Hometown passion along the midway
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Sonoma Valley High School sweethearts Debby and Dave Helm are into thrills.
The long-married couple loves the excitement of a speeding roller coaster, sky-high Ferris wheel or stomach-churning flip of the Zipper.
As owners of the award-winning Helm and Sons Amusements, they share their passion with thousands of midway visitors at the Sonoma County Fair. They operate the rides, games and many of the candy wagons that build summertime memories for countless kids and adults.
“I love the smell of cotton candy and just love being out there on our midway,” said Debby Helm. “It’s all really important to me.”
This marks their 13th consecutive year with the fair, the longest-running contract in their 30-plus years in business. The responsibility is huge in many ways.
The Helms are concerned with everything from safety to aesthetics and amenities, from the comfort and satisfaction of visitors to the overall experience they take home.
“It sounds like I don’t do much walking around but I’m heading off the boogey man,” Dave Helm said of his constant monitoring of the midway.
The couple bring their amusements to numerous venues every year – 83 stops in 2013 – and have met everyone from the king of pop to the king of Bahrain.
Five rides from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch are among the 74 they’ve accumulated since their early days working for Carnival Time Shows, an amusement business long owned by Debby Helm’s parents.
Now 58 and 59 respectively, Dave and Debby Helm have spent their entire adult life in the amusement business. They now reside in Riverside County, working primarily from early March to early November, with the summer months on the road.
Sonoma County Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi said the Helms win repeated bids based on the quality and beauty of their rides, their safety record and their overall operation.
“They have an unbelievable safety record,” Tesconi said. “And they’re really interested in good customer service. They’re family-owned and have a passion for what they do. They really do have a nice operation.”
The Sonoma County Fair is the couple’s home away from home, the place where they meet up with old friends.
There’s “without a doubt” a great sentiment in returning to Santa Rosa every year “to do our hometown fair,” Debby Helm said.
“We have visitors every day. It makes you feel like you’re home.”
They’ve been hosting class reunions for a decade or more for fellow Dragons from 1973 and ’74. The couple has been together since they went to Debby’s senior prom back when she was Debby Davis.
The Helms provide their classmates and guests with wristbands giving full access to the midway attractions. The all-day reunions are a highlight of the fair.
“Everyone knows you’re fat, old, bald, married, not married and no one cares,” said Dave Helm. “Everyone sits together, even the ones who never would have talked to each other in high school.”
Even though the couple makes a living from fun and games, their business runs like any other successful enterprise, maybe with just a few quirks. Santa Rosa is their northernmost venue, with most contracts in Southern and Central California and an annual three-day job in Las Vegas.
They have from 85 to 100 permanent employees and an additional seasonal staff of about 80 more. Helm takes a tough-guy approach with his staff: no piercings, no visible tattoos, more drug testing than mandated.
“I got the only beard on the show,” he quipped.
Every ride undergoes an extensive inspection every morning. Midnight “church calls” are held to go over the day’s events and share best practices for everything from “trips and falls” to evacuation systems.
Now “worth about $15 million in true assets,” Helm and Sons Amusements is large enough “where now the vendors follow us,” Helm said.
The business is a family affair. Son Davey, 35, helps run the operation and his 27-year-old brother Jason is the graphics wizard in charge of printing and design work.
Even the Helms’ 10-year-old grandson Brandon sometimes “listens in on million-dollar deals,” says his proud grandfather.
Debby Helm handles the office, concessions and contracting duties; her husband repairs and rebuilds rides and oversees the show. Dave Helm credits his high school industrial arts teacher Herman Fleischer with giving him the skills he relies on today.
The Helms have traveled extensively to acquire many of their rides, seeking out top manufacturers in England, Italy, France, Germany, El Salvador, Venezuela and within the United States.
The Helms have developed strong relationships with salesmen and industry officials who share news about available amusements. A good tip can save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Dave Helm traveled to Venezuela to buy a used Star Dancer in top condition, sending it on a cargo ship to Houston and then trucking it to Southern California where he has a 15-acre storage and workshop facility in Colton.
A new Star Dancer sells for nearly $1 million; Helm saved $450,000 and boasts that “none of my competitors have the gumption to go to Venezuela.”
Nearly every ride has a story: Helm won a $150,000 bid for an especially beautiful 30-character carousel from the MGM Grand Hotel by offering cash; he scored his Pharaoh’s Fury boat swing ride by asking for the first right of refusal when he sensed its home amusement park would fail.
He once purchased a German ride for $650,000 but it didn’t bring the contracts he expected; he sold it to a park in Bangor, Maine, just breaking even on the deal.
Then there are Michael Jackson’s rides from his Neverland Ranch. The Helms met the late superstar in 1992 through a friend in the amusements business, both bought and sold Neverland rides and made numerous visits to help with Jackson’s amusements. The Wave Swinger, Lolli Swings and Spider are among those now featured in Santa Rosa.
“He was awesome, one of the most amazing and gifted people I’ve ever known, and kind,” Dave Helm said of Jackson.
Tabloids “begged” Helm to take photos of Jackson’s children for a substantial payoff but the amusement operator was never tempted.
He believes in “being honest and honorable” across the board – with fairgoers, employees and business associates famous and not.
Today the Helms’ business includes amusement rentals for movies and commercials and set-ups for private engagements. Jay Leno once rented some amusements and Ellen DeGeneres challenged the Helm’s Whack-a-Mole game for her televised birthday celebration.
Everyday people are the true-blue customers, though, and the Helms try to find ways to better serve them, from WOW! discount tickets to the special Cub Country attraction that Dave Helm recently developed for young fairgoers too small for the kiddie rides.
“Every person that visits my show, I want them to be satisfied,” Helm said. “I don’t think you should leave the fairgrounds unhappy.”