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The Modernized Midway at the Calgary Stampede: 1976 to the Present

<< Moving from the Margins of the Calgary Stampede: The Second Phase (1950–1975)

Conklin Shows’ acquisition of the A Circuit was the result of complex negotiations, as the spectre of Royal American Shows’ illegal activities had garnered much negative publicity for carnivals and created the need for a more cautionary approach by exhibition boards. In order to understand fully how Conklin Shows was able to acquire and retain the profitable A Circuit, however, it is necessary to place its success in a historical and economic context. Conklin Shows’ ability to stay well ahead of its competition is unique in many ways, but perhaps the most singular characteristic is its consistently astute business acumen combined with a keen awareness of the need to present an image of respectability to the public as well as its business partners.

The originator of Conklin Shows was James Wesley “Patty” Conklin, born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1892.67 He was born Joe Renker and, like Carl Sedlmayr Sr. of Royal American Shows, began working in the carnival industry as a sideshow talker in New York and, later, a gambling game operator in carnivals in Texas and Oklahoma. He formed a partnership with carnival show-owner J.W. Conklin in 1916, but the carnival company did not survive economically, ending in 1920. Patty, however, was treated like a family member, which is why he changed his name to Conklin, and when Conklin Sr. died in the fall of 1920, Patty continued working with the Conklin family.

With Conklin’s widow and her son Frank (eleven years younger than Patty), Patty ran the small carnival operation for the next year. After a plan to join Wortham Shows (which had the western Canada A Circuit) at the Winnipeg Exhibition did not materialize, the trio unexpectedly encountered and joined a small carnival show named the International Amusement Company, 68 which was playing at St. Boniface, near Winnipeg, and remained with it through the rest of its Canadian route that year.

Shortly thereafter, Patty Conklin partnered with Speed Garrett from Seattle to form Conklin & Garrett Shows; from 1924 to 1930 the carnival grew from two railway cars to fifteen. During the Depression, the show travelled to the Maritimes. Although it did not fare well economically,69 it was able to take advantage of plentiful cheap labour. In 1932 Patty moved the carnival to Ontario, eventually making the show’s headquarters in Brantford.

Despite occasional setbacks, the company continued to grow over the next forty years, expanding throughout both Canada and the United States. By the 1980s, Frank Conklin (Patty’s grandson) had reconfigured the American route to the point that the Canadian and American Conklin operations had become autonomous business entities. The Canadian operation continues to be headquartered in Brantford, Ontario, while the American company, under the leadership of Frank Conklin,70 is based in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Another factor contributing to Conklin Shows’ procurement of the A Circuit (which included the Calgary Stampede) was that two years prior to the 1975 takedown of Royal American Shows a group of Canadian carnival operators headed by Heinz Oldeck lobbied the western Canadian fairs and exhibitions to contract Canadian, rather than American, carnival companies. Their argument was that the significant financial revenue should remain in Canada, rather than go south to the United States. During the 1975 Stampede, newspapers in Calgary reported that the 1976 Calgary Stampede would be the first fair in the West to include a Canadian midway company, in conjunction with the larger Royal American Shows.71 Korek states that “this decision rocked the ranks of management of Royal American for they had a lock on midways in the west for over forty years.”72

After the raid on Royal American Shows in Edmonton in July 1975, the pro-Canadian carnival contingent realized that the western Canadian fairs were going to have to find a replacement for Royal American Shows.73 The Canadian midway lobbyists’ attempts escalated, leading to a meeting in Calgary in mid-September 1975 headed by George Hughes, general manager of the Edmonton Exhibition, and Bill Pratt, general manager of the Calgary Stampede. Decisions were made to attempt to book a Canadian carnival company by inviting submissions from Canadians and to book an American company only if a Canadian carnival could not supply the same level of equipment. Although the original intent was to keep the A Circuit intact, by November 1975 it was “every man for himself,”74 as the Western Fairs Association realized it would be highly unlikely that it could provide midways for all the A Circuit fairs. Pratt and Hughes, as a result, sought carnival companies for the midways at Calgary and Edmonton, hoping that the other cities involved (Brandon, Winnipeg, Regina, and Saskatoon) would follow suit.75

In late November and December 1975, the International Association of Fairs and Exhibitions held its annual meeting in Las Vegas, during which Pratt and Hughes engaged in discussions with various Canadian carnival companies, including Conklin Shows, that eventually resulted in compact between Conklin Shows and the Calgary and Edmonton boards. In mid- December 1975 the Calgary Stampede invited Conklin Shows to a final meeting in Calgary, at which Jim Conklin, Sheila McKinnon, Alfie Phillips, and Colin Forbes came to a final agreement. Almost immediately, Jim Conklin held a meeting in Ontario with senior Conklin Shows management to develop a show for the West in 1976; within a week, Conklin Shows had acquired agreements with fairs in Brandon, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and Regina.76

From January to March 1976, Colin Forbes, Joe Piggott (Conklin Shows’ legal counsel), and Alfie Phillips organized the contract. This was particularly significant because public exposure of the illegal practices of Royal American Shows had cast a wide shadow over all carnivals in Canada and “authorities of every description wanted to make sure that Conklin Shows was not going to be a repeat performance of 1975.”77 Evidence of the reluctance of the fair boards (both Calgary and Edmonton) to commit to a long-term contract is that by early April 1976, Piggott and Forbes emerged from negotiations with only one-year contracts for each of the fairs, to ensure that there was at least a carnival company in place for the fast-approaching 1976 Calgary Stampede and Edmonton Klondike Days.78Alfie Phillips

Further evidence of the intensified suspicion of carnivals following the Royal American Shows investigation was the fact that, even two years later, in 1978, the RCMP and auditors from Revenue Canada followed Conklin Shows for the entire summer. Phillips states,

There was forty of them [police and auditors]. They came in 1978 to investigate our show. There wasn’t any serious offences [noted]. What they did was try to follow the money, from the game, to the office, to the bank, and they also tried to monitor all our cash operations so they could estimate how much revenue was coming in. So they’d send out two auditors and they’d spend the whole time at one game. And they’d also audit our ticket operations, too, and our game operations. We had an interesting summer. They followed us right to Winnipeg, and then they followed us right through to Toronto. It must have cost them a fortune: forty people, staying in hotels.79

A central reason that Conklin Shows emerged unscathed from the close scrutiny of authorities in 1978 was that an important aspect of the contract negotiations in 1976 had been the inclusion of much more transparency with regard to the financial arrangements between Conklin Shows and the fair boards.80 Conklin Shows offered the fair boards a percentage of the revenue taken from the games and the rides.81 Further incentives offered by Conklin Shows were considered extremely progressive: the midway Guest Relations Booth and colour-coded canvas on all the rides and the games were features that remain today.82

As the aforementioned negotiations attest, the success of Conklin Shows was, and is, a direct consequence of its ability to recognize cultural and economic changes in wider society and respond to them well by continually modifying and adapting the carnival company to meet societal needs and demands. In fact, the smaller carnivals’ inability to react and adapt to wider cultural conditions is the primary reason why only the largest carnivals continue to exist today.

The evolution of Conklin Shows into a more corporatized entity reflects its adaptation to the difficulties all contemporary carnivals face.83 Alfie Phillips outlines the many factors involved in the increasingly expensive costs of running a carnival: the long distances that the carnival equipment has to be moved,84 the rising costs of gasoline, premiums for liability insurance, and the costs involved in meeting required standards of operation.85 The larger carnival companies, such as Conklin Shows, are scrutinized more closely by authorities because of their high visibility, as well as pressure by the various agricultural boards that standards meet the overall criteria for the large exhibitions. One advantage for Canadian companies of the higher costs of running carnivals is that the large American shows are reluctant to come to Canada, as the costs are even more prohibitive due to the devalued American dollar plus the Canadian goods and services tax (GST). This is in addition to the problems often encountered at the border relative to carnival workers who may not meet the requirements of Immigration Canada.86

Another difficulty that Conklin Shows has encountered concerns the labour force needed to run such a large operation. Historically, carnivals have relied heavily on a small but relatively stable core group of workers who tend to stay with the carnival for its entire season and a more transient group of workers who are often hired locally at each carnival spot. Hiring local workers as a reserve army of labour has been a common practice at most seasonal exhibitions, fairs, and carnivals for many years. Gray refers to “a small army of unemployed single men [being] rounded up and put to work”87 in 1931 at the Calgary Stampede, which was “the start of a continuing role for the Calgary Industrial Exhibition Company: acting as an unemployment relief agency.”88 Contemporary carnival companies also rely heavily on local workers, especially for the labour-intensive teardown of the carnival before it moves on to its next location.

A critical factor in the availability of casual workers is economic conditions, which presents a somewhat ironic situation for carnivals: a buoyant economy usually means a large turnout of people and, consequently, larger revenues. However, it also often means a shortage of available local workers. This has been the case for many years for Conklin Shows with regard to the Calgary Stampede, especially as the agricultural basis of the Alberta economy gradually gave way to the emerging oil industries. As Phillips states, “we have always had problems with the workforce here [in Calgary]; nobody wants to work here because the economy is too good.”89 Conklin Shows holds job fairs in Calgary and Edmonton to hire local workers for positions such as ticket sellers, office staff, food concessions staff, and game and ride operators. Approximately 600 or 700 local workers are hired for Conklin Shows at the Calgary Stampede, including 100 ticket sellers and approximately 100 people working in Kiddy Land (children’s rides).90

The shortage of local workers for temporary employment is not the only impediment encountered by Conklin Shows. It has also had difficulty finding sufficient full-time workers because “young people today don’t want to do this kind of work.”91 Conklin Shows now looks beyond North American borders for its workforce, and for the past several years has brought in workers (mainly young white males) from South Africa.92 Despite some difficulties in finding both temporary and full-time workers, Conklin Shows remains nonetheless a dominant carnival company in western Canada and the United States.93

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