Last week, ATZ learned the sad news via a message about a new Facebook Page “Remember and Honor Earl ‘Butch’ Butler” that the owner of Butler Amusements, the West Coast’s largest carnival company, died on December 21. We first became acquainted with Butch Butler as a reporter for the trade publication Amusement Business in 2004 and picked up the conversation again in 2009, when Butch sent a few rides to our part of the world — Coney Island. We found him to be a great interview and a class act. His intelligence and generosity of spirit will be missed.
Butch Butler served as President of Showfolks of America, Showmen’s League of America, and Pacific Coast Showmen’s League. Butler Amusements, whose motto is “Cleanest Show in the West,” was awarded the prestigious Circle of Excellence Designation by the Outdoor Amusement Business Association in 2005. The fact that Butch passed during the holiday season and his portrait is enshrined on the show’s carousel at San Jose’s Winter Wonderland reminded us of his love of Christmas.
For a 2005 AB story about business opportunities in the winter months, Butch spoke enthusiastically about the Christmas Wonderland in San Jose, where he made his home, and how the event had grown from three rides and a popcorn trailer to 18 rides and wreath-trimmed Giant Wheel. He told us that before the festival, he had four Christmas tree lots replete with rides and had even set up a carnival on the rooftop of a now-defunct department store. “There’s something about me that can’t turn off what I do. I like to be part of the entertainment package for the community,” Butler said.
“He always compared the night time lights of his carnival midway to a brightly decorated house during the Christmas season,” Andrea Owen, marketing director of Butler Amusements, tells ATZ. “Christmas was Butch’s favorite time of year. Time spent with family was most special to him. He was such a generous loving man who made everyone around him feel like part of his family, he took care of so many.”
According to a bio released by the family, Earl “Butch” Butler was born in 1942 in Austin, Minnesota. In 1955 his parents started operating game concessions at various weekend events sparking his interest in the carnival industry. The sale of the family grocery store funded Butler Amusements’ first ride – a Tilt-A-Whirl – and the new show made its debut at a California shopping center in 1970. That winter the Butlers signed a contract for their very first fair, the Redwood Empire Fair in Ukiah, which the show still plays.
Today Butler Amusements has more than 135 rides and is the carnival provider for over 120 different events. The California State Fair, Big Fresno Fair, Evergreen Washington State Fair and both the Western and Eastern Idaho State Fairs are among the company’s major fair contracts.
In 2009, Butch Butler sent four rides to Coney Island, including Michael Jackson’s Dragon Wagon, one of five rides purchased from Neverland Ranch. When ATZ saw “Butler Amusements” name on the cotton candy trailer in Thor Equities’ temporary park on the Astroland site, we were absolutely astonished. What made Butler come all the way from California to Coney’s sandy shore? He told us that he sent the rides to “test market” Coney Island at the urging of his old friend John Strong, whose sideshow had been operating on Sitt’s property since April. (“Calif. Carnival Sends Rides to Coney Island….Including One from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch,” ATZ, June 30, 2009)
“John grew up on our show,” said Butler, “but has since gone off on his own. He said, ‘you’ve got to come out and see this.'” Although Butler’s strong fair route precluded sending more rides for the summer, he expected to put kiddie rides in Thor Equities “Flea by the Sea” tents for the Christmas season. But Butch Butler’s Coney Island Christmas was not to be. Thor CEO Joe Sitt, whom the NY Post previously called “The Grinch Who Stole Coney Island” for a Christmas Eve 2008 lockout, abruptly closed down Dreamland Park before Labor Day while Flea by the Sea flopped. Butler’s Dragon Wagon, Star Dancer, Carousel and Kids Zone returned to California and continue to travel with the carnival’s different units, which play events in seven states in the West.
Butch Butler’s entire family, including his four daughters and their husbands, and his son, are involved in the operation of the company. As one of the comments on the Facebook page says, “Great showman, Amazing father. His legacy will live on!” The family asks that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be sent to Pacific Coast Showmen’s Association Scholarship Fund or Showfolks of America Scholarship Fund. Butler’s funeral will be held at St. Christopher’s Church in San Jose on January 3, 2012. Details are available on the OABA’s blog.
Related posts on ATZ…
August 26, 2009: Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ride for Sale in Coney Island!