Carnival History

Traditional Strates Shows Since 1923

Strates Shows, America's only railroad carnival, travels the United States during a seven-month season, transporting personnel and equipment with 61 rail cars and 34 trucks. Traveling with the show are some 400 employees and families who operate the many rides, games and concessions.

 

Strates Shows has a history dating back to 1923 when James E. Strates, a Greek immigrant, began his first show. Mr. Strates came to America in 1909 and, like many immigrants, worked at a number of odd jobs. In 1919, he joined a carnival athletic show as a wrestler taking on all challengers. In 1923, James E. Strates acquired Southern Tier Shows and in 1932 changed its name to James E. Strates Shows. Mr. Strates continued to build and manage the carnival until his death in 1959. At that time his son, E. James Strates, assumed responsibility for the carnival and still operates it today.

 

Since 1959, many changes have occurred in the carnival business. E. James Strates has been an innovator from the beginning, bringing many firsts to the amusement business such as cooperative promotions, advance ticket sales and a centralized ticket system. In our technological society, the animals and rare "freak shows" have become a thing of the past. Today, fairgoers are more attracted to large spectacular thrill rides. To continue its growth, Strates Shows stays abreast of the market through continued research and by investing in the newest, most advanced equipment in the industry.

Strates Show Timeline

James E. Strates Shows' carnival midway was founded by a young Greek immigrant best known in the early days as "Young Strangler Lewis." This article is the first in a series which examines the development of the family-owned company.

  • 1909

    At age 15, James E. Strates immigrated from Greece to Lowell, Mass., and soon relocated to Endicott, N.Y. where he learned to wrestle at the YMCA.

  • 1910-1918

    While working at a shoe factory, cotton mill, restaurant and other jobs, he perfected his skill as a  wrestler and turned professional. Under the name of "Young Strangler Lewis," he grappled on a circuit from Buffalo to Philadelphia and from Boston to Syracuse. During this time he took on a training partner from Boston named Nick Bozinis and accepted the first of several matches with Henry Pruess. After losing to Lewis twice, Pruess proposed that Lewis wrestle an unnamed fighter in Wellsville, N.Y., one week later. Lewis accepted the challenge and Pruess named Bozinis, Lewis's training partner, as the opponent. Bozinis and Lewis met three times in the early 1900s, each winning once and tying the third match while forming a strong friendship.

  • 1919

    Lewis and Bozinis joined Lee Schaefer's Athletic Show which was part of the World at Home Shows, a traveling carnival. Both men traveled on the New York circuit during the winter and with the show during the summer. By the end of 1919, Lewis was one of the top contenders for the world middleweight championship and one of the top mat promoters of his time.

  • 1919

    On September 28, Young Strangler Lewis and his uncle, Theodore Koumoudorous, formed a partnership and purchased the fruit, candy and tobacco store located at 108 Washington Street in Endicott, New York. This partnership allowed Lewis to continue traveling on the professional wrestling circuit while his uncle took care of the store.

  • 1920

    Young Strangler Lewis received his title shot against Joe Turner -- Middleweight Champion of the World. Unfortunately for Lewis, the older, more experienced Turner won after one hour, 32 minutes and 11 seconds.

  • 1922

    Lewis and partners Bozinis and W.L. Platt reassembled the show and named it Southern Tier Shows, after a region in upstate New York.

  • 1923

    In its first season, the show consisted of a three-abreast merry-go-round by Allan Herschell, a Ferris wheel by Eli Bridge, an athletic show, 15 concessions, three side shows and five hard-rubber-tire trucks. It took 24 hours to move the show 22 miles from Bath, N.Y. to its first stop in Wayland, N.Y.

  • 1924

    After a hard first season and an extremely cold winter, James E. Strates bought out his partners. He continued to wrestle into the 1930s while promoting matches and managing his friend, Bozinis, for a short time.

  • 1924

    Nick Bozinis and Jack Albright began to manage the athletic show traveling with the Southern Tier Shows. Both of these men were world-class professional wrestlers who starred in the show and continued managing until 1931.

  • 1927

    Strates purchased the Acquatite Enamel plant on Chemung Street in Horseheads, New York, which was better known as West Junction. The plant was acquired to help facilitate equipment maintenance.

    Billed as the largest show in New York, the Southern Tier Shows featured the following 11 acts:

    • Mr. Normile - the contortionist
    • Professor George White - and his educated dog and pony show
    • Mexican Pete & his wife - with a western knife-throwing and sharp-shooting act
    • Captain Good - and his four trained bears
    • Punch & Judy
    • The Monkey Motordome
    • Professor Silka - and his ventriloquist act
    • Bill "The Musical Rube" Spiven - playing 75 different instruments
    • Margaret Morgan - "World's Daintiest Little Lady" - 35 inches tall
    • Jolly Dolly - weighing 382 pounds
    • World Class Athletic Show
  • 1928

    On February 1, Mrs. Mabel Strates gave birth to a baby girl whom she and James named Elizabeth.

    After purchasing land around the enamel plant, Strates moved his Winter Quarters to West Junction in Elmira, New York. Mr. Strates' total investment in his show was then valued at $75,000 (when a dime was a dollar).

    During a morning workout in Sayre, Pennsylvania, Tess, a man-eating lioness attacked lion tamer Robert Bailey from Cristie, Texas. Bailey, 23 years old, fought off the lioness but not before she sank her teeth into his shoulder and deeply clawed his back.

  • 1929

    The Southern Tier Shows, traveling on 18 trucks, was completely motorized before the Great Depression struck. The next few years were lean, and many of Strates' creditors carried him because of his honest reputation.

  • 1930

    On April 9, Mrs. Mabel Strates gave birth to fraternal twins. For the first year of their lives, they were known only as "Brother" and "Sister." They were later baptized E. James and Theodora.

  • 1932

    Strates purchased a young gorilla from South Africa, 18-month-old Joe Mendi. He weighed 48 pounds and was an exceptional actor. Starring in the original Tarzan of the Apes, he could eat with utensils, shake hands, smoke, answer questions and even whistle.
    At the end of the season, the decision was made to change the name of the Southern Tier Shows to The James E. Strates Shows.

  • 1933

    This year the James E. Strates Shows experienced a very lean season as did others in the carnival industry. Many of the traveling shows closed for good this year but not the Strates Shows. Mr. Strates had the foresight to put away some money prior to this season and now reasoned that it was the time to buy and expand his show. By 1934 he had purchased the show's first five flatbed railroad cars, along with 17 trucks to carry his equipment. From this season on, Mr. Strates purchased from the Warren Tank Car Company flatbed cars each year until his train totaled 40 cars in length.

  • 1935

    Mr. Strates purchased his private family car and named it Elizabeth, after his oldest daughter. The car was originally built for President Machado of Cuba and then sold to multi-millionaire oil man Harry Sinclair. After Mr. Sinclair's death, Mr. Strates purchased it from his estate. It contained five staterooms, an observation room, butler's pantry, bathroom with shower and ample storage space.

  • 1936

    "Kangaroo Court" was held every Wednesday night when the show was up and running. "Showpeople only!", was an unbending rule that governed the weekly midnight gathering. Showpeople gladly paid a dime to the "Fund" upon entering. (The fund was always at the service of stranded performers, and all court-appointed fines during the evening went to the fund.) For approximately two hours, showpeople gathered to air their grievances, some serious and many humorous. Afterward, a few skits were put on and the night drew to a close about 2 a.m. In 1936, the "Court of Joviality" held a mock presidential election, and the result showed that carnival people know how to pick a president: Roosevelt 167, Lemke 42 and Landon 19.

  • 1938

    By the beginning of this season, the Strates Shows caravan was comprised of 25 railroad cars and 61 trucks and wagons that were valued at $250,000. For the next few years, hard times fell, not only on the show but on the entire carnival industry. Rumors spread that James E. Strates Shows was closing its gates. An amusement park owner who had heard the rumor sent a telegram to Mr. Strates saying, "Understand your show closes Saturday night. Will book your Ferris wheel..." Mr. Strates was said to have been seen laughing about that telegram for a number of years.

  • 1943

    October 23 - James E. Strates purchased all of the equipment from Art Lewis Shows and in 1944 used it to go into business with J.C. Wier. The following year, Dave Endy bought out J.C. Wier, and the show was put out under the Endy Brothers title.

  • 1945

    December 22 - Disaster!! On a tobacco field in Mullins, SC, fire engulfed the barn where the entire Strates Shows was stored for the winter. The only usable piece of equipment remaining was the train. With an insurance policy payment of $250,000, Mr. Strates' daring move to rebuild his show in time for the start of the 1946 season was the biggest and boldest investment the carnival industry had ever seen.

    "My creditors could have frequently put me out of business, but they carried me; and when I could, I paid them. They knew I was good for my debts. That's how my business was really built."
    -James E. Strates, 1930s

  • 1945

    The James E. Strates Shows received a staggering "Christmas Present" on December 22 in Mullins, South Carolina when a fire destroyed the entire carnival with the exception of the train, which was stored three blocks away. At the time, Strates' decision to rebuild his traveling carnival represented perhaps the most expensive venture of its kind, estimated at $400,000.

  • 1946

    Only 3-1/2 short months after the disastrous fire, the James E. Strates Shows was rebuilt, with the help of the City and the citizens of Mullins, South Carolina and show agents scouring the country from coast to coast buying rides, trucks, lumber, generating units, and anything else they needed. Strates was able to rebuild and maintain his fair commitments that year. The makeshift pieces of equipment bought hurriedly at war-inflated prices were soon replaced and modernized. By the end of the season, the Strates Shows had grown immensely. It now consisted of 20 side shows, 21 rides & army surplus anti-aircraft searchlights to promote the show.

  • 1948

    "When you have good attractions, you are bound to do business. The business is going to have to reach out and invest in worthwhile shows," said Strates. He put this theory to work when he featured a number of new shows, including one of the great burlesque shows that were so popular in that time. Georgia Southern, one of the nation's top burlesque performers and the star of many Broadway hits, performed a daily revue called "A Night on Broadway". Strates received top industry recognition when he was elected president of the National Showmen's Association. He was also a key figure in the American Carnival Association and supporter of its public relations activities.

  • 1953

    At this point, the James E. Strates Shows was the fourth largest carnival midway in the nation. There were about 300 employees traveling with the show at this time, and a major ride cost approximately $50,000 as compared to today's prices that average between $500,000 and $1,000,000.

  • 1955

    James E. Strates Shows relocated its Winter Quarters from a fairground in Deland, Florida where it had wintered for two years, to a 40-acre lot in Taft, on the south border of Orlando, Florida, where it remains today. To accommodate the great show train, over a mile of railroad siding was laid and is still in use today for America's only remaining railroad carnival.

  • 1956

    E. James, son of founder James E., joined the show's management team under the supervision of his father.

  • 1958

    October 11, James E. Strates had the opportunity to meet his sister, Ms. Vasilike (Elizabeth) Strates Theodoropoulos, for the first time. Elizabeth was born in Greece just after Mr. Strates arrived in America in 1909. Mr. Strates helped bring three of her seven children to America and they, in turn, later brought their mother.
    The carnivals of yesteryear had an array of attractions on the midway, including the Viking Giant (8 feet, 8 inches tall), the four-abreast Ferris wheel, the Two-Ton-Hippopotamus, and the Wild Animal Menagerie comprised of elephants, camels, zebras, lions, bears and a brahma bull.

  • 1959 Strates Shows founder, James E. Strates

    For over 40 years, James E. Strates worked to realize his dream of owning one of the finest carnivals in America. He started his fair and midway career as Young Strangler Lewis, a professional wrestler in an Athletic Show. Strates eventually decided to make carnival business his career. He acquired a small show, the Southern Tier Shows, that later became known as the James E. Strates Shows. Due to Strates strength and devotion, his carnival was able to grow and prosper over the years. Even when tragedy and turmoil struck the Strates Shows, it continued to thrive. The James E. Strates Shows became an acknowledged industry leader and its founder, James E. Strates, was admired and respected by those in the carnival business as well as others who knew him.

  • 1959

    Tragedy befalls the James E. Strates Shows on October 10, while playing the York Fair in Danville, Virginia. James E. Strates suffered a stroke in his office on the fairgrounds. Curtis Finch, manager of the fair at that time, was the first to arrive at the trailer and discover Mr. Strates. While en route to Danville Memorial Hospital, Mr. Strates slipped into a coma and never recovered. On Sunday, October 11, 1959 at 10:07 a.m., at the age of sixty-five, James E. Strates passed away.

    Funeral services were held on Monday in Raleigh where the show had moved to play the North Carolina State Fair. The funeral was described by police as the largest that city had ever seen. Hundreds of people jammed the Greek Orthodox Church for a service conducted by Reverend George Stefanis. During the service, State Supreme Court Justice Hunter Parker told of a firm friendhsip the two had had for more than thirty years.

  • 1959 - Continued

    On Thursday, October 15, Mr. Strates was laid to rest in Riverhurst Memorial Cemetery in Endicott, New York. Meanwhile, back in Raleigh at the North Carolina State Fair, Fair Manager Doctor J.S. Dorton, had arranged an outstanding tribute to Mr. Strates. He set off aerial fireworks to draw the crowd's attention and then took the loud speaker. He commanded all rides be stopped and unloaded, and for all concessions to cease operation. Charley Basile bugled taps over the fairgrounds, and the honor guard from Fort Bragg lowered the flag to half mast. Next a helicopter flew overhead scattering thousands of red roses and chrysanthemums onto the midway at 12:20 p.m., the time of the burial in New York State.

    Doctor Dorton's eulogy honored, "...the immigrant boy whose name became synonymous with integrity, energy, and the pinnacle ultimate success in show business...his memory is beloved by everyone of the North Carolina Fair family. Jimmy Strates was first a gentleman, second a showman and lastly a true friend to great and small alike regardless of color and creed. Let everyone stand uncovered in honor of a grand gentleman, a true friend and great showman - Our Jimmy!"

  • 1959 E. James Strates, following in his father's footsteps, surveys the midway

    After the death of James E. Strates in 1959, his only son, E. James, took over as president and manager of the James E. Strates Shows. Today, nearly 50 years later, he is still "on-the-road" actively running the Strates Shows operation with the assistance of his wife, Phyllis, their five adult children and twelve grandchildren. The second, third, and fourth generations of Strates wish to pay a special tribute to their true founding father, James. E. Strates.

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