Master of carnival games will be at Walworth County Fair

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Ted Sullivan
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
— Tom Burdette knows how to beat those pesky, tricky carnival games that suck money from players hoping to win plush, jumbo-sized stuffed animals.

The 67-year-old Janesville resident has turned the tables on carnies, who make the games look so easy that they lure you into spending $5 a play.

He’s getting revenge for the rest of us, leaving county fairs with carloads of oversized teddy bears, sports mementos or bikes. He estimates he has won more than 800 prizes.

The master of 11 carnival games will be at the Walworth County Fair this week, another stop in his summertime tour of southern Wisconsin fairs.

The tall, lanky man will be wearing his white carnival hat, smiling easily and using his long arms, steady hands and patience to win. He’ll be playing with confidence and a snicker because he knows he’s about to beat that seemingly impossible game.

A warning to carnies: Beware of this game killer.

“I’m always carrying two or three large animals or a bicycle or an electric scooter,” Burdette said. “I’ve always been fascinated with contests, and I’ve won many, many, many contests.”

The retired teacher’s conquests began after he graduated from high school in 1961 and started working. He had grown up going to the Rock County 4-H Fair, but he never had money for games.

“I always said to myself that once I graduated from high school, I was going to master those games, and I did,” Burdette said. “My first year, I won 42 plush animals at the Rock County 4-H Fair and the Walworth County Fair.”

After marrying his wife, Karen, finishing college and having a son, he continued traveling to fairs in Rock, Walworth, Jefferson and Dane counties. He taught his son his trade.

“We would go to the state fair, and it would just be unbelievable,” Burdette said. “Every time we went to the state fair we loaded up.”

His son, Brad, 42, Verona, fondly recalls traveling to fairs every summer. His dad scouted the games in advance.

“We were always trying to show people how we did it,” he said. “It’s something we’ve just kind of done since I was a kid.”

Tom Burdette keeps pictures of the prizes he has won, including gigantic Scooby Doos, zebras and turtles. He’s won several bikes and scooters.

Burdette used the stuffed animals to decorate his classroom throughout his teaching career. They fascinated his students.

“An attractive room makes a good learning environment,” he said. “I used many of them as awards to inspire my students to put forth their best efforts.”

After retiring in 1996, Burdette continued winning fair prizes. The jumbo animals and toys piled up. And he didn’t have students or a classroom.

He started giving his prizes to friends, relatives and children of former students. He doesn’t like to keep more than a few. They take up too much room.

After winning a plush tiger at Rock County’s fair this summer, he immediately gave it away.

“I looked up and saw one of my former students, and I gave it to his son,” Burdette said. “He was just thrilled.”

About four of the games Burdette has mastered still are around. And the carnies know he’s a ringer. One game owner told him so.

“He told me I was famous from Minnesota all the way to Florida,” he said. “He said they talk about me all the time.”


Tom Burdette is a master of the following 11 carnival games and gave these tips:

Bottle, stick, string and ring
Description: The player holds a stick with a long string and a ring attached to the end like a fishing pole.
Goal: Hook the ring around the bottle’s neck and stand it up.
Tips: Steady hands, patience, lift the bottle slowly.
Nickel tossing and red circle
Description: The player tosses a nickel onto a big board with a small red circle in the middle.
Goal: Get the nickel onto the board, then use other coins to knock it into the red circle.
Tips: Throw the coins like a Frisbee in a flat, low trajectory toward the board.
Quarter tossing and round glass
Description: The player tosses a quarter onto an island of glass.
Goal: Get the quarter to land on the glass without falling off the other side.
Tips: Throw the quarter in a slow, high arch and get it to land on the front edge of the glass.
Whiffle ball and board
Description: The player tosses a whiffle ball against an angled backboard.
Goal: Get the whiffle ball to bank off the backboard and into the basket beneath.
Tips: Toss the ball underhanded with a high arch.
Stick, string, magnet and fish
Description: Fish for floating saucers with a powerful magnet at the end of the string.
Goal: Catch a red saucer without attracting any yellow ones.
Tips: When you see a red saucer, drop the magnet down quickly and raise it as fast as possible.
Two bottles and baseball
Description: Throw a baseball at heavy glass bottles.
Goal: Knock over the bottles.
Tips: Throw underhand and hit the tops of the bottles.
Rubber ball and board
Description: Toss a rubber ball off an angled backboard.
Goal: Bank the ball off the backboard and into the basket.
Tips: Throw the ball underhanded with a high arch.
Bushel basket and softball
Description: Toss the softball into bushel basket attached to slanted boards.
Goal: Get the softballs to stay in the basket without hitting the rim.
Tips: Throw the ball underhanded with a high arch, landing it barely past the front rim.
Squirt gun
Description: Shoot water into the bull’s-eye.
Goal: Hit the bull’s-eye to force the elevator up, hitting the bell, in a race against other players.
Tips: Aim, hit the bull’s-eye immediately and hold the gun steady.
Milk can and softball
Description: Toss softball toward a milk can.
Goal: Get the softball into the can through the small opening on top.
Tips: Throw the ball underhanded with a high arch, without hitting the rim.
Triangle and baseball
Description: Toss baseballs into barrels that form a triangle.
Goal: Get all three baseballs into the barrels without falling off the edge.
Tips: Toss the balls underhanded with an accurate, soft, high arch.
New at this year’s Walworth County Fair:

-- A celebration of 150 years of harness racing.

-- An attempt to break the world record in the largest chicken dance, 6 p.m. Saturday.

-- Walworth County Strongman Competition, 8 a.m. Sunday, grandstands.

-- Golf cart taxies with six seats.

-- Children’s peddle harness races in front of the grandstand.

-- Renovations and displays in the 4-H Building and Horticulture Hall.

-- Truck, van and midsize car categories in the demolition derby.

-- Live Internet streaming of the fair.

-- The theme “Rock Around the Fair.”

-- Celebrities for charity harness race, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, grandstands.

-- Shuttle buses from downtown Elkhorn, Friday-Monday, parking area behind courthouse.

-- Baby changing and nursing area in the park.

-- Support our Troops Ceremony, 11 a.m. Monday.

-- People should wear bowling shirts, poodle skirts, saddle shoes and other 1950s attire.

New at this year’s Barnyard Adventure Area and Stage:

-- Bubblegum bubble contest, 2:30 p.m. today.

-- Hula Hoop contest, 5 p.m. Thursday.

-- Live honeybee hive demonstration, 11 a.m. Monday.

-- Scarecrow contest, 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

-- Sock hop with Buddy Holly, 4 p.m. Sunday.

-- New and improved butterfly house.

-- Junior Country Idol Contest, noon Saturday.

-- Nick’s Kid Show all six days of the fair.

-- Adopt a butterfly program.

New at this year’s Kiddieland:

-- Bosworth Family Lumberjack Show.

-- Camel rides.

-- Ta Da and Friends.

Last updated: 9:55 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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