I miss travelling the funfair life, I hate being in one place

For Sal Tivy, the matriarch of Perks in Youghal, County Cork, the show will always go on, even after a pandemic hits, she tells LINDA KENNY
I miss travelling the funfair life, I hate being in one place

Sal Tivy on her merry-go-round at Perks Family Entertainment Centre in Youghal.

SAL Tivy, the indefatigable, glamorous matriarch of Perks Entertainment Centre in Youghal, shows no signs of slowing down.

Alongside Philip, her husband of 50 years, they have embraced the fluidity of their business and thrived by adapting to the prevailing conditions.

Sal says that, while the current pandemic might have posed its own challenges, her unshakeable motto will forever be ‘The Show Must Go On!’

Entrepreneurship, innovation and dogged determination course through Sal’s veins, and the showbusiness of the funfair is stamped on her DNA.

She is the third generation of her family to work in a funfair and her own two sons have actively taken up the reins to ensure the tradition is preserved for the future.

Both Sal’s paternal grandmother and her maternal grandfather worked alongside each other in a funfair in Belfast, he as owner and she as an employee.

Sal’s own parents met when her dad, Jumbo Perks, got a job working in that same funfair, before the eloped with Sal’s mother, ran away, and they opened their own.

Sal’s maternal aunt, the late Mrs Bird, owned Funderland, and a paternal uncle also has a fun fair in Ardmore.

“In those days, before TV and the cinema, the highlight for lots of small towns was the arrival of the funfair,” explains Sal.

“It would set up in the village green and stay for three months at a time.”

There were no fancy video games or dodgem cars in those days, just lots of different stalls.

Sal’s grandmother, Sarah was, working as a fortune teller in one of those funfairs. After the untimely death of her young husband, she was forced to work to keep her young family going. When her son Jumbo was old enough, Sarah secured a job for him looking after the steam engine, which was used to power the lights for the stalls at the fair.

IN THE DRIVING SEAT: Sal on one of the machines in her amusement arcade
IN THE DRIVING SEAT: Sal on one of the machines in her amusement arcade

Jumbo fell in love with the owner’s daughter Violet and, over the years, they secretly began making stalls and storing them until, one day, the two lovebirds decided to run away, get married, and set up their own funfair.

It was a bold and daring move, particularly as they didn’t have many stalls to begin with.

“They started off in Limerick city in 1929,” Sal explains, “where they hired the community hall.”

With so few stalls in their initial run, Jumbo Perks decided that, in order to attract the attention of the locals, he needed to make a strong first impression.

“He lined up all the trailers and wagons he had behind a steam engine,” said Sal, “and drove the equipment through the town, twice, in order to give the illusion that the funfair was actually bigger than it was!”

Jumbo and Violet were blessed with four children, one of whom died in a tragic accident at the age of seven. Sal was the youngest.

Jumbo and his wife were travelling quite a lot with Perks. “All of us were sent to boarding school to get an education,” explains Sal. But, the expectation of her parents was that, on completion of schooling, the kids would start working in the funfair.

According to Sal, her father was “very tough to work for” so it wasn’t surprising that none of their kids gravitated towards the fair.

“I headed to train with Elizabeth Arden cosmetics in Bond Street, London,” said Sal, “totally against the wishes of my mother and father”. 

On her return home, she established the Ivory Health and Beauty Clinic on Patrick Street in Cork city

When she met Philip Tivy, the owner of a motorcycle shop behind Cash’s (now BTs), Sal found her soul mate and best friend.

“We loved each other very much,” she adds. After they married, the young couple moved to Youghal.

Perks Funfair has been based in Youghal since 1939, and in the mid-1980s, Jumbo Perks informed Sal and Philip that he had received an offer to buy from an interested party.

“He gave us first option to purchase it,” said Sal. The decision to buy the full business had “us up to our necks in debt,” she recalls.

However, the young couple had the passion and drive to make the business work. They took the funfair back out on the road, “travelling wherever we could generate business”, Sal explains.

“In the beginning, it was just the two of us,” she adds. 

They travelled 10-11 months of the year, only taking Christmas off.

During the halcyon days of the showbands, Jumbo Perks had also custom-built The Showboat and the Strand Palace ballrooms.

A LIFETIME OF WORK, REST AND PLAY: Sal and her husband Philip on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary.
A LIFETIME OF WORK, REST AND PLAY: Sal and her husband Philip on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary.

Years later, Sal and Philip decided to turn the Showboat ballroom into an amusement arcade. When they initially mooted their plan to Jumbo, he instinctively replied: “Out of the question!”. But Sal knew how to get around her father’s stubbornness. She bided her time, and a month later she approached him again, this time to ‘congratulate’ him on his wonderful idea to turn the ballroom into an amusement arcade. 

“I had learned a great lesson,” she laughs.

For thousands of Corkonians, Perks is inextricably woven into the fabric of their childhoods. Whether it was on Youghal’s seafront, or during the Easter holidays in Kennedy Park down the Marina, or during the street carnivals in Cork city, Perks Funfair was at the epicentre of endless hours of fun and happy memories.

And, 92 years on, it continues to thrill kids and adults alike.

“Nowadays, rides are built on their own trailers so everything moves in and out very easily,” explains Sal. 

However, in the earlier days of the funfair, “you’d need a small army to move around the country,” she adds.

While on tour, it would take several men a few days, and a few sleepless nights, to fully deconstruct the funfair, transport it to its new location, and erect it all again in situ.

It sounds gruelling, but Sal insists she and Philip loved travelling.

“The hours were unmerciful, even worse when travelling. But I miss it terribly. I hate being in one place for too long.”

Life on the road was like food for the soul for Sal and Philip. When they were invited to bring Perks Funfair to Hong Kong, they didn’t hesitate. Once the summer season had wrapped up in Youghal in the September, they shipped the rides out, then flew the staff out afterwards. They stayed till April. Such was its success, they returned for two more years.

Then, in the 1990s, the Chinese Government asked Sal and Philip to enter into a joint venture with them to set up an amusement park in Beijing.

This was a massive endeavour, with a total of five rollercoasters and 200 staff. Sal and her husband flew to Europe to buy many of the fair rides, then had them shipped over to China.

“Philip’s heart was in it completely. He’s an engineer,” she continues, “and everything he puts his hand to is fantastic.”

But the gruelling work load was debilitating. 

“Philip checked all the rides himself every day. We could be working 14/15 hours a day, seven days a week over there. We were very committed, but had no life,” admits Sal.

“We were so fortunate that the late Frankie Forrest, who had been with us for years, ran Perks in Youghal, while we were in Beijing all year round.”

After eight years in Beijing, however, the couple felt it was the right time to wrap up their business and returned home.

Sal and Philip have passed the love of funfairs on to their two sons, Gavin and Warren.

“They are great chaps,” declares Sal, “and have a great work ethic. They are very much interested in the business.”

Gavin is Managing Director of the company and Warren is a Director. 

“Philip and I still work daily in very hands-on positions,” adds Sal.

Warren is also a very talented musician and producer, and spends most of his time in his own recording studio, Claycastle Recording Studio, in Youghal.

For the past 20 years, Perks Entertainment Centre has been based in Seafield, a 77,000 square foot ‘Indoors Fun Emporium’ on the site of the former weaving factory, opposite the greyhound track in Youghal. Open daily during the summer and school holidays, and at weekends throughout the rest of the year, it combines favourites like bowling, laser-tag, a dazzling selection of video games, and fast food, all year round, with the most popular funfair attractions on the grounds outside during the summer months.

“We are so grateful not to have this awful virus and are hoping to get going again, as soon as it is safe,” says Sal.

As if running the funfair, and being a supergran to her five grandchildren — Calum, Neil, Isolde, Fearne and Pippa — weren’t enough to keep her busy, Sal is also an addiction counsellor and does voluntary work with Sr Consillio. “I do it for my soul,” she confesses, “and I get such great joy from it.”

You will never find a bar in Perks Entertainment Centre, which is probably why it appeals to everyone from the very young to the very old and has stood the test of time.

“Our business does not suit alcohol,” Sal insists. “It is the last of the good clean, open-air, fun.” 

“Regardless of the virus,” she concludes with her characteristic determination, “we very much believe that the show will go on.”

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