Carnival’s queen of cotton candy enjoys the roaming life

For more than 30 years, families from across Northwest Philadelphia have kicked off their summer season with a trip to St. Gregory’s carnival on Ridge Avenue.

Some hop right on the Berry Go ‘Round for a nauseating spin while others wait in line for a leisurely ride on the Ferris Wheel which overlooks the Andorra Shopping Center.

But very rarely do these carnival goers get to meet the people behind the scenes, the ones that just pulled up in a camper three nights before to piece the rides together, collect tickets and serve the signature cotton candy. 

This year, Gillie Smith of North Carolina is one of them. She and her crew arrived at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church the morning after Easter. They had just finished up a carnival in South Philadelphia and they were on the move.

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“We got here Monday morning, roughly 5 a.m. or so, got up around 11, started setting up and stayed out ’til late that evening,” Smith said as she took a few quick puffs from her cigarette. 

‘Times have changed’

It’s a schedule to which Smith has grown accustomed. She started working for carnivals with her family back in the 1960’s, when she was 16 years old. 

“Back then, the women had to go out there to tear down the rides and we used to have these wooden poles to put tents up with,” she said. “Times have really changed; these kids wouldn’t have survived back then.” 

Smith took a break from the carnival scene to get married and raise a family, but was lured back a few years ago.

“My spouse died, and I had nothing left, so I had to start all over again,” she said. “You just gotta keep going.”

Now, she spends nine months of the year traveling with her son, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law to spin sugar at the cotton candy booth.

“It’s a joy to see those little babies when they get their first bag,” she said. “It’s really rewarding to put smiles on children’s faces.” 

Despite unpredictable weather and days where the crew is “knee deep in mud,” it’s a job Smith says she wouldn’t trade for any other.

“We get to see the country, meet people, see different nationalities,” she said. “Particularly where we come from, since we’re back in the woods, this was a shock.”

A neighborhood tradition

This year’s carnival started on Tuesday and runs through Saturday, April 30, in front of St. Gregory’s Church at 8701 Ridge Ave. Gates open at 6 p.m. and close at 10 p.m. each night. 

The Rev. Nerses Manoogian, pastor of St. Gregory’s, says it’s “a blessing” to provide toddlers, teenagers and adults with more than three decades of a neighborhood tradition.

“Sometimes I meet parents who say, ‘Gee, when I was a child I came here and now I’m still coming!’ That makes us feel good,” he said.

The event is put together each year by the church’s Men’s Club as a fundraiser for the church. 

“Anything helps for churches, all the churches and synagogues live on donations and fundraisers like this, so anything helps,” Manoogian said. 

As for Smith and the rest of her co-workers, Ridge Avenue is only one of many stops in this year’s lineup. On Sunday morning, they’ll pack up once again and head to Folsom, Calif. Smith says they’ll continue the routine until the end of the season in November.  

“All in all, it’s a good life if you don’t have to stay at home,” she said. 

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