea that if people didn't win, they wouldn't come back to the same spots. He didn't want to do anything that would give the carnival a bad name. He always knew it was a family thing, and the games and the midway was to have the kids come out and have a good time."
Sue Hamilton was 17 years when she joined up with the Greater American Carnival, starting with a popcorn trailer and working with Lawrence Maturo until his retirement. "He was old school," he said. "He was rough and tough on the outside, he could be gruff and sometimes there was a lot of yelling But underneath he was an softie and people who worked for him were very loyal. We played church locations and shopping centers, whatever came up. His world was his show, he was always with the show, he had a camper that he stayed in. He loved to eat, he always knew the best places to eat. He loved mom and pop places the most, the ones who did classic, home-style cooking."
While he may have been rigid manager of the midway, he always had a lighter side. "He was always cracking jokes, he was a kidder and a ribber. I remember one time we were playing a shopping center, and it was very hot and deader than dead. We had a water fight with the hoses, and it must have lasted two hours. We had a lot of fun."
Hamilton moved on to working other concessions and games, selling tickets as well as working in the back office with Lilly Maturo. After Lawrence Maturo retired, she worked for other carnival companies but eventually left the business because "it wasn't the same working for anybody else. He was a very nice, kind hearted man," although they remained close and visited him often in Kentucky.
In addition to his two sons, Greg and Rick, Lawrence Maturo is also survived by Gayla Peach, no longer in the carnival business, who is technically his niece but who he raised as a daughter. His oldest son, Lawrence Randall owned a software development company in Texas and is now deceased.
Photos of Greater American Carnival from the past:
Carpentersville, IL - Photo by Bruce Nelson
Carpentersville, IL - Photo courtesy of the Daily Herald
Hannover Park, IL - Photo courtesy of the Daily Herald