Man On Wheel: The Topsy-Turvy Story Of A State Fair Legend
By Zac Farber
Watching Rob Summerbell balance atop a 10-foot creaky steel circle, it’s natural to fear for his safety. The structural integrity of his drum-shaped contraption seems doubtful. You find yourself entertaining queasy fantasies. The words “toppling” and “mangled” come unbidden to mind.
Billed as “Melvin the Wacky Wheeler,” Summerbell has been performing in the Minnesota State Fair’s daily parade for a decade.
His sole prop is a 325-pound cable reel for electrical tubing that he found in a salvage yard behind his Madison, Wis., farmhouse, painted a bright red and taught himself to ride.
“I call it my oversized, giant dance partner,” he said. “It’s a conversation between my weight and its weight.”
The appearance of danger is an essential feature of his act. When he jerks his hips to change direction, the wheel jangles and rattles, threatening to slip his control. Assistants and spectators will lie prone between the twin rims as he “runs them over.” The spokes churn malevolently, as if verging on decapitation.
But his job security depends on sustaining an atmosphere of safety, and in a decade-and-a-half, he’s never injured a spectator.
Short, breakable fiberglass flagpoles attached to the rims act as “cattle prods” to fend off pedestrians.
“There’s only one point, when I’m at the very top and coming down—about a quarter of a rotation—where I can’t stop it if I need to,” he said.
The largest hazard has been to Summerbell’s 51-year-old body, as it makes repeated contact with the hard, square crossbeams of the wheel.
Summerbell’s safety precautions are multiplying. He buys cheap gardening gloves in ten-packs, swapping out pairs every five days, and now wears a butt pad to combat nerve damage that has left his feet tingling. After a missed-rung incident in Iowa filled his gold-painted boots with blood, requiring 15 stitches, Summerbell started wearing shin guards.
Wheeling does pay the bills: he said he earns as much in a day at the State Fair as he made in a week working as a carpenter.
Still, it’s not exactly easy to be a Wacky Wheeler.
During the 30-minute procession around the fairgrounds, Summerbell takes frequent breaks for breath and water (which he masks with exaggerated comic panting and arching spit takes). He doesn’t like the harsh ride of metal on concrete, but he worries adding rubber to the frame would make the wheel harder to redirect.
To reach the apex, he must take three or four steps upward on the interior rungs of the wheel.
Climbing this Sisyphean hill, his face tightens beneath the clownish red makeup and kooky round glasses. Melvin the Wacky Wheeler—the fake ears, the silly hat, the suspenders—fades away and Rob Summerbell comes into focus. A short, muscular man straining and sweating against his oversized toy.
When he reaches the top, the crowd hushes.
“Good job,” a man will shout in protestant praise as his neighbors nod in agreement.
Summerbell doesn’t know how long he will keep wheeling.
His wife balks at how much time he spends on the road—about 70 parades a year and four or five state fairs. He complains of the “sweaty, nasty costume.” The routine, at this point, is rote.
But every now and then, he’ll look out in the crowd and meet eyes with someone who’s watching him perform for the first time.
“They get this jaw-drop look, like they can’t quite figure it out,” he said. “I envision it as a visual firework—a quick tada and then it’s gone. I impress people for a moment, and then I roll away.”