TAMPA — Don Pierson could never get enough of the carny's life on the road, the smell of cotton candy and canvas tents, or watching Tennessee turn into Kentucky or summer turn into fall.
The midway man ran up to 25 games at a time at county fairs from Florida to Canada, where he strolled the fairgrounds in a clean shirt and tie, whistling and greeting children with a wink and a crooked smile.
The secret to running a profitable game, he told his 60 or more employees, was to make sure customers enjoyed the experience even while losing. And so they did, even when their nickels bounced off the edge of a glass vase and their softballs refused to stay in a tilted wicker basket.
Mr. Pierson cajoled customers, tossed off jokes and invited them to try it one more time. Enough did to keep him in the business 70 years.
Mr. Pierson died Thursday at Tampa General Hospital of multiple ailments. He was 90. He was the last surviving original member of the Greater Tampa Showmen's Association, his family said.
Diversity spiced his life. He mingled with the likes of Grady "Lobster Boy" Stiles, a 7-foot "Tall Man" and conjoined twins. A 16-year-old Elvis Presley worked a game one summer in Memphis, setting up milk bottles knocked down with softballs. A future strip club mogul named Joe Redner also worked one of Mr. Pierson's games.
He worked in Iowa and Illinois, Winnipeg and Edmonton, Minnesota and Wisconsin. His family joined him in the summers, his daughters having the run of the midway or napping on twin beds in the back of a semitrailer.
"It was a tough life," said Jenifer Turanchik, his daughter. Workers manned the tents, or "joints," containing the games from 10 a.m. to midnight.
"The joints had to go up whether it was thundering and lightning outside or a bright sunny evening," Turanchik, 56, said.
Crews could dismantle the games and load the equipment in less than an hour.
"It's really such a free feeling to work outside all the time," said Sherry Bolin, 69, who credits Mr. Pierson for her start in the carnival business more than 50 years ago. "And to move every week or every two weeks, and see the whole country. I felt like I was on vacation and getting paid for it."
Back home, Mr. Pierson sang silly songs to his children or scared them with practical jokes.
"He has served as my dose of excitement my entire life," granddaughter Laura Jean Turanchik wrote in a eulogy.
He picked up pennies but never hoarded anything. Six months ago, Hickey Culpepper, a carny and friend of 60 years, was driving Mr. Pierson to a diner when Mr. Pierson asked him to pull over.
By the side of the road, a man was holding a sign.
"I said, 'All he wants to do is get some money to buy some beer,' " recalled Culpepper, 79. "He says, 'Okay, then, I'll buy him some beer. If it makes him feel better, it makes me feel better.' "
Don Pierson was born in Chicago into a carny family. He served two years in the Navy during World War II, then attended college for two years while flirting with a career in dentistry.
Instead, he returned to his roots. In 1947 he married Gloria, an airline stewardess who became the mother of his three children.
He never lost enthusiasm for the games or the crowds, for scooping up lost wagers or handing out prizes. He retired several years ago in his mid 80s.
Profits have dropped in recent years for the carnival business, said colleague Walt Meredith, 77.
"The money's not there anymore," he said. "It's not the glamor it used to be."
Over the years, Mr. Pierson designed many of his own versions of the games, requiring customers to toss hoops around concrete blocks or pop balloons with darts. In one of his more ambitious stunts, Mr. Pierson dared customers to pay to see a "man eating chicken."
He treated the curious to this: one man sitting behind a curtain, eating a bucket of fried chicken.
Usually, the duped customers laughed, and urged their unsuspecting friends to buy a ticket.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.