Editor's note: This is the latest installment in a series called “Inside Jobs” in which reporters shadow locals performing unique and unusual jobs around the Iron Range.
CHISHOLM — Amid a sea of neon lights and brightly colored booths at the St. Louis County Fair in Chisholm, Matt casually paces under his tent at the Bottle Up game, his sharp eyes scanning the crowd for potential players.
It’s Thursday afternoon and approaching him, it’s hard to tell which sticks out more: his punchy East Coast accent booming over the mini-speaker or the quips he makes to the passersby. He seems to tailor each sales pitch to specific individuals, picking up on small details that others might not notice.
“It depends on the person,” he says to the side. “Each person is different. It’s all about personality.”
One detail not up for grabs, however, is Matt’s last name. He crosses his arms over his red Amusement Attractions shirt and smiles wryly. “I like to keep a bit of mystery. That’s part of this whole experience — the magic.”
Matt is a father who has kids of his own waiting at home. He insists he does what he does to give them a good life and in the meantime, he enjoys seeing the countryside as the show travels all over from state to state, primarily in the American South.
His Tony Soprano-like charm is palpable as he continues to describe his sales tactics. “Different people respond to different things depending on their mood that day — like this gentleman here.”
A trio of teenagers pause. Matt immediately hones in on a boy who appears to be in a relationship.
“Act like you love your girlfriend — I’m assuming you love your girlfriend — and come here for a minute,” Matt encourages. “Watch.”
They smirk and follow Matt to where glass bottles are lying on their sides on small, white platforms with a slight incline. Holding a stick with a long rope and a ring at the end, Matt demonstrates the play by dangling the ring until it wraps around the bottleneck; then slow and steady he tips it up upright until it stands on its own. His movements are knowing and swift. He makes it look easy, though he’s likely done it tens of thousands of times.
“Pick it up a little bit, watch,” Matt says, tipping the bottle over and demonstrating again. “Do that one time and I’ll give you any big prize she desires.” He points at the girlfriend. “I’ll let her have one, will you?”
The couple laughs again and just like that, Matt has them where he wants them. He tells them it’s $5 for one try, $10 for four tries. “Assuming, of course, you do care enough about her,” he taunts, but his tone is friendly enough.
The boy wastes no time digging out his wallet. Meanwhile Matt assures the girl that her boyfriend is a real gentleman. So much so, he’s willing to strike a deal. He offers to let them each have four tries a piece for $20 and if either of them wins, they both walk away with prizes. He gestures at the giant stuffed donuts, Dalmatians, frogs and other prizes hanging overhead inside the tent.
The boy agrees but his first attempt fails, so Matt gives him a few more lessons, urging him to take his time. “Be the winner I believe you are,” Matt says. “Take your time. Oh! Why’d you pop your elbow out — why?”
Another pair walks by. Matt rattles off another lively pitch, and when they slow, he lays it on. “Five dollars, one try. Why $5?” He points to the stuffed animals. “Because they are taller than you.”
Matt turns off his microphone and says to the side that he’s been traveling with the fair for many years — “long enough that you should be listening.” He takes a thoughtful pause and quietly says that he knows the word “carnie” can conjure up dated, negative images, but he’s proud to be part of this particular midway traveling to this county fair.
“We have a good show like this and it’s hard for us to put that good image back in people’s minds,” he says to the side. “So we have to work even harder to give them a good time. We want them to know that not everyone is like that. We’re a really good family show.”
Matt clearly has fun razzing the players — capitalizing on his ineffable, old school persona — though everyone appears to laugh along with him, indicating he has a good grasp of personal boundaries.
“They come to have a good time,” he continues. “We strive to keep people coming back year after year and keep giving them a good experience. Bringing a smile to people’s faces is what it’s all about, you know?”
The teenagers file away empty-handed and another boy around the age of 12 approaches. He’s wearing a baseball cap and stares up at Matt quiet but expectantly.
“You want to try, young man?” Matt asks. “I’ll tell you what, you want to try that bad, you buy one round, I’ll buy you one round. Sound fair to you?”
The boy grins and readily accepts.
“OK. You’re gonna like this, watch.” Matt demonstrates once more but it’s a new client so it’s a whole new script. He’s encouraging and there seems to be a mini lesson mixed into the fold about the importance of being a man of your word — but you have to pay close attention to everything he says or you’ll miss it. After the boy loses Matt tells him, “Perhaps next time, my friend.”
Matt turns the mic off again and says to the side, “The most important thing you’ll ever learn in life is that around every corner, there’s some little kid looking up to you. No matter who you are, there’s someone looking up to you and you have an obligation to be the best you can be, because that little kid might want to be just like you someday.”
All around other workers like him are calling out sayings like, “Winners never quit,” and “Everyone’s a winner!”
“All games here get play,” Matt says. “You have prize-every-time games, you have skill games. Every game out here is winnable. It’s all about having a good time. If you’re not having a good time, then what’s the point?”
No winners yet but there’s plenty of time. The day before — the opening of the fair — he had two winners at his tent. His game doesn’t usually pick up until evening after families have had their supper around the table, Matt says.
To pass the time, he observes, taking in the smiles and the wonder in people’s eyes as they see the fair for perhaps the first time.
“The excitement on any game when people win, that’s what it’s about,” Matt says, turning his mic back on. “And they’re all 100 percent winnable. Some games require that you pay attention because they are skill games.”
As the next potential player walks up, Matt’s voice turns back into that of a showman as he says, “Come on over. Pay attention. Watch.”