Gold Star Amusements celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and in theory, the carnival's owner Mike Featherston has more time to reflect on the milestone. His three grown children basically run the show these days, giving Mike and his wife Connie the freedom to come and go as they please without having to stay on the lot 24/7.
But as everybody working in the industry knows, it's not always that simple. In addition to his primary operation, Featherston runs the old Sellner Manufacturing plant in Fairibault, Minn. He refurbishes kiddie rides originally produced by the Minnesota company whose assets were purchased by Larson International in 2011. Combined, the two businesses keep the Featherston family busy year-round.
"I just turned 60 and I think I have at least two good years left," Featherston said, half-joking. "My kids do the bulk of the work. All three are married and their spouses help out too. Connie and I stay home mostly, but we still check on the route and help lay out the lots."
"I bought the old Sellner plant [in 2011] as an investment and as soon as I signed the paper, [Larson] talked me into getting into the fiberglass business," he said. "Larson owns the rights to the rides but I do all the fiberglass work. We have a shop foreman, an office manager and several full-time employees."
For Gold Star Amusements, the season started Feb. 9 in Laredo, Texas in tandem with 20th Century Rides. The two-week festival celebrates George Washington's birthday and this year marks the 120th celebration in the Texas border community. From there, Gold Star moves to Brownsville Charro Days, set for Feb. 19-26. Leonard Martin, owner of 20th Century Rides, holds the midway contracts for both events, Featherston said.
After playing a supporting role for those dates, Gold Star's main unit kicks into gear, playing multiple events in Texas and Louisiana before heading north in early May. The show jumps into Memphis for a three-week Hispanic festival before settling in Minnesota and the upper Midwest for the summer months. (Gold Star's corporate address is Coon Rapids, Minn., and its winter quarters are in New Orleans).
The South Dakota State Fair has turned into a signature event for the carnival since it took over the contract eight years ago. Gold Star replaced the Mighty Thomas Carnival, which had it for many years before switching to the Utah State Fair in Salt Lake City.
"It's still pretty new for us in the grand scheme of things," Featherston said. "We like it. It's not the biggest state fair but there's only 50 of them and we have one. The growth has been substantial since we've been there and we're on solid footing. They've moved the dates around but it's been over Labor Day for the past several years."
"When I first went in there, state leaders talked about not funding it, but they turned it around and they don't need nearly the funding they once did," he said. "We're right at 40 pieces. It's not the biggest midway but we stuff it, fill it wall to wall."
The 2017 dates are Aug. 31-Sept. 4 in Huron, S.D.
This year, Gold Star officials must find room in South Dakota to fit the Street Fighter, a spectacular attraction purchased from Technical Park, an Italian ride manufacturer. It's scheduled for delivery June 1. The $700,000 ride will be themed as 2 Extreme, Featherston said.
All told, the show has increased its total number of rides over the past few years for even distribution of equipment among two full units.
"We've been so busy the last few years," he said. "Now we have four families eating out of one carnival, so we doubled the number of rides. We now have two sets of all rides and the same for ticket boxes, bunkhouses, rest areas. Everything has doubled, along with the total number of employees."
Two years ago, Gold Star took all the games in-house for greater control over that part of the operation. The show struggled to find dependable concessionaires and it became an issue not knowing whether the full contingent of games would be there every week. There has been a noticeable improvement since the carnival made the adjustment, Featherston said.
"We wanted a cleaner, brighter image," he said. "The first year after we took it over, we couldn't believe how many compliments we got. Customers would ask us 'What's with the games? There's something different.'"
As part of the move, Gold Star's international workers operate games. The carnival has used South African labor for the past 14 years through the H2B Visa program. In early February, Featherston drove to Chicago to pick up his first 10 HB2 employees, the earliest he's done it since the show tapped into the program.
"Everything is flowing right now, it's been scary easy," he said. "We signed a ton of fairs for the second unit. We always had five to six extra rides to send off to do a little celebration. Now, with 15 to 16 rides, we have a solid second unit."
Featherston's three children are all in their 30s now. Melissa Erasmus, the oldest at 36, met her husband Adriaan on the show after he came over from South Africa as part of the H2B program. At the time, he was one of Gold Star's first international recruits. Jessica Bessette, 34, and her husband, Tim, and Mike Featherston Jr., 31, and his wife, Krissy, round out the family operation.
In addition to increasing the total number of rides, last year Gold Star upgraded its front gate with a new LED light package from Galaxy Amusement Sales.The 40-foot-wide marquee, a Galaxy design, stands tall on the midway, Featherston said.
At the Sellner plant, Gold Star offiicals have developed a new puppy theme as a replacement vehicle for the Berry-Go-Round, Bear Affair and other kiddie attractions made under the old manufacturing regime. In some cases, Featherston buys the old spin rides and rebuilds them with the new theme. Carnival owners Alan Cockerham and Jimmy Drew, as well as Geoff Goody with Goodtime Amusements, have all purchased the puppy pieces.
For Featherston, the upfront costs are about $89,000 to completely refurbish an old Sellner ride before he turns around and sells what is essentially a brand new attraction. Apart from the Sellner pieces, Gold Star's crew has become proficient at restoring Zippers and kiddie coasters such as the Dizzy Dragon inside the 70,000-square-foot facility. Last year, Gold Star renovated its own Pharoah's Fury and Century Wheel.
photo by Dennis Borrell
Photo by Dennis Borrell
Photo by Dennis Borrell
Photo by Mike Featherston