Toothpick Carnival News Articles

A Monument in Toothpicks

This article, written in 1990 by Sacramento Bee columnist Bob Silva, describes the writers first-hand experience of seeing one of Billy Burke’s carnivals in action.


July 22, 1990

Section: SCENE

Page: C3

By Bob Silva

-- EARLE JOHNSON is all winking bromides and implacable affability. Wise to the caprices of readers, he even suggests a title for this article; "The Way It Was" And "That's Entertainment". He jots a hand across the air, as though he were putting pearls on a marquee. He considers the story slant some more and nods, satisfied.

Then he rears back his head and laughs in great gulps.

Earle Johnson, a retired chef, is a bit of a showman. He is sitting behind the wheel of his powder-blue 1979 Lincoln Continental Town Car. He is 83 years old and game to beat the devil down the highway! His snowy hair is swept back, his pink skin is flush, his mischievous eyes are hidden behind a pair of wraparound sunglasses. His smile is like a grand piano.

Johnson, off to see an old friend, is plowing through traffic along Watt Avenue. Given the sheer size of the Lincoln Town Car and nautical comparisons come to mind he steers the barge with surprising effortlessness. The feat is all the more remarkable given the traffic, which is bumper to bumper. Nonetheless, in a spree that leaves a passenger queasy, Johnson is cruising along at speeds upward of 60 mph. His leaden foot is shod in a woven white loafer.

Even more disconcerting is Johnson’s attention to the road, which is of mere passing interest. Instead, he is talking all the time. He is talking about his friend, Bill Burke, whom Johnson is about to visit in his North Highlands mobile home. Burke, 81, is a character in his own right. Or, as Johnson notes of Burke, he is a genius in his own way. Burke is something of a toothpick hobbyist. An artist, utters Johnson reverently.

Indeed, in a masterpiece of patience, Burke crafts exactingly rendered toothpick carnivals, which he bills as a Carnival of Toothpicks. Everything from the Ferris wheel to the popcorn vendor is constructed from toothpicks. The mechanically animated carnivals take years to construct and consume a small forest of splinters.

Over a lifetime, Burke has made three such carnivals. One was sold to old Playland at the Beach in San Francisco, only to be destroyed in a fire at the Cliff House. The others are still on display at Knott's Berry Farm and at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. Now Burke, who used to travel the county fair circuit exhibiting his Carnival of Toothpicks, has made still another miniature midway, this one of more durable balsa wood and pine.

All things considered, this is a momentous event, albeit small scale, and Johnson is eager to show it off to his dubious passenger.

He doesn’t measure out nothing, marvels Johnson, pounding through traffic. No plans. He just works from scratch. In no time, Johnson pulls up to Burke’s trailer. Burke opens the door tentatively. He is a shy, shaggy-haired man with a sad clown’s face and a boyish smile. He is puffing on a cigarette, which, given the tinderbox within, seems slightly injudicious. The carnival, spread out on a platform, takes up most of the trailer’s living space. It is bordered by a fence and is bedecked with pennants and flags.

Burke dims the room, throws a series of switches and Playland comes to life. Music tinkles, the merry-go-round spins, the Ferris wheel turns and tiny lovers, nuzzled close in gondolas, float through the Tunnel of Love. There is a carved organ grinder, animated musicians playing in a gazebo and a pair of sailors deciding whether to enter a sideshow, whose sign beckons, Girls Girls Girls. See Fatima Dance! Adults $1. No kids. Dancers from the Far East, Egypt, Greece. (Greece?) It is, as touted, a fantastic sight.

Give me a tube of glue, a utility knife, some wood and I can damn near build anything, says Burke, sitting at a tiny kitchen table which doubles as his work bench. His love affair with carnivals goes back to when he was a boy growing up in Long Beach where there used to be a splashy midway on an ocean pier. I just never grew up, he says.

Looking wistfully at his latest carnival, which measures some 12 feet long and took three years to build, he says: It’s a hobby. A good hobby. It gets a lot of "oohs" and "aahs" from people in the trailer park. I’m hoping to find a place for it. Alas, venues for toothpick carnivals aren’t what they used to be, and Burke’s Playland is without an appreciative audience for the present. I’ve put a lot of hours into this show, Burke says proudly, as his visitors get up to leave.

Ensconced in his Lincoln again, Johnson barrels across Watt Avenue once more, oblivious to traffic, maintaining a steady patter of jokes and chestnuts (I could have made that light if I wasn't talking so much, he says at one whiplash stop). Pondering life’s competing spectacles and the dilemna facing his pal, Bill Burke, Johnson says, He just needs a little plug. The guy is a genius. Finally, depositing his shaken passenger back in town, Johnson bids farewell, advising, "remember what the doctor says, drink a lot of water and walk slow." The exact meaning of that wisdom remains unclear. Nonetheless, Johnson beams in delight and tilts his head back, revealing a vast cavern of teeth. He is a colorful toothpick carnival barker come full-sized to life.

© Copyright 2009