AKA, The Carney Hunter
Interviewed by Shelly Johnson
Photography by Brett Mountain
As you walk along the midway of Michigan carnivals this summer, keep an eye out for the elusive Carney Hunter. Chances are, if you see a crowd gathered around the basketball hoop-shoot game or spot a child carrying around one of the biggest stuffed animals you have ever seen, but never won, it could be because of the uncanny skills of Rochester resident Tom Carswell, who used to own a software company but is now retired.
For decades, he has been winning premium carnival prizes by mastering nearly impossible, obviously modified standard basketball hoops and then giving away his prizes to wide-eyed kids. Nothing strange here, folks. This guy is just a fun-loving dad of two, who enjoys bringing on the smiles.
“I don’t have to go too far to find a family staring at my prizes. They have that ‘I wish that was mine’ look on their faces. I ask parents if their child can have one of my stuffed animals. I have never had a refusal. A couple of times, mothers have been so happy they have cried. Of course, the kid feels like they just won the lottery.”
What made you start playing the hoop-shoot game? At first, I conquered the hoops for the rush of winning despite the odds. My skills are mostly mind over matter. Because every carnival hoop is bent, shrunk or raised, the odds are impossibly stacked against paying customers. The carnivals change the hoop diameter requiring a virtually perfect shot. And it doesn’t stop there. The basketballs are overfilled and unnaturally bouncy, which makes soft shots very difficult. I’ve seen hoops 15 feet high, although regulation rims are 10. And most carnival workers will make a lot of noise to distract you.
And giving away the prizes? When I realized I had a gift, I started giving away the prizes to wide-eyed kids. I usually walk up and begin swishing basketballs through the hoops. It just seems natural for me to arc the ball in, but to anyone who has tried a carnival basketball game, it’s probably not natural at all. It’s a refined ability that I practiced growing up as a basketball player at Owosso High School here in Michigan — where I met my lovely wife, Molly. She was a cheerleader. I never lost my competitive spirit, and now it’s an adrenaline rush and a chance to make someone happy.
Once I begin making shots, some carnival workers get nervous, afraid I’ll take all the prizes for little cash. I’ve never been black-balled from a carnival, but I have had to talk my way back in or speak to the owner for approval to keep playing. Most of the carnivals have a two-prize limit per day.
How did you get the nickname “Carney Hunter?”
I’ve been known to “hunt” or drive many miles to win prizes. A friend gave me the nickname after I gave his children stuffed animals every summer. I love giving the stuffed animals away. One of my best days was with my father more than 20 years ago. I won a gigantic stuffed horse, easily 6 feet long and 5 feet tall. It took both of us to carry it out of there. I gave that one to my sister.
Another great day was just last year, when I took my 85-year-old mother to a carnival and told her I would win her a prize. I made my first two shots, and we were gone with two big prizes in about five minutes. The prizes were as big as her, and we gave them to my nephews. She couldn’t believe it!
What do you think about carnival workers?
I think they get a bad rap. I find the carney life to be a fascinating, overlooked part of Americana. It takes a unique individual to work a traveling carnival with long hours and hard work.
It takes some time to be accepted by the carneys so they become open to talking about their business or personal lives. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of them are good family men and women from all across the country. They are there to make a living just like anyone else. I sometimes encounter the same workers year after year. But, after pleasantries, I get down to business and begin winning prizes for the kiddies. NS
During Labor Day weekend, Sept. 1-5, head to the Michigan State Fair at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi or the Michigan Peach Festival in downtown Romeo to try your own luck at carnival games.