Q: You have mentioned several times that before you went freelance, you started your own caricature stands in theme parks, but I don’t think you’ve ever taken us down the road of how that came about, and what you had to do to make it happen (or if you have, I haven’t come across it yet). What’s the story?
A: I have told parts of it here and there, but never the whole tale. I’ll try and keep it brief, as it’s a long story in detail.
Back when I was a student at the University of MN, I was skipping a particularly pretentious art class and hanging about in the art building commons when my eye was caught by a flyer on the wall asking “can you draw?” It was an ad looking for caricature artists to draw at a local theme park just south of Minneapolis called Valleyfair for a company called Fasen Arts. I thought I could draw, so I applied for the job by sending in my artwork.
I didn’t get it.
I was a little discouraged, but went on about my business at college, not much liking the U of M’s art program and thinking I needed to find a different school. Several weeks later I got a call from Fasen Arts offering me a caricature job after all, but not at the nearby Valleyfair. They wanted me to pack up and move to a northern suburb of Chicago and draw at a different theme park, Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, IL. It sounded like a fun adventure, so I moved down there for the summer, living in a rented townhouse with 4 other Fasen Arts artists. I spent the next four summers during my college years in Gurnee learning and falling in love with the art of caricature, developing lifelong friendships with artists who I admired and respected, making enough money to pay my way through college and—not the least important of all—learning the business of theme park art concessions. Nobody “taught” me the business . . . I just paid attention.
After I graduated college Fasen Arts offered me a management position at a new operation they were opening at another Six Flags park, this one just outside Atlanta, GA. This was 1989, and Atlanta was a real up-and-coming city that I thought would be a great place to establish a freelance career using the financial stability of a caricature operation management job as my bedrock. My new bride, The Lovely Anna, and I packed up and moved down south. Since theme parks were seasonal, the plan was I’d earn enough money to pay the bills in the offseason and spend my time building a client base and chasing freelance jobs from September to April.
Things didn’t work out quite that way. Business was very disappointing at Six Flags that first summer, and my share of the operations profits was no where near what I was expecting. I had no prospects for income during the offseason, and to top it all Anna somehow got pregnant. Ok, I know how but it wasn’t exactly in the Plan. Expecting a baby, low on income, I had to look for some other opportunities to make a living.
Anna heard some ads on the radio about a revamped shopping and entertainment venue called Underground Atlanta that was about to open, and suggested I go into downtown Atlanta to talk to them about setting up caricatures for their grand opening. You can find the whole story here, but the short version is I opened my first caricature operation there in June of 1989 for what was supposed to be a two week engagement. We were there for 19 years.
The long-lived success of my Underground operation was the springboard for my dual career of caricature/art concession operations and freelance illustration. We moved back to Minnesota and I got the concession contract at that same Valleyfair theme park I never got a job at with Fasen Arts (he had left there years earlier). I opened up operations as I had the opportunity to and when I had artists ready for management positions. At one time I had three seasonal theme parks and four year-around tourist center operations, and expanded into airbrush t-shirts and airbrush tattoos. For many years I worked full time during the summer doing live caricatures at these operations while I continued to build my freelance career. For a while I was earning an extremely good living and saved money that is right now paying off in financing the college educations of my kids.
Sadly, today the theme park caricature business is a shadow of what it used to be. Many factors are involved as to the reason, but the profits are now a fraction of what they once were. Fortunately as the art concession business waned my freelance career waxed, and today I spend 100% of my time at my drawing board. My few remaining art concession businesses, Valleyfair and Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America here in Minnesota, Six Flags St. Louis, Six Flags New England in Massachusetts are all run by good managers, and I only show up a few times a year to help train artists and handle the business end.
And that’s the theme park caricature story. The financial stability of these operations were a key to allowing me to take my time building my freelance business, and I am very lucky to have been able to have had that to lean on all these years.
Thanks to Cowboyseth for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!