Meet the show people ‘riding a post-COVID high’, despite crippling costs

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It’s certainly not your typical 9 to 5 job; spending up to 40 weeks a year on the road running amusement and sideshow equipment. 

For some, it’s a tradition passed down through generations, and for others, it’s an opportunity to see the country while getting paid. 

Whichever it is, it’s not an easy time to be on the show circuit; there’s the turnout being so reliant on weather conditions, operators feeling the pinch of increased fuel and insurance costs, as well as the lingering pandemic. 

‘No insurance, no show’

This year, fifth-generation showman John Roberts will spend nine months travelling the east coast of Australia. 

Man with neat hair crouches down a young boy and embraces him. Carnival rides are seen in the backgroundMan with neat hair crouches down a young boy and embraces him. Carnival rides are seen in the background
John Roberts’ youngest son Sonny, 6, completes school while travelling the country.(Supplied: John Roberts)

“It’s not easy loading everything into a truck, moving out of your home into a caravan and travelling the country, especially with the challenges we face educating our children,” he said.

Mr Roberts said the cost of fuel and a recent insurance crisis were impacting everyone in his industry. 

“It’s a real kicker because some of our people can’t afford to insure some of their rides.

“We’ve got rides that sit in sheds that are fully functional but they can’t work because people can’t afford to pay the large increase in insurance.”

Mr Roberts said over the past 18 months insurance companies had been dropping out of the industry.

“We’ve got a few show societies that are upset because some of our rides can’t get to their shows,” he said.

“For example, at the Mackay Show … we had seven rides that weren’t there.”

At the Townsville Show this week, ride operators Jacinta Heffernan and Cindy Varley said they had to increase ticket prices to account for the cost of petrol. 

Two woman in blue jumpers stand in front of show rides smiling. Two woman in blue jumpers stand in front of show rides smiling.
Ride operators Jacinta Heffernan and Cindy Varley at this year’s Townsville Show.(ABC North Queensland: Zilla Gordon)

They both agreed the current climate was unaffordable. 

“When we were in New South Wales in Hawkesbury, we actually shut down for 15 minutes and did a protest,” Ms Heffernan said. 

A post-COVID ‘high’

But it’s not all bad news. 

Since borders reopened this year, John Roberts said shows were “back in a blaze of glory”.

During the pandemic, Mr Roberts spent nine months locked down in Victoria.

He said this year, agricultural shows had really come back to life. 

“It’s the feather in the cap of every small town. Most people in Australia were starving for some entertainment,” Mr Roberts said.

A colourful merry-go-roundA colourful merry-go-round
John Roberts says seven of his rides are missing at the Mackay Show.(ABC Tropical North: Hannah Walsh)

Mr Roberts said the rest of the world looked to the Australian show circuit in awe. 

“They can’t believe we get these huge major rides from one show one weekend to another the next,” he said.

“In England, America and other countries … they spend no less than 14 days [at one site].

Record attendance rates

Woman wearing circus costume in front of balloon wall holding hula hoops. Woman wearing circus costume in front of balloon wall holding hula hoops.
Helen Wardle AKA Helly Hoops is high on show life the Toowoomba Royal Show.(Supplied: Instagram)

Helen Wardle is a travelling circus performer.

Before COVID hit, she moved from Melbourne to Brisbane. 

She said it was during the pandemic she started attending regional shows. 

“I put most of my energy and focus into these regional events that were still able to go ahead,” Ms Wardle said.

“I love being able to travel out to these amazing small towns.

Ms Wardle said the most recent show she performed at had the highest attendance ever for patrons staying until the end of the evening. 

Woman dressed is top hat, marching band blazer and striped black and white pants perfoms act with Hula Hoops for childrenWoman dressed is top hat, marching band blazer and striped black and white pants perfoms act with Hula Hoops for children
Helen Wardle is known at regional shows across Queensland as Helly Hoops.(Supplied: Instagram)

Both Mr Roberts and Ms Wardle said their lifestyle inspired intrigue. 

“Every time I share with people what I do, people light up,” Ms Wardle said. 

“I forget how cool it is and it’s my life.”

Mr Roberts said the most frequent question he was asked was how he manages it all: “The long hours we put in and some of the challenges we’re faced with getting from one show to the next in a short span of time and how we educate our children along the way.”

Attending a show can be like getting a snapshot into a different world — the world of travelling show people.

Ms Wardle said people did it for the love and for the community.

Posted 29m ago29 minutes agoWed 6 Jul 2022 at 11:00pm, updated 24m ago24 minutes agoWed 6 Jul 2022 at 11:06pm