Donna Moore Inners embodies the old adage, “the show must go on,” even in the midst of tragedy.
On a cold February evening last year, Donna’s husband, Edward, was struck and killed by a car while trying to cross a boulevard in Greenville, N.C., close to where the couple’s carnival was to open the following day.
“The next day, I opened the show,” said Donna, her voice cracking while interviewed Wednesday where Inners Shows is set up for the Wilkes County Agricultural Fair at the North Wilkesboro Rotary Club’s Worth Evan Tomlinson Park near West Park.
“He would have wanted me to open it, because there’s a saying, ‘The show must go on.’ We ran it Thursday through Sunday, then on Monday we were at the funeral home and Tuesday we buried him. We opened again on Wednesday.”
Ed Inners was 68 when he died. Donna had planned to sell the Inners Shows company—a family-run business for over 100 years—to Ed’s son. But he decided against the venture, leaving Donna to run it on her own.
She said his decision was understandable because the carnival life isn’t for everyone. “People come out and think they want to do it, but after two or three days they say, ‘I don’t know how you do this.’”
She admits she couldn’t have pulled it off without the help of David Shupe, who left retirement to help her stage the show. Shupe ran the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh and other major shows for many years.
She said she was nervous about following up after first meeting Shupe, but finally worked up the nerve to call him. “He said, ‘Donna, I will be there to help you.’ I started crying like a baby. It was such a relief, because he knows the business, a meticulous man. He really saved my life; he really has.”
Donna said the carnival business is a nomadic lifestyle that demands living on the road, essentially from February to November. “There’s been mornings when I’ve got up and said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ But you get up and get on with the program.”
She said the key is really loving the business while traveling and being away from home. The Inners Shows circuit takes Donna to towns and cities in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Inners Shows is based in Franklinton, just north of Raleigh.
“It’s a fun life, too,” she added. “You meet a lot of good, interesting people. It’s a hard life, though, sometimes. Every time you move it, you get inspected by the state. But it’s good that they come, because two sets of eyes are better than one” for safety.
This week, Inners is putting smiles on kids of all ages for its 20th consecutive year at the Wilkes County Agricultural Fair, where Inners sets up thrill rides and midway games, and sells concessions like the ever-popular cotton candy and funnel cakes.
Inners Shows dates back to 1909, when Ed’s grandfather, Frances Inners, founded the Inners Amusement Co. in York, Pa. Ed’s father, Ed Sr., was a soldier in World War II and helped run the business until his death in 1997.
At one point, Inners Rides operated two separate carnival units on separate routes in seven different states on the Eastern seaboard. After Ed Jr.’s death, it was scaled back to one route in three states.
Donna, 58, said she loves coming to Wilkes and working with the really nice people in the North Wilkesboro Rotary Club. She once owned a house in Traphill and her mother often stayed there while visiting grandchildren who lived in the county.
“My sister came up (from Florida) to visit me, and she met a guy, stayed and got married,” she said. “My brother also came up, met a girl, stayed and got married. They all worked at Tyson (Foods) at the time.”
Donna’s sister, Judith Stone, lives in the Rock Creek community with her husband, Mark Stone, who works at Lowes Companies Inc.
Donna said she plans to buy a home in Florida near Tampa Bay this winter and shift her base of operations from Franklinton. “Down there, there’s a lot more people who know the business, because that’s where they all migrate to in the winter.”
She then pointed to a framed quote on the wall of the 53-foot trailer where she lives nine months of the year. It’s called “Carnival Life,” by Kristilyn Reinke. “You need to read it, if you haven’t already,” she said.
“Hot days, cool nights. Music playing, bright lights. Teddy bears, games of skill. Lots of fun, rides of thrill…. Open early, close real late.” It ends with “Getting there is half the fun…we make them smile, and our job is done.”
The job takes Donna Inners to Lenoir next week. The following two weeks, her carnival life moves on to Seneca, S.C., and Boiling Springs, S.C.—because, naturally, the show must go on.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Wilkes County Agricultural Fair continues through Saturday at Worth Evan Tomlinson Park, off West D Street and adjacent to West Park, North Wilkesboro. Gates open today (Friday) at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. Admission is $8 at the gate, with ages 12 and under admitted free. Wristbands for rides are $20 on Friday and $25 on Saturday, when there is a mower race. Coupons good for $5 off ride bracelets are on the North Wilkesboro Rotary Club Facebook page.