Jerry Wszalek is a third-generation carney. He has been working the Queen of Heaven Summer Carnival well over 30 years. He knows the history, the origins and why it's not called a lawn fete.
"It is officially the largest carnival in Western New York," Wszalek said, basing his claim on several factors including the size of the ride company, the size of the layouts, and attendance, which is estimated at over 100,000. There is no gate admission, so it's hard to get an exact count. "We've been told we are second to the Erie County Fair."
The four-night event kicks off Thursday, July 5, with a Super Cruz Night featuring classic cars, trucks and motorcycles. The Boneshakers will perform 6-10 p.m.
On Friday the rides start to run at 5 p.m. with a Ferris wheel, carousel and giant slide from Hammerl Amusements. A $20 armband will allow all day admission to rides. From 7 p.m.-midnight The Breakaways will perform.
On Saturday, the rides will run from noon-11 p.m. Joe Shanahan and Hit N Run will perform. A magic show with Ted Burzynski will take place beginning at 2 p.m.
Things will wind down on Sunday. Rides will still run from noon-9 p.m. The magic show will return at 1 p.m. And Nick Battistella will serenade the crowd with the music of Frank Sinatra and the crooners of yesteryear. Boneshakers will close out the carnival from 5-9 p.m.
A beer tent, gambling tents, food tents and games of skill and chance will be open throughout the weekend. Hot dogs, hamburgers, Italian sausage, Polish sausage, French fries and chicken will be served. A fish and shrimp special will be on the menu Friday, with chicken and ribs on Saturday.
Wszalek promises the "best entertainment value in Western New York, bar none." Admission is free, so guests can come to see the cars or hear the bands as they please.
A special feature of the Queen of Heaven Carnival include two big-prize raffles offering a customized trip to Disneyland, Hawaii, Las Vegas or a cruise, and a winners choice of car, boat or ATV.
"I don't think you're going to find any raffle anywhere that can offer the fact that you're getting a custom trip by Travel Outlet," said Wszalek. "It's not out of the box vacations. You sit down with JoAnn Gilmour from Travel Outlet and she customizes the trip for you."
The winner of the vehicle raffle will get to pick a vehicle from one of three West Herr automobile dealers, a boat from Collins Marine, or an ATV from Pioneer Motorsport. Winners also have the option of taking home $15,000 in cash.
The carnival has a long and storied history with Queen of Heaven that actually predates the church. Father Joseph Vogel was tasked with starting a new parish in the growing town of West Seneca in 1954. He started a lawn fete to raise money to build the church that still stands today. The vehicle giveaway caused a stir when parishioners sold tickets to family members living overseas. The FBI actually had to step in and stop it. Father Vogel shut down the fete, but the townsfolk demanded he bring it back. So, the pastor brought it to the grounds of the new church. In the early '70s after a motorcycle gang fight was set to take place on the grounds, Father Vogel again shut down the lawn fete. However, he did allow a Carnival of Food to replace it in 1981.
"The first two years of what we now know as carnival was nothing but food. No gambling tent," said Wszalek.
The carnival has continued to grow since then.
It's a 365-day project, with volunteers being recruited all year round. Meetings take place once a month with a 16-member committee. They have multi-year contracts with vendors.
"We are long-term planners. We have succession mechanisms in place," Wszalek explained. "We run it like a business. Everybody brings a different talent to the table."
Terry Goracke serves as general chairperson this year. Patrick Crowley is vice general chair.
Parents with children in the school must donate five hours of volunteer time at the carnival.
"They obviously have a major investment because a lot of the money that's raised ends up back in the school," Wszalek said. "They're buying equipment, computers, helping to offset some of the tuition costs."
Wszalek has helped his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles with many carnivals and lawn fetes over the years. "It's in my blood. It's the way I was raised."
He recalls seeing Neil Armstrong take his giant leap on the moon from a portable black and white television in a blanket booth at the carnival.
"You were allowed to stand up and watch the landing on the moon as long as you took a chance to win a blanket. Needless to say, we sold out the entire stock of blankets," he recalled.
That was back in the summer of 1969. He still helps out every year at the parish he grew up in and continues to attend.
"That's my way of giving back to my church without putting dollars out of my wallet, which a lot of times when I had my family when I was young and growing, I didn't have the dollars, so I gave time.
That's what I tell volunteers. That time is just as valuable as writing a check," he said.
For more information visit www.qofhcarnival.com.