Falling Upstairs: The charmed life of a fair tycoon.

Watch out Wills and Kate, the Sydney Royal Easter Show has a king of its own.

RAS (Royal Agricultural Society) TIMES writer Vicki Choh takes a stroll down the Sydney Royal Easter Show memory lane with amusement rides tycoon Garry O’Neill.

Garry O’Neill stands before one of his rides, the Wave Swinger. Image: The Sydney Royal Easter Show Facebook page.
Garry O’Neill stands before one of his rides, the Wave Swinger. Image: The Sydney Royal Easter Show Facebook page.

Weave your way past the crowds. And you can hear it, smell it, feel it. There is glee, scribbled in the faces of show-goers who chuckle, cackle, and caw with triumph at their new showbag purchases.

It’s that time of the year again where kitschy clichés of all shapes and sizes find their feet at the 2014 Sydney Royal Easter Show.

In this world of blaring colours, sausage snacks are dressed as “Waffles Dogs”, complete with bow ties and candy eyes. Bubblegum-pink fairy flosses come in one size: extra-large. Woodchips fly as woodchoppers fell trees and more at the Stadium. Animals are a-plenty, and the cutest are busy purring and clucking, baaing and neighing at the Farmyard Nursery, all the while tugging at the hems and heartstrings of those who come to feed them.

Little known to its young fairy-winged or devil-horned Kids Carnival revellers, is that one man rules the roost.

His name is Garry O’Neill.

It is 12:10pm. Dust motes drift in sunlight as the sun beats down mercilessly in defiance of autumn, much to the glee of Easter Show-goers. I make my way to the Royal Double Decker Carousel, bypassing crowds, workers, and Angus bulls. Here, all eyes are locked onto the slowly spinning two-tiered Carousel: it is the gem of the Easter Show, and like prized gems, it stands to attention as the centrepiece of the Show.

It was arranged that I’d meet O’Neill there.

“Know Garry? I’m his business partner!” a woman laughs from behind the counter of the Carousel Café. She introduces herself as Mrs. Jade Evans, a travelling show businesswoman. “You’re a bit early, love.”

“Garry’s the kind who falls upstairs,” she says, unblinkingly. “Nothing can put Garry down, nothing. You give him a rare stroke of bad luck and he converts it, you know, to something really good.”

She snaps her fingers.

“Just like that.”

“Speak of the devil, there he is. Garry! This lady here wants to talk to you.”

From the midst of whirling colours, he emerges, squat and ruddy. Wearing a beige cap, beige polo, glum grey shorts, and runners, Garry is a force of personality, body and bones that one must admit – does not fit the image of a successful multi-millionaire director.

The Royal Double Decker Carousel at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Image: The Royal Agricultural Society of NSW.
The Royal Double Decker Carousel at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Image: The Royal Agricultural Society of NSW.

Garry lets out a satisfied sigh and proudly nods, eyes locking onto the Royal Double Decker Carousel all the while.

“This Royal Carousel here, she’s mine. Like many other rides you’ll find [at the Kid’s Carnival section].”

Jade stands up and is poised to leave the conversation. Garry gets fired up by his rides, she cautions, winks, and shuffles off to tend to the Waffle Dog press at the Carousel Café, which she co-manages with Garry.

“Like it? Do you like it?” asks Garry.

I nod furiously. Yes. Yes.

In the hours that follow, I am presented with a detailed mental blueprint of the Carousel, “the only double decker Carousel in Australia” and “the only Venetian carousel in Australia made by Bertazzon – they’re maestros in what they do, I’m telling you”.

“You just don’t get artisan rides like it anymore.”. 

I am made to note the 3,000 light bulbs – (“yes, that’s three thousand!”) that fringe and illuminate the Royal Carousel. I “must simply” observe the hand-enamelled horses, the individual panels of artwork that deck the scenic panels and rounding boards, the smiling bearded gargoyles, the two gondola “Love Seats”, the lampposts… See the lampposts? Dipped in 24carat gold!

“It’s true. You can put that on your article.”

To oblige Garry’s penchant for themed harmony, the staff at the Royal Carousel dresses up as 1930s cabaret ushers; the men are smart in their black tuxedos and top hats, the women – impeccable, with a crimson red feather swaying above their heads.

“[The Royal Carousel] was owned by an American millionaire who wanted it for his grandchildren, but they only used it once. So there’s me thinking, what a waste! Bought it off the American. I don’t know if I’ll ever break even, but I told Jade and my wife I’ve got ’ter have it. Kids love it, big kids love it. I’m happy as anything.”

The crinkly crevices of his craggy face, weathered no doubt by decades of harsh Australian sun, tremble with delight as he talks about his Royal Carousel, his new favourite business project. Like the sun, there is an element of warmth to this man; his toothy grin is an ever-present feature, his chestnut-brown eyes twinkle with childlike ease.

“When I tell people that I come here every year since the year I was born, they ask me, hey, what is a middle-aged man strolling around in the Kids Carnival year after year, for 50, 60 years?”

He lets loose a high-pitched chortle. Kikikiki!

Why continue? Garry says it is for business and money, of course. For the round-the-clock medleys of laughter. For the carnival’s tinselled colours, the silver linings, and most of all, for the amusement rides.

“Number one: [the Easter Show] gets hundreds and thousands of visitors every year. So if you want to make some money, this is the place to be. It gets more people than any other shows in Australia. Two: [the Olympic Park] is big. I can bring some of my more spectacular rides over. It’s been a part of my family for generations.”

Spread over 140,000sqm of exhibition space and building, the Easter Show is Australia’s largest event, organised by the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW (RASNSW). Last year it brought an estimated 900,000 Show-goers in through its gates. This year, Garry believes that this figure will be surpassed as – at the time of interview – Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge will be arriving in two days. He lowers his tone, as if to divulge a secret: “I hope Baby George will come, ‘course if he does, they’ll be riding the Royal Carousel, my Carousel!”.

Garry’s Carousel was a part of the $60million total worth of rides and equipment set up for thrills and entertainment at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.

At 63, Garry may just be the most important businessman (or tycoon, as some folks in the RAS office call him) at the Kid’s Carnival in Easter Show.

“I’ve got around 10 rides, 16 food stalls and 3 games stalls operating at the Easter Show right now. You might ‘ave seen ‘em. There’s the Carousel, the Wacky Worm Roller Coaster, Wave Swinger, the Log Flume, the Giant Slide… there’s more. ”

“In total? Rough guess ‘ere, but I’ve got about, let’s see, 40, 45 carnival rides? Yeah, 45 rides, 16 food stalls, and 25 games stall. And those that aren’t in action now are sleeping in my Liverpool warehouse,” remarks Garry, brows furrowing at the dusty recollection of his dormant rides. “

“I own the most rides out of anybody at the Show,” he chortles. Kikiki.

Garry O’Neill. Image: Vicki Choh.
Garry O’Neill. Image: Vicki Choh.

It’s the old story of the businessman who made it “real good”, only that this businessman is no Gina Rinehart.  Everybody likes him, from families having a splashing good time on his Adventure Log Flume to business partners like Jade Evans who says that “Garry really puts in the hard yards”. The ushers at his Royal Carousel agree that he’s “tough, but fair”. Politicians court Garry and vice versa. He rubs shoulders with the likes of Chloe Bryce, Mike Baird and Peter Garrett. He’s had tea with his adversary in political ideology, Bill Shorten. “Pity Bill’s Labor,” Garry tells me.

“My wife says I’ve got sawdust in my brain,” he chortles again, and explains that sawdust was used in circus rings for performing animals to tread on. The show business is Garry’s lifeblood; he lives and runs on this one passion. “That, and skiing.”

As for enemies, Garry says he has none, “except maybe for the paperwork and the nuisance of the tall poppy syndrome you find in Australia. In this country, it’s a pretty sad fact that people hold a grudge against successful people. Why they do that, I have no idea”. There has been competition, he says, but his American style of business management has kept much of his competition at bay.

“Not many people can do what I do: I operate dozens of rides, game stalls and food stalls in one city, like the Americans show operators. Most Aussie operators would travel to wherever the carnivals and shows are. I didn’t want to do that. I mostly stay put in Sydney and set up my rides in Sydney shows like this one. This way, I can control the whole environment in Sydney. This way, my kids can go to a proper school. There’s a lot of paper-pushing every year to be able to operate right here, but what can you do, eh?”

Christ, I’ve been to the Show every year, even back when I was in a pram.”

Growing up in Sydney, O’Neill was an athletic boy who took extracurricular activities to a new level. He dabbled as a tent boxer, an actor for TV commercials, a surfboard shaper, a sandal maker, a model, a trampolinist, a stunt actor, ski-trip organiser, and a perennial mountain skier. He loved sports and acting; they kept him focussed and on his toes.

“Tell you what, even when I was in Year 12, they cast me as a 12 year old kid,” he smirks half-eyed, alluding to his height. “I was in about a hundred commercials, y’know. Did ads for Milo, Freddo Frog, Arnott’s… Christ, just about every junk food there is. Dunlop tyres, y’name it. One time, I was in a movie with Beau Bridges. Sometimes agents would just ring up my mum – ‘cause they know my mum and all – and they’d ask if  ‘Garry can ride a one-wheel bike?’ I was acrobatic as a kid, and I hung out with kids from shows and circuses. ‘Of course he can,’ mum would say.”

The young entrepreneur was not without his mentors. He credits his family for building the blocks for launching him into the show business as a child.  His mother, who once entertained army troops in Queensland in the 40s, instilled a passion for the theatrical in him.

“Mum had a lot of contact in theatre. A lot of her friends in vaudeville at the Easter Show became television stars. In those days, everybody travelled and everybody worked in carnival tents. Slim Dusty and the Bee Gees would sing around campfires. There was no television. They’d just sing and strum their guitars.”

O’Neill’s childhood was shared with circus children, but there was one aspect which greatly set his early life apart from many other children of the show industry: he had an education.

“Back then, those kids on showground, they didn’t read or write. Even today, they can’t read or write. This was around 50, 60 years ago. I was lucky that we stayed put in Sydney and not travelled around the country for a living.”

Today, he is a proud father of five high achievers. His youngest, 19-year-old Taylah, has made national headlines as a mogul skier at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. 

“I’m proud, really proud of my children,” says Garry. 

One of the boards sporting historical photographs of the Easter Show. Image: Vicki Choh.
One of the boards sporting historical photographs of the Easter Show. Image: Vicki Choh.

Echoes of Garry’s carnival-filled past remains to today: the path to his Easter Show ‘office’ is littered with game tents, gaudy rides, lit-up faces, and kids flaunting their showbag goodies. 

Halfway to his office, Garry stops at a junction with large wooden boards sporting collages of historical Easter Show photographs in sepia, taken from the 30s to the 60s. Garry, smiling, points and slaps at each photo lightly, as if to arouse the spirits that linger within the photos.

“They don’t do shows like how they used to anymore. Politics changes things, y’know. Look, back then at the Show, there were Maori troubadour shows. Pygmy Yubangi shows. Midget shows. Walk a little, and there’s the tattooed ladies shows, hah! You used to pay to look at tattooed ladies, fancy that! Then there’s the striptease ladies with their snakes wrapped around their necks would stand outside their tent to do a – they call it – a ‘pitch’. They’d pitch something like: ‘You think it’s good on the outside, just wait ‘til you see what’s on the inside!’. Costs 2 bobs to get in. There’s the Strongman show – one man lies on a board of nails, and gets a car driven over him!”

“They tell me it doesn’t hurt so much if you’re on a bed of nails, y’know,” Garry adds.

He continues to trace his index finger on the collages of photographs until “ahh!” he stops: he has located his prized recollection of the Show, a photograph of the legendary Jimmy Sharman Jnr with his Aboriginal boxers. Garry gives the photograph a hearty thump. Kikiki.

“Before the 70s, boxing tents were incredibly popular. Back then, everybody knew a bloke named Jimmy Sharman Snr and his son, Jimmy Sharman Jnr,” he says. “They were legends.” Tough boxing regulations came into being in 1971, which completely incapacitated Jimmy Sharman Jnr’s popular tent shows which involved staged fights between boxers, often Aboriginal.

It was in 1975 that Garry’s dream of operating at the Show truly kicked off, with thanks to Jimmy Sharman Jnr. The duo struck a business partnership at the Easter Show that would last 22 years. 

Jimmy Sharman Jnr and his boxing troupe. Image: The Age.
Jimmy Sharman Jnr and his boxing troupe. Image: The Age.

We move away from the nostalgic photo collages and arrive at his office: a caravan with pebbled Sahara-brown wallpaper, a kitchenette, and a play-box for his lively three-year-old grandson. Sunrays filter through the soft Roman blinds, and flit softly about their faces. 

Along the colourful timeline of his career, Garry managed and owned amusement parks from the late 70s to the late 80s – they were the stuff of children’s fantasies. “With the amusement parks, I had a lot of animals. I had tigers and camels, emus, kangaroos, buffaloes, everything. The Bengal tiger was probably the craziest animal I ever owned,” Garry says.

His amusement parks soon suffered the same fate as Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tents: they went out of favour with contemporary ethics. Animal liberation movements hulked in the 80s, and Garry, sick of bickering, decided to close the business and launch his innovative Circus Montana on Ice in 1992: a circus comprised entirely of Olympic and professional skaters that he “bought out” from Russia. There were no animals. It was named after his newborn daughter and fourth child, Montana.

“90% of the time, my Russian employees were drunk on vodka. Christ, they just drank and drank. They called it water,” he jokes.

“As for me, I never had a beer in my life. Never had a glass o’ wine ‘til I was 36. All my friends thought there was something wrong with me.”

Kikiki.

Today, his former amusement park site at Liverpool has been converted into a “large warehouse”. For some movie directors of movies like Babe, Hostage, and Ghost Rider– it is a treasure trove of rides and stalls for their movie sets. Garry plans to reopen the amusement park in the coming years.

At the end of the day, I work hard,” he says. As far as understatements go, this is big. On Easter Show days, Garry can work up to 18 hours a day with minimal sleep. His personal philosophy can be boiled down to one maxim: work hard, play hard. 

“Tell you a funny thing. When I was young, I went surfing a lot. I remember going down the coast one weekend. There was this couple who had a tent. All they ate was rice and they went surfing everyday.. They had virtually nothing. But really, what else do you need? What matters is you’re happy doing what you do. If you go broke, go live on the beach and eat rice and surf all day.”

Reference list

In addition to personal interviews x 3 with Garry O’Neill at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.

“2013 Commercial Exhibitor Prospectus” (2013), Sydney Royal Easter Show, available: http://www.eastershow.com.au/images/edm/images/304_RAS_EP2013_Final_LR.pdf

“2014 Commercial Exhibitor Prospectus” (2014), Sydney Royal Easter Show, available: http://www.eastershow.com.au/documents/2014ExhibitorProspectus.pdf

“2014 Media Guide” (2014), Sydney Royal Easter Show, available: http://www.eastershow.com.au/documents/RAS_MediaGuide2014.pdf

“About” (2014), Sydney Royal Easter Show, available: http://www.eastershow.com.au/about/

Classic Venetian Carousels” (nd), Bertazzon, available: http://www.bertazzon-america.com/carousels.php

“Double Decker Carousel” (2014), Sydney Royal Easter Show, available: http://www.eastershow.com.au/carnival/double-decker-carousel.aspx

“Final bell for showman Jimmy Sharman” (2006), The Age, available:  http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/final-bell-for-showman-jimmy-sharman/2006/04/26/1145861376146.html

“Frills and thrills for the kids with stomach-churning rides at the Sydney Royal Easter Show” (2014), Daily Telegraph, available: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/frills-and-thrills-for-the-kids-with-stomachchurning-rides-at-the-sydney-royal-easter-show/story-fni0cx12-1226877180702

“Jimmy Sharman, heir to the boxing tents, dies at 94” (2006), The Sydney Morning Herald, available: http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/a-life-at-the-show/2006/04/25/1145861349918.html

“Memories of Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Stadium” (2009), Belshaw, available: http://belshaw.blogspot.com.au/2009/07/memories-of-jimmy-sharmans-boxing.html

“Mother of all efforts to restart school for carnival kids” (2013), Brisbane Times, available: http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/mother-of-all-efforts-to-restart-school-for-carnival-kids-20130520-2jwy2.html#ixzz35C6L6GzP

“Sharman the showman is an official bloody legend” (2003), The Sydney Morning Herald, available: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/04/14/1050172535850.html

“Sydney farewells a very “Royal‟ Easter Show” (2014), Sydney Royal Easter Show, available: http://www.rasnsw.com.au/SRES_2014_Day_14_wrap_up_-_FINAL.pdf

“Sydney Royal Easter Show 2014” (2014), Weekend Notes, available: http://www.weekendnotes.com/sydney-royal-easter-show/

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4 comments on “Falling Upstairs: The charmed life of a fair tycoon.

  1. Fascinating! You meet folks like (but maybe not as successful as) Mr O’Neill at local shows and events all over the place, and everyone has a few stories to tell. You ought to write about more people like this; they very often have unusual careers and experiences, while at the same time being very easy to relate to.

    Like

    • Thank you, Khalil! In response to your suggestion – yes, I have been talking with other people who work at events like this. I’ll keep posting their stories, right on this page. Stay tuned for more. 🙂

      Like

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