The name on the marquee? Skerbeck, of course


Sonja Skerbeck

Joey and his dog Lucy posing in front of a carnival game in 2017.

Shylah Dozeman

In the midst of carnival music and whooshing rides, Jr. Joey Skerbeck shouts out to the crowd. “Step right up, step right in! You let ‘er play, I’ll let ‘er win!” In an instant, a crowd of murmurs surrounds the stand, holding vibrant cotton candy and the occasional stuffed animal. Proudly, Joey stands in front of the crowd, his hand outstretched from his light blue polo holding darts.

   The Skerbeck name has been featured on signs in the entertainment industry since the 1800s. From being circus performers in Aussig, Bohemia, to running the 2021 Tulip Time Carnival, the Skerbecks have done it all. After performing under a plethora of names over the course of two hundred years, the family now operates as Skerbeck Entertainment Group.  

   Jamie Skerbeck, a West Ottawa parent, is the president of Skerbeck Entertainment Group, with his wife Sonja Skerbeck as the Director of Marketing and Booking. At first, Sonja found difficulty in finding a position that was meaningful when joining the company, but soon she discovered the role with inspiration from her father-in-law, Joe Skerbeck.

     After helping her father-in-law accomplish his dream of playing the Upper Peninsula State Fair in his hometown, Escanaba, MI, Sonja felt as if she had found her calling. “I started pulling together all of my skill sets like lobbying, politics, marketing, consulting work… and I kind of accidentally ended up becoming a booking agent for the family firm,” Sonja said.

   Skerbeck Entertainment Group has received prestigious awards such as the Circle of Excellence by the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. As the seventh generation continues to grow, the Skerbeck children, Nick (12), Frosh. Sophie (14), and Joey (17) are becoming heavily involved in their family’s carnival industry. 

  Beginning in 2005, the Skerbeck children traveled across Michigan and northern Indiana with their parents. However, while their parents were working the carnival, the children would tour each new city with a nanny. Hopping from place to place, they indulged in activities such as arcades, amusement parks, and beaches. Whether their toes were in the sand or in bowling shoes, the children were constantly exposed to new adventures. “I loved being a child,” Joey said. “I could walk outside and I’d have so many things I could do every single day, and it was great.”

    Although running a carnival and a family seems like an impossible task, the Skerbeck children felt like their parents were always there for them. “Since Sophie and Joey work, they always have an hour or so after work, where the whole family goes to the living room, watches TV, and just spends some time with each other,” Nick said. “Of course we’re all very tired, but we still try to spend some time together.”

   Because the carnival doesn’t operate during the winter, the parents can take more time to be directly involved with activities and the children’s everyday lives. However, the ability to always know where his parents are when the carnival is in operation was always important for Joey. “I never felt like I couldn’t talk to them,” Joey said. “I would just walk into the office and they’d be there.” 

   During their childhood years, having a family-owned carnival felt like a dream. Everyone who worked for the carnival knew them, so the workers gave them free prizes or candy. While Nick’s obsession with cotton candy grew, Sophie would ride Top Gun with her cousin Piper for the twentieth time. To this day, blue raspberry slushies invite a feeling of nostalgia for Joey. 

   As Sophie started working for the carnival, her role was to cover for the employees while they went on their breaks. Bouncing from game to game every thirty minutes, she was able to interact with many different people. Additionally, Nick is planning to do the same in the upcoming summer. Since his age has restricted his capabilities, he has previously been working a few games with his cousins. 

   Although both Nick and Sophie are involved in the family carnival, Joey has had more experience, considering his eighth year of participating is arriving in the upcoming spring. 

   At the age of nine, Joey started helping his parents during the carnival, selling light-up novelties with his cousin. “I made decent money for a twelve-year-old and remember having a lot of people ask how old we were,” Joey’s cousin, Logan Burrows, said.

   As Joey grew older, he began working the carnival games as well; however, his money now comes from connecting with the customers. With crowds of people buzzing past him every minute, he must strategically choose a new ‘pick-up line’ to draw people into his game. “I think that’s the really fun part about what I do. It’s just interesting to see new and different kinds of people and see how they react to different situations,” Joey said.

   While some customers appreciate his sense of humor, others do not enjoy his company. As someone working at a carnival, he expects the occasional “high school dropout” comment, but considering he’s maintaining a 4.0 GPA and is a member of National Honors Society, he easily lets these digs roll off his back. Although some of his customers believe his job is a livelihood, he knows he’s just helping out the family business. “At the end of the day I’m very happy with what I do and I have a lot of fun doing it, so I don’t really care what people think,” Joey said.

   Because he has been working at a carnival for all of his teenage years, Joey has learned many interesting tricks like swinging a sledgehammer, juggling, blowing a balloon with his nose, and even tying a balloon with one hand. 

   Even though these experiences definitely outweigh the difficulties, Joey believes the greatest obstacle is tearing down equipment after the carnival is over and setting up in another town that morning. “Typically a tear down usually takes somewhere between four and six hours for the games. For the rides it can take six to eight hours maybe, sometimes longer,” Joey said. 

   Not only is this a difficult task on a normal day, but after working during the carnival, the job can accumulate to up to seventeen hours. Considering the mind numbing labor of carrying heavy pieces of equipment and working with people who don’t contribute all of their energy, it’s not easy. 

From left to right: Anton Skerbeck, Gus Skerbeck, Frank Skerbeck, Joseph Skerbeck, Tony Skerbeck, and Clara Skerbeck.

   Additionally, safety is one of the biggest concerns for the Skerbeck family. Taking down equipment can be dangerous, especially when it’s after a long day of hard work. 

   During one of the tear-down processes, Joey misplaced his hand on a socket with a broken lightbulb while taking down a marquee (a foldable sign on top of a trailer). As an electric shock surged through his body, he fell off the marquee and onto the roof of the trailer. Ever since the incident, Joey has taken every precaution to avoid that from happening again. 

   Not only working at a carnival, but being part of its ancestry has provided Joey with a lot of insider information about carnivals themselves, and the people that go to them. “A ‘mark’ refers to someone who is a sucker and who you can get a lot of money from,” Joey said. 

   “Back in the old days, the people who worked the carnival would take chalk and pat the ‘mark’ on the back after he spent a lot of money, so everyone else working at the carnival would know to try to get their money. Obviously nowadays that’s not a thing anymore, but people still use those words.”

   He also posts interesting facts, tips, and tricks about carnivals on his TikTok @JSkerbeck, where he has 56.4 thousand followers and nearly two million likes. “I have a series called ‘Carnival Games Exposed’ where I expose different carnival games,” Joey said. “My favorite one I’ve done is the basketball game because obviously the rims are oval, it’s farther back than a regular free throw, it’s twelve feet high, and the ball is overinflated, there’s a lot going against you.”

From left to right: Norbert Kedrovich, Joe Skerbeck, Clark Pollen. Taken in 1963.

   The difference between working at a carnival and being part of the behind-the-scenes processes is Joey is exposed to the less family-friendly aspects of carnivals. “People in the industry are very secretive about the different tactics and techniques used to manipulate people for their money, which I think is wrong. People have a lot of inside scoops and inside terminology, just ways of living that I don’t think are really ethical in general,” Joey said. “Not a lot of people know how tightly knit some of those guys are and their ways of taking money from people in a bad way.” 

   When Joey talks about topics like these on his TikTok page, he turns the heads of other carnival owners. One owner emailed his mother because she believed what he was posting wasn’t good for the industry, so he had to take the video down. 

   “It doesn’t actually hurt the business either, which is why I dislike when people get upset about it. I’ve gotten other people that work at carnivals who say some really nasty things on my TikToks,” Joey said. “Obviously I’m getting in the heads of some people, but I think that’s a good thing because I like that I’m calling people out. Not other companies, but individual people who make those decisions.” 

   Moving forward, Joey believes that the carnival industry should reevaluate itself to be more geared towards being a practical business in the 21st century and less like the carnivals from his ancestry. “Carnivals have a mystique that you could really get hurt or get robbed and I don’t like that,” Joey said. 

Joe Skerbeck and his grandchildren (from left to right) Joey, Roman Zeise, and Logan Burrows.

   Being part of the carnival industry for his whole life has shown Joey the adversity that comes along with the fun. Getting special treatment when he was young enabled him to have the “dream childhood” coupled with the ability to spend as much time with his family as possible. If he wasn’t with his parents, he was playing outside with his siblings or cousins, constantly using his imagination. However, as he gained more responsibility within the carnival, he was able to see what goes on in the background and connect with the people he works with.

   His coworker managed to turn his life around using the money he earned from the carnival. After being homeless, purchasing a truck and trailer has given him something to work towards. “But don’t get me wrong, some of the people I work with are crazy, like I’ve seen people who eat a live goldfish for $10 after some kid won it at the goldfish game,” Joey said. “Those types of people are really weird and sketchy, but there’s just different people, different characters.”

   The whole experience of the carnival has shown Joey, and his siblings, the adversity of life in general, and that people can be different from what someone may have expected based on appearances. “Don’t judge a person by their job because you never know what their true livelihood is or what their true intentions are,” Joey said. “There are some people who have really good intentions and are just in a bad situation, so just don’t judge a book by its cover.”

   Nobody knows how the carnival industry will change in the upcoming years, but there’s no doubt the Skerbeck name will be on the marquee.