- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

ANDALUSIA, Ala. (AP) - If you went to the National Peanut Festival in the 1960s or 1970s and rode the rides, you may have crossed paths with Marilyn Portemont. She lived and breathed the carnival business for much of her life.

Portemont and her husband Johnny operated Johnny’s United Shows, which toured for years from Alabama on up into Illinois and Indiana. They also provided the rides on the midway at the Peanut Festival for many years when it was still held at the Houston County Farm Center.

“Well, my whole life was the carnival business,” said Portemont, who is now 92 years old. “I loved it.”

The rides and attractions they provided, and stored on property next to their home in Andalusia during the off seasons, are all gone now, auctioned off years ago. And Johnny, well he is gone as well. He died in December 1996.

Portemont still has pictures, carnival collectibles, and some paintings in her home, reminders of the time she and her family spent traveling the country to provide fun and amusement for others. And buried away, unseen by most people for years, Portemont has kept a bit of carnival history, artifacts from a different era of circus entertainment. Wooden Ferris wheel seats. Horses from a merry-go-round. A taxidermy bust of a two-headed calf. 1940s showgirl posters.

Portemont will watch as these last bits of her carnival history are auctioned off. They are material items, valuable to collectors, but she doesn’t need them to remember the life she has lived.

“I’ve been blessed my whole life to be able to do what I’ve done and be around people who can like me,” Portemont said.

Fresh back from her 69th trip to the Indianapolis 500, where she is a bit of a celebrity, Portemont sat in a chair in her kitchen Wednesday afternoon and talked about her years in the carnival business as local auctioneer Jamey Cochran and his crew set up a circus-style tent outside the house in preparation for the auction.

Portemont said her husband joined the Marine Corps during World War II. While he was away she moved to Detroit and helped build P-51 Mustang fighter planes used by the military. After the war, she and her husband took two homemade children’s rides his father had built and joined the Wallace Brothers Circus. That was the beginning of a life of entertainment.

Eventually the Portemonts bought more rides, had family members join them on the road, and worked fairs and carnivals throughout the Southeast and Midwest. They lived in a couple cities in Alabama before making a stop for a show in Andalusia. They loved it and the people so much they decided to make it their home in 1961.

For several months out of the year, though, the Portemonts would be traveling from town to town, but it wasn’t the stereotypical carnival lifestyle.

“It was just all like a family,” she said. “That’s what made a lot of difference, it was a family show.”

Her daughter, Suzette Hooper, said when she met new people and told them what her family did for a living, their initial reaction was to think of the seedy image some traveling carnivals were known to have.

“He was trying to change that image,” Hooper said of her father.

And having a family that operated a carnival business didn’t mean any breaks for Hooper. She said her parents stressed the importance of education and she wasn’t allowed to join them on the road until school was out for the summer.

While traveling with her parents over the summer, Hooper would miss out on pool parties and time with friends back at home, but she worked in the family business, made money to buy clothes she wanted, and learned the value of hard work.

Though fairs and carnivals are known for corn dogs, candy apples, and other treats, Hooper said her mother always cooked for them and made sure they ate fresh vegetables they received from members of fair boards and families they met along the way.

“We made so many friends,” Hooper said.

And met celebrities. They got to know the Oak Ridge Boys and many other performers, some of whom remain in touch with Portemont today.

“She is still very respected,” Hooper said.

Until recently, Portemont continued to attend industry trade shows to keep in touch with old friends in the carnival business. The Showmen’s League of America even made Portemont the group’s first lady a few years back.

“I know I had accomplished something,” Portemont said of the honor.

As auction preparations continued outside, Portemont mentioned , a few times , her “bucket list.” She said she’d like to go to the Kentucky Derby, but only as a VIP or not at all, and maybe take a trip to California to see an old friend. With a lifetime of travel as part of Johnny’s United Shows, trips to Germany, England, France, and Cuba, and her 70th Indianapolis 500 coming up next year, Portemont’s bucket list will likely only be surpassed by her lifetime of memories and friends made along the way.

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