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Greg “Scooter” Korek

Toronto, Friday, 2 September 2005

These new guys, they got this big thing they gotta get organized. You know, in January, they started up this thing, getting this whole thing organized is a pretty big job. They play around 150 spots altogether. The only way they could do it was to keep everybody in place, otherwise they’d really be slaughtered. To take over the first year and install your own people, you’d be in big trouble.

I’m trying to think, Bert Murray, he’s still alive. He was kind of a Patty-type guy. He was here forever, Alfie knows all about him. He’s in a home just north here on Bathurst. He would have sat right here, behind the Wild Cat roller coaster. That’s where he ran his food commissary. He’s in a home and he’s got physical problems, but mentally he’s doing OK.

Bea Negus is here; she’d be a really good one to talk to, just because of her history and how she ended up in the carnival business. Her husband is a flipping legend. He was something else in this business, he was quite a name. She’s got all that history, too, and it’s right in her head. Her daughter and her daughter’s husband own 11 games and Bea is running the office for them.

The woman I’ve been with for 20 years, Lisa, her mother’s sister is Norma Conklin. So Norma is her aunt, but that has no bearing on any of this. It actually has no bearing on her and I getting together. It just sort of turned out that way. Jim Conklin hired her in the ticket office in 1985. She had just got out of high school and she was looking for a job. Of course I gave her a job selling tickets and the next year, I called her during the wintertime to see if she’d be interested in travelling with the show. She was and she came here to the spring midway and started helping us.

She became the cashier in the ticket office and that’s when our budding romance began, in 1986, the first year she travelled with the show. She travelled with the show until 1991, when she then got a job in the Brantford head office, working for May, doing immigration and insurance. When I got transferred in ’97 to Calgary, that’s when she ceased working for the show. She got another job. They were courting ideas about her working out there. But I don’t know how good that would have been, her and I working together. She does relocation for really large companies. She doesn’t sell or buy the houses; she just organizes it all. She does all the transfer stuff, but most of her work has nothing to do with Calgary. She moves people from Switzerland to Toronto, from Japan to Vancouver, all over the place. It’s a great job.

I started on July 7, 1977. The show opened in Calgary on July 8 that year, which was a Friday. The show had already been in Winnipeg. I sort of had designs on coming here and going to school at Ryerson. First of all I was going to go to Vancouver with my buddies for the summer. Then I decided to get a job at the Stampede then go to Vancouver, then come to Toronto in the fall. I headed down to the Stampede and got in a line of people looking for work. I really had no idea what line I was in until I got to the front. There was a bunch of Avco trailers. They gave me a job as a ticket seller on the midway.

That night, Karen Caskey, called me and said, “Do you mind working late at night?” I said, “No, that would be fine.” She said, “We need help in our ticket weighting department. Why don’t you come around 10 o’clock at night?” So I showed up, got my identification pass, and then she introduced me to Dan Gerback, who was in charge of ticket weighing. My job was to tote the cans from down on the grounds, up to the trailer and sort the trash out of them. Then put them into the bins, so that Dan the ticket weigher could weigh the tickets. Frank Conklin started out as a ticket weigher and ended up as the president.

I started on a really weird night. That day was a day of infamy in Conklin Shows history because it was the very first time they tried pay-one-price on an all-night midway madness. The price was $5 and started at midnight until the sun came up; it actually ran until 8 o’clock in the morning. They figured there was 35 or 40,000 people there. There was so many people that the ticket boxes were moving down the midway, as the people walked the walk. It was incredible. I get there around 10 and inside the ticket office it’s pretty much pandemonium. Now, I’m being promoted as a supervisor, the guy who’s picking up money out of the ticket boxes. That was my first shift. That July 8th still stands as a record at the Stampede; 177,000 people came through the gates that day. They counted all day Friday and until Saturday morning. We finally got shut around 8 in the morning. The senior citizens come to the Stampede early in the morning to see the cows and livestock. The place looks like a war zone, booze bottles and garbage strewn everywhere. At 8 o’clock we started counting the tickets and we were rushing to get it done before the show opened again at 10.

When I came back, I was helping in the ticket office until we closed the show, and then I would help with ticket weighing through the night. It was pretty good, because back in this time Conklin Shows was the only non-carnie show in the world. There were no carnival people, per se. There was a lot of university kids working in the games. We had some good carnival guys working the rides because they need to know to move that stuff. In the office department, what made the job attractive was that there was a bunch of kids there were like my age and they’re all college and university kids, and good-looking girls. It was fun.

At the end of the Calgary Stampede, Karen Caskey called to ask me if I wanted to come to Edmonton. I was having a pretty good time, so I said, “Yeah, sure.” Vancouver was out, but these guys were going to Toronto, so I was headed that way. She said, “We’re going to leave at 12 o’clock tomorrow, so be down here.” I get home at 6 in the morning and my father’s getting ready to go to work. I say to him, “I’m going to go off with these carnival guys to Edmonton.” He says, “No you’re not.” I said, “Do you think I could borrow some money until I get paid from these guys?” He leaves and on the way out the door says, “I’ll see you at supper tonight.” My mom wakes up and she gives me 60 bucks. Off I go.

My father worked on a farm. Royal American Shows had been here for years robbing those people. My father was also involved with the Stampede for many years, as was my grandfather. Conklin had only been in town for two years and he thought they were still the traditional carnival guys. So my father thought that me running away with the carnival was not good news. He didn’t talk to me for a long time. He came here for Christmas one year. I had a nice apartment, nice friends, and he came to the office and saw that it was a real, live business and he started to warm up to the whole idea.

We get to Edmonton and get set up. The show couldn’t open on Sundays then because of a bylaw. We used to stay at one of the nicest hotels at Edmonton, and this big party starts at 11 o’clock Sunday morning and keeps on going all day. By the time one o’clock in the morning rolls round the floor that we’re staying on is trashed. The cops are there and guys were throwing beer bottles out on Jasper Avenue. The next morning, they fired five or six guys out of the office, so I got promoted from the can toter to the ticket weigher overnight. During Edmonton, Karen offered me a salary of $175 a week. I worked inside the ticket office all that summer. At the Canadian National Exhibition she asked me if I wanted to come down south, so I abandoned all plans of going to school. I went to Springfield, Little Rock, then I came back to Calgary.

When I came back, they offered me a job, which I started in April of ’78 back in Brantford for the first time. I was still doing the same thing, helping out in the ticket office. I travelled around to all the spots. It was great, being young and being on the show. Frank Conklin let the music on the rides play really loud. Then I came to the CNE, the year of the antique carnival. After the second week of the Exhibition, they reported in the newspaper in the Sunday edition, “Two Million People Already Visiting the Ex; Record To Be Set.” When they reported that two million people had already been down here, everybody else had to come down to see what it was. So they reported 2.3 million people for the CNE. I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was like Disneyland: all those old buildings, the Flyer roller coaster, the Jumbo Jet, the Wild Cat, Funland, the Silver Dollar, the Derby, and all the rest of that crap. I had never seen anything like it. Being a young kid, having a job with some responsibility and travelling throughout Canada and the United States, it was something.

The first season I was out, Steve Adamski came in the office one day and said, “I hear somebody here worked on a farm?” I said, “Yeah, that would be me.” Then he said, “Do you know how to drive a truck?” I said, “Of course I do.” He said, “Would you mind driving a truck to Regina?” I said, “I think I could probably do that.” He takes me out in this straight job and we go around the block once, and he says, “Oh, you’re going to be fine.” He says, “The truck will be ready for you at 7 o’clock in the morning over here.” I get there the next morning and one of the girls from the office is going to come with me. I get to the truck and now there’s this big long game trailer on the end of it. They never told me about that. I get in there and this girl, Clea Hurley, a Brantford girl, she can see I’m a little nervous and she bails: “You’re on your own buddy.” I get into this dam truck and drive to Regina, and the worst mistake I ever made, was I made it, no problems. Now, I’m a truck driver.

They stick me in the truck by myself to drive from Regina to Toronto. I’ve never been to Toronto in my life. So I get parked underneath the Gardiner at about 6:30 in the morning. My uncle lives up north of Rosedale and I’m going to stay with him, but it’s early in the morning and he has to go to work. So I got the day to kill. I walk up to King Street and go to a store and get a map. I get in the streetcar with my knapsack and say to the driver, “Can you please let me know when we get to Spadna?” I don’t know the difference, then a lady yells out, mimicking my pronunciation, “Spadna!” Everybody in the street car laughed. The truck I drove to Toronto became my truck for 13 years.

In ’78, when we came back from down south, I was working in the shop on Edmondson Street. They put me charge of the stores, which was a flipping mess. There was shit everywhere. At that point I thought the Conklins were bazillionaires. Everybody’s driving a company car, flying everywhere and everybody had a lot of money. It seemed like this was a really good business. The shop there on Edmondson Street was pretty nice; a big shop with a barn in the back filled with carpenters, welders and guys carving wooden horses, forklifts everywhere. I thought these guys really had it going. I worked right to Christmas that year and went back home.

In 1979 I came back at the end of January. We were trying to get our archives together and all of our financial records, so I did that. That was my first time seeing all that history stuff. That used to be above in this little office upstairs. It was just sitting there and kind of going to rot. I was the first one to try to get it organized and catalogued. It was just lying there in bags and it was really a mess. That’s how I got involved with the history of Conklin Shows. For a long time I was the custodian of all that crap. We went through it and it was pretty intriguing. You could really see the rich history of this company, how it was built. The iron in one of those boxes came out of the antique carnival uniform office.

In ’78 Frank booked stuff at the Dade County Youth Fair but he didn’t have the contract. In ’79 he actually got the contract. West Palm was a really big fair then, and Dade County was just a medium fair. There was a guy there with really big ideas, Darwin Fuchs. That’s a book in itself, what he turned that fair into. When he first went there, it was OK, but it wasn’t very much, it was all tents. It started on a gravel lot in south Miami and then he took it over to the new location. In 30 years he took it to an attendance of around 775,000 people, but we must gross $6 million just with the rides. It’s the second largest ride gross in North America, after Texas State Fair.

When Frank got the contract, we didn’t think it was going to be that big really. The carnival company the year before reported $1.2 million for the whole 18-day event. Karen sends me down there with Joe Kingsmith. We loaded up her car in Brantford and the three of us drove down there. We opened up Friday and it was pretty dead. On Saturday we opened, and the next time I went home was Tuesday afternoon. We grossed more money in the very first weekend than the previous company reported for the whole event the year before. It was nuts. Trying to get the sellers out, to get tickets for the booths; counting the money was just completely out of the question. We just tried to get it out of the ticket boxes and throw it in bags for which day it came from. We were kind of making it up, balancing the sellers, so we had the appearance of some kind of control over the money. There was only two of us taking money out of the entire fair grounds. There was another guy inside the office doling out tickets. We got through the first weekend and it was great from the business standpoint. Then we rounded up some more people out of Brantford and we started doing operations like we normally do.

We were staying in a place called Danker’s Inn. The night before we got there, there was a murder and that was on page two of the Miami Herald. I’m reading about this place and the murder in the paper. They found this guy’s body in the pool. They give us the keys to our room and we walk by the girls’ from Brantford’s room. We go in there and they have an efficiency apartment and it’s pretty nice. We had a few beers and then went up to our room. There’s no windows left. They’ve got plywood over the doors and you can’t tell whether it’s noon or midnight. I turn on the lights and the cockroaches scramble everywhere. We unpacked our stuff. Every bedpost was inside a Folger’s coffee can and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I saw that they had oil in there to keep the cockroaches out of the bed.

We finished Miami and that was a real wild trip. We got so busy, we needed a bunch more ticket sellers, so we rented an Avco trailer. The day after the fair was over we got two and a half inches of rain in 45 minutes. We were just in the midst of tearing down. This underpass completely fills up with water and one of guys is in there swimming the backstroke. We’re going to return this Avco trailer. We head downtown and I take a look in the rear view mirror and the trailer is turned sideways. The chassis has disconnected from the trailer and we’re on I-95. We pull over at the very first exit into the world’s worst neighbourhood. I run over to the gas station and call the lot and the welder is going to come out. Matthew and I are sitting around in the truck, these two whitey guys in this really black neighbourhood. The welder comes and we pull the trailer and the truck back into shape. Some guy comes over with a baseball bat and says, “You guys owe me some money for parking here in my parking spot.” We say we don’t have any money. We hook up the trailer as fast as we can and get out of there.

The next morning we decide to take the money to the bank because we don’t have armoured cars. We had all the money from the last weekend and it was like one million three. I have this little Pinto and load up the money in the back, all the coin and everything. We’re heading downtown. We hit some bumps and the Pinto’s coming off the road a little bit, we’ve got so much coin in the back. We hand bomb bags of coin into the front seat. We get down to the bank. My companion goes into the bank and says, “We’ve got a deposit to make. We got a lot of money.” The girl asks, “How much?” She says, “About a million three.” All of a sudden there’s security guards running all over the place with guns drawn. So we pull the Pinto into this drive. They’ve got to count the bags and the rest of it. We go into the front of the bank and they’ve got this big white chesterfield and we lie down and go to sleep. They come and wake us up with the receipt.

That was the first time I was exposed to how bad this business could be. We hosted these field trips and there was one on Tuesday morning. I’m doing some guest relations work then, we didn’t have a formalized Guest Relations. About 10:15 in the morning a call comes across the radio that we need first aid and some paramedics at the Tidal Wave. I grab my little first aid kit. All of a sudden I was on top of the scene and there’s this kid that’s been stabbed twice. He’s one of our guys. That was the first person I’d ever seen dead. He wasn’t breathing and you could just tell that the life was out of him. He was a local kid that worked for us. Some guy got off the ride and tried to leave through the entrance. He told him he had to leave through the exit. They got into a shoving match. He comes back 20 minutes later with some friends and they hold him, while this one kid stabs him to death. They were back in the school that afternoon and they arrested all three of them. They were just juveniles so nothing really happened to them.

After Miami we went out west again and that was great. I was really used to the job now and knew all the people on the show. I really found my niche that year. We came here in ’79 and it was even bigger than the year before. Ever since then, this fair has constantly declined. If another carnival owner ever got this spot, he’d be elated with it. But all of us are so disappointed because we know what it was and what it could be. That’s what hurts the most. It’s just a giant flea market now. In ’79 was when I met Ross Curry for the first time. He was assigned to come and help us out here at the Exhibition.

Jim Conklin surrounded himself with some really talented people. That’s the reason we did so well. He wasn’t afraid to find those people, hire them and pay them some money so they would stick around. In the late ’70s, early ’80s, he had Ross, Karen Caskey, Dave Bastido, Bill Napper out on the eastern road show. Jamieson was here in 1979 and ’80. He had Mike Zdebiak, who ran his food department, Steve Adamski and Mike Graham, who ran the concessions. Jim had an association with Bob Cassada, which paved the way for him to bring those water games in here. Mike Higgins. On the ride side, he had Gordie Banks, Chuck Grovener, Jimmy Glover, Jim Caskey, John Coffey, Jim McSorley. These were guys that could really do this. None of this was by accident. It was really well organized. You came back to the shop and there was a full core of support services back in behind you, carpenters, painters, machinists, welders. There was a whole other layer supporting you back there. It was truly incredible how he had it set up. I didn’t realize that until later.

The day after the Canadian National Exhibition, in the fall of ’79, they sent me to the Bernard Unit. We had just purchased the Bernard Unit. I went to Beamsville and got there Thursday afternoon, just after the show had opened. I was introduced to Scott Cramston, who was the office manager then and has been a life-long friend. I walk inside the office and he’s getting dressed in the Conko outfit and he says, “Can you just keep an eye on things for a while? I’ve got to go be in the parade. If you have any problems, ask for John Homeniuk or Pat Marco.” I’m not there five minutes and some kid comes in and his face is bleeding. I knew how to take care of that kind of stuff. I see a guy with a uniform on and I say, “Hey buddy, can you go find a John Homeniuk or Pat Marco for me?” I figured somebody from the show would want to know about this. I fix up the kid and calm him down. He had been on the Skooters and he got bumped. A few minutes later in walks Pat Marco. I never met him before.

I spent the rest of the fall on the Bernard Unit, which was great. Scott and I really hit it off and we had a really good time. We were doing the job, but we were really having fun while we were doing it. We come back and Bastido and Ross decided they were going to teach me a little bit of accounting, which was going to be a chore. They gave me an office and I was still in charge of the archives and the supplies, but I was helping with year-end on the Bernard Unit. I worked right through until Christmas. I came back in 1980 in January and Dave Bastido offered me a full-time job with the company, which I accepted.

I didn’t go to Miami in 1980. We ran the summer midway all summer long, right into the opening of the CNE. I really got a feel for the rest of the show because I went out to the Lion Safari, Belmont, Crystal Beach and Niagara Falls. I was working in the Brantford office during the week and then the weekends I’d go out to these parks and help with the accounting. I was also out to the eastern road show. Every weekend I was gone. A lot of my time I spent down here at the summer midway. We had all these operations going on everywhere. The CNE rolled around again and I worked here at the ticket office again. We were down one million dollars with no warning whatsoever. It was awful. That fall I worked between the Bicycle Unit and the Bernard Unit.

After we got off the road, there was a lot of tension back in the shop and everywhere inside the company. At that point in Brantford, things were not good. Massey-Ferguson was getting ready to shut its doors and a number of other companies were getting ready to close. Things were going to hell in a hand basket with Jim and the CIBC. Bastido even said to us, “If you guys come to work and the doors are locked, we’ll call you and let you know what’s going to happen.” It was Halloween night when Jim had to restructure the joint. Lots of heads rolled that night. We went from 17 to 7 that night.

We actually had a party at Bastido’s place that night. Everybody came and it was pretty ugly. People were getting drunk and they just lost their jobs. That night was pretty bad. Amongst the group, those who got to stay and those who got the axe, there wasn’t any animosity, towards the company there was. Now I know why I was spared the axe: it’s because they weren’t paying me very much money and I could do a lot of things. I could drive a truck, run the ticket office, set up the Ferris wheel, sell tickets, do a little accounting. I don’t know how Jim made his decisions, but I know it was him. He had to do it. He had to reorganize. He told Bastido which ones he was going to cut, so that Dave would be prepared for it.

He also got rid of a lot of equipment, which was good. A lot of that stuff wasn’t making any money. He cut out the fat. He got out of the parks at that time. What he was good at was running three carnivals, and that’s what he put all of his energy into. He made some very smart moves. He pulled it off, but it was pretty thin. They were a couple of times when he was considering pulling the plug. Bastido was giving me twenty bucks a day. I put ten away for beer and smokes, and ten away for rent. I wasn’t getting a pay cheque. Bastido said, “I want to keep you going but I can only give you twenty a day. We’ll make it up to you later on.” We didn’t get our bonuses from the west that year. They did make it up to me, once we got rolling again.

Ross Curry: The bank called the loan and they were going to put him in receivership, but he pointed out to them that they couldn’t do anything with the assets. What are you going to do with two Tilt-A-Whirls, unless you’ve got a place to play them? You can’t realize any value on the assets, unless they’re being used. The company had to have budgets and projections so that the bankers could understand what to expect going forward. I put some of that together and I think they were very useful in giving the bankers some assurance that we knew what we were doing and that there was some value here.

The CIBC said no, they weren’t going to play. Then Continental said no. Jim hit a brick wall and that’s the first time he thought he was going to have to pack it in. He owed a lot of money. I thought these people were gazillionaires, but they were living off the bank’s money because before then the banks wouldn’t say no to them. They bought Deggeller Shows and Bernard Shows along the way; they expanded into the United States. Jim was buying a brand new ride every year from Germany. It all came home in 1980. It was pretty tense still in January.

In early 1981, it was still touch and go. My job every day was to drive to the Undercurrent, which was at the base of the CN Tower, to pick up the receipts. I would drive home every night after closing with the money in a bag and I would put it into a bank account called Bastido, Chappel, MacKay. That was what was really keeping us going. Whatever we earned at the Undercurrent that kept us going. He hid that from the bank but they finally caught up with him. It kept us going through January.

The season of 1981 started pretty badly. Brandon and Winnipeg were pretty bad. In Calgary we were down 10 or 12 percent. As we came through western Canada, and it was still looking pretty bad, we were still struggling. Then we had a good exhibition here, thank God, and Frank had a strong finish in the south, which was also very good. It was going day-by-day. When we got out here, we were waiting for Dade’s net receipts to pay the bills.

I spent all the summer of ’81 in and out of Brantford, plus a lot on the Bicycle Unit. They were having staffing problems and I spent almost the entire summer with the Bicycle Unit and a guy by the name of Bill Mason, from Palm Springs, California. He was a good guy, a southern carnival type of guy, but he was pretty smart.

We get to the Freedom Festival and we set up along the street. The fire marshal comes the night before opening at 7 o’clock. He says to Mason, “You know we need a 16-foot fire lane in here.” Bill goes, “Well there isn’t 16 feet.” The marshal gives him the tape and they measure and he says, “There’s only 14 feet, I need 16.” Bill says, “Well I don’t know how I’m going to do that by morning. It’s 7 o’clock at night and all these guys are gone.” The guy says, “By morning you’ve got to have these things moved otherwise you’re not going to open.” Mason comes to the office and we take the tape and cut out from eight to ten, and tape it back together. The fire marshal comes the next morning, stretches out the tape and says, “16 feet. Bill, you’re a good man.” We told him that we had to call everybody back and work all night moving the centre joints back.

I spent the rest of the season out there. I really did my time out there. Ray Coffing was the ride superintendent out there. He was very sick with asthma, his asthma was really getting him down and I was driving him to the hospital all the time. Ray and I kind of became friends. I rented a Winnebago that year and lived on the lot. Ray was an early riser and used to go to bed at 10 o’clock at night. He used to come and get me every morning because he hated handling the money. He’d come get me at 6 o’clock in the morning and we’d go have coffee. Then we’d go buy all the shit for the show. We’d come back and he’d put it all on, and I’d go balance the receipts. I sort of got to know him and was rushing him to the hospital all the time. In Tillsonburg at about 3 o’clock in the morning, he came in and he couldn’t even make it up the steps. So I rush him to the hospital in Aylmer and part of the way there he’s not even breathing anymore. Scared the shit out of me.

They waited until the end of the season and that’s when they called Jamieson over, who came for Lindsay. That’s when Jamieson came and he’s been there ever since. Steve Andrews was the lot manager and Jeff Kell was the concession manager. Around this time we also got all these guys organized in the Conklin hockey league, just a beer-drinking league. We had Terry Warboys with us, who got cut by the Pittsburgh Penguins when he broke his neck, otherwise he would have been playing in the NHL. Then we had Danny Hill, who had never been on skates in his life and always played goalie drunk.

In ’82, they decided that they were going to send me out to be the office manager on the Bernard Unit. I’m making these guys fairly nervous, because I’m only 22 and I’ve got signing authority for the company. I’m this snot-nosed little kid from Calgary and they’re sending me out into the wild blue yonder to run the show, do the payroll, the accounting and all the rest of the stuff. They come visit me a lot because they’re kind of nervous that I’m not going to be able to pull this thing off.

One of the best things that ever happened to me was those seven years that I got to spend with Marco. I knew like shit about carnival and I could go on for hours about all the things I learned about how to run a carnival from that guy. Pat and I were out there day and night. I was actually out there the day he died. I wouldn’t have been able to do the things that I’ve done in this business if it were not for learning from him. How to make money in this business and how to set things up so that it runs right, so that you have the best chance to make money.

His stories, all that money that he made and he died with 600 bucks in his bank account. He used to march into London in the ’40s and sometimes he’d walk out of there and his end was $60,000. London was very good. In the spring of the year, he’d have no money left. He’d lose it all on 4-5-6 or cards, or whatever.

From ’82 until ’87 when Pat died, I was office manager on the Bernard Unit and the ticket office manager for western Canada. All this time I worked with a very capable girl, her name was Andrea Hosie, and I used to leave her there for the summertime. I’d start up in the east in the spring, go west and then come back for the fall. She was very good and her and I became very good friends. In the fall I used to go back out to the Bernard Unit and take it back into the barn and get it finished. On that show, there was me, Dave and Mike, and a guy by the name of Porky was the transportation guy. We didn’t really have a concession manager because there was a whole bunch of different concession guys out there. Guy Lafleur was running food. Every year it was the same guys, and after a while it became the closest knit family I’ve ever been with on the carnival, this Bernard Unit in the spring and the fall.

Running the ticket office in western Canada was a great experience. I worked with some fantastic people. John Copping’s wife, she and I were the first ones to take that job on. Another girl, who’s now dead, her name was Anna Sibley, she went on to be marketing manager for the eastern road show, her and I did that together for three years. Laurie Riley was also the ticket office manager with me for one year. Ross Curry and I became good friends out there; we hung around all the time.

In the wintertime something happened that was totally natural and that I’ve never been able to reproduce again. Ross and I would go for lunch, and sometimes we’d be gone for lunch for hours. We’d be sitting there and we’d be trying to make it better every day. If something was bothering him or something was bothering me, we would sit there at lunch until we finally got this problem figured out. Then we would take it out there and it would work. At some point, we shook hands and agreed that we were going to make this the best carnival administration office in the world. And we did it. We got it to the point where we were exceeding everybody’s expectations in this thing. Ross took care of the inside and I was doing a lot of the outside, not only the ticket office but the rest of the outside administration thing. We were a pretty damn good team. It’s not like that anywhere, anymore. We had it nailed down and we had great time doing it. And we got recognition for doing it.

We had the financial support so that we could think outside the box. We didn’t do everything the same way it was always done. If we ever ran into trouble, we’d think of a different way to fix it. In ’84, I’m coming out of western Canada, with a straight job and I get to scale on 101 just outside of Thunder Bay, around 9:15 in the morning and the scale was on. Well, I don’t have the right driver’s licence for any of this. The guy pulls me over. I’d avoided them before. On the back of the inspection slips they have locations and telephone numbers for every scale in Ontario. I’d phone them up before I got to them to see if anybody was there. The guy says, “You don’t have the right class of driver’s licence for this thing.” I said, “Really?” The guy says, “As long as you’ve got this licence and that truck, it’s not leaving here today.” I go, “Well that’s a bit of a problem. So what do you gotta do to get the right licence.” He says you’ve got to write the test and I ask him where I can do that. He gave me an address downtown and said that I could take the truck without the trailer.

I go downtown and say I need to write the truck driver’s licence test. I give him my 20 bucks, write the test and pass. I said, “Now I need to do the driving thing.” Before that, I had to have a physical. I walk three blocks to the doctor’s office, get an appointment and get the physical. I went back to do the driving test and the guy tells me that he can fit me in in about three weeks. I says, “This ain’t going to work. What if you have a cancellation today?” He says, “If I have a cancellation, I can probably fit you in.” I said, “Well I’m just going to hang around then.” Some kid comes in and says he’s here to do his driving test. I say to him, “Hey buddy, if I give you 50 bucks will you come back in three weeks?” The guy goes, “Yeah, no problem.” I shout out, “Cancellation!” So we drive around for 25 minutes and I pass that. I go back out to the scale and I’ve got the piece of paper in my hand. I show the guy and say, “Can I go now?” The guy couldn’t believe it. That was the working environment that Ross and I had at the time. If you’ve got a problem, you’ve got to figure out a way to get past that problem.

Another time, on a Sunday going from Winnipeg to Calgary and I was going through rural Saskatchewan and blew these odd-sized tires on the concession trailer. There was nobody to call and I’m on the side of the road and can’t move. I see a trailer park across the way. I wander over there and wander through the mobile homes checking the tires. I find a trailer with the right size tire. I knock on the door, “Can I buy your tires?” The guy sold them to me, I put them on the trailer and away I went. That’s exactly what it was like all the time. We assembled some people who were very brilliant in the way of the world. There wasn’t anything that they threw at us that we couldn’t handle.

Pat died in ’87 in Port Hope. The very first lot I laid out was in Ancaster. Jim called me and said, “Do you think you learned enough from Marco to lay out your own lot?” I said, “Yeah” and he said, “Well I’ll come down and help you.” I met him on Tuesday morning in Ancaster and he hung around for about 15 minutes and then he said, “You’re going to do OK.” That was in ’87 and I laid out Caledonia and Brigden after that. That was my last year on the Bernard Unit, then I worked in Ross’s office as an accountant. I was doing accounts payable and a bunch of accounting-type work. I was also keeping an eye on outside operations too. We did that from ’88 until the end of 1991.

That was the hey-day of the show. The best this show ever did was ’87, ’88 and ’89. The show had it all together. We had a really good ride line up, we had all the Zacchini shit. The show looked good. Jim was still buying new stuff. We were having banner western Canadas, we were having banner Canadian National Exhibitions, we were having banner south. Things were pretty good. We were going to Puerto Rico. It was really together at that point. That was when I was proudest of the show.

Ross and I got in the concession business in ’88. The company owned a third interest in fishpond trailers and they wanted to get out of the partnership. They were looking around for a likely buyer. Jim set his eyes on Ross and he came up with the proposition that me, him and Bill Napper were all in financial operations together. So I came to them and we decided that we would take Mr. Conklin up on his one-third interest in the fishpond trailers. We formed a company called the Wit Brothers, Dim, Half and Nit. I was Nit, Ross was Dim, and Napper was Half. We had some fun with that too. We went to Portugal one year on a business trip investigating fishponds.

It was September 3rd, 1989, we broke a million dollars gross for one day for the very first time with the show. It was elation. It was something else. It was right here on a Sunday. The Rolling Stones played the grandstand and when we read the financial reports the next day, numbers were jumping off the sheet, like, Birthday grosses of 18 thousand dollars, 22 thousand dollars from a waffle stand. Numbers that we’d never seen before. I just remember the excitement of being part of that day, hitting a million bucks in one day. Seeing a million dollars in cash sitting all in one place, that was pretty wild too.

During this time Ross was involved with Puerto Rico, so through year-end I was tidying up while Ross was there. I was producing a trial balance and Ross was helping. I was stuck in Brantford for that time. I learned a lot of accounting in those three years from ’89 to ’91. The summer of 1992 Ross stayed in Brantford and at that point I became head of financial operations. I went out west by myself and took over all the financial operations for the southern show. During that time I got involved with marketing the show. It was an evolution because Alfie and I were working closely together. The marketing had to fit in with our marketing plans. I just ended up doing a bunch of promotional stuff for the show. I did that from ’92 until 1997 was the last time that I did any marketing.

When Frank took over in ’96, he said to me, “You know, I don’t think that you’re best used by sitting inside of an office. I think we could do other things with you. I’m going to make plans to get you out there.” I said, “OK, whatever.” That’s when we first started talking about this electronic ticketing thing. He gave me my first fifty thousand dollars in 1998 and we started exploring the idea of getting involved in electronic ticketing. Somebody wrote a memo in 1982 about electronic ticketing, but nothing was done about it. Ross and I talked about it for ages. Back in those days IBM would consider it for five million dollars and it would be hard-wired, a real mess. We saw it in Quebec City used for parking in a shopping mall. That was the first time I saw it.

Frank took over effective control of this portion of the show in ’96. Working for Jim for 20 years, he became very reliant on the things that I did. I did a lot of shit for Jim. Frank realized this and said, “We can’t keep you there for much longer because if we do then my dad’s going to absorb all of your time. We gotta get you out of there.” The next thing I know, I’m working in Calgary, back where I came from, which was great. My office is upstairs in the shopping mall there. We were on the eighth floor in a small office, but the rest of the eighth floor was undeveloped and I had the use of it, so that’s where I started working on the electronic tickets. I kind of got that going, then late in ’98 they gave me 11 the title of vice-president, to this day I don’t know why. I became focussed on two things, marketing to fairs across Canada and electronic ticketing.

I woke up one morning early in ’99 and I realized that if the fairs didn’t do well, we weren’t going to do well. So about 40 percent of my job is trying to help the fairs. I really spend a lot of time with those guys, trying to make their fairs better. I knew that if they did better, we had to do better. All they had to do was bring us people, and if they did that we already knew how to get money out of their hands. I’ve been doing that from ’99 until now, I guess. Some boards listen, some don’t. When I first came to Lewiston Fair nine short years ago, we used to gross $35,000. They listened to everything I told them and this year we’ll break $100,000 easy. They’re a bunch of drunk Kiwanis, but they do what I tell them to do and it’s really benefited them. We have a lot of experience and we can see the things that work at other fairs.

In 1991 on a Tuesday night in Edmonton you could shoot a cannon down that midway. There was nobody coming to that fair. Then we offered pay-one-price every day. Now we sell 100,000 units of pay-one-price, 78,000 in advance. Attendance since 1991 is up 43 percent. But we’ve also done a whole bunch of other things and they’ve done other things to make their fair better. It was going down the toilet. They were having some problems. They used to have one big day, the Sunday when we offered pay-one-price, the rest of the fair, nothing. It was a footrace with Winnipeg and Edmonton, back in the mid-90s. Now, net-wise, it’s almost as good as the Calgary Stampede. We have a better deal with the fair board in Edmonton.

The next big revelation in my life was when the cheque hit the table. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think there would be anybody in this flipping world that would ever buy this thing. At that moment when I found out that the cheque had hit the table, my very first thought was, Is there really somebody crazy enough out there that would really want to do this? My second thought was, 77 years of history just stopped in one flash of a moment. I was aware of the negotiations, but I didn’t think it was ever going to happen. I really expected that somebody was going to call at any moment and say the whole deal is off. That’s the end of the story, I guess.

Our experience with Conklin has been that if you try to run it with an absentee landlord it doesn’t work. We saw that with the Patriot and the Northern Lights. I don’t know how this story’s going to end. I’m of the same opinion as Frank, ask me in two years and I’ll tell you how it ends. Maybe it’s going to be good. I hope it works out for everybody, but maybe that’s just my positive nature. If it fails, the show won’t go back in the family. This would be like a dead carcass and everybody would pick it over so fast. A vulture would move in here to the CNE faster than you can say … All the small fairs, somebody would fill that gap in a second. It wouldn’t hurt here, it would be some of the C fairs down the road. Whoever is servicing the C fairs would move into the B fairs, whoever’s in the B fairs would move into the A fairs, so it would be a trickle down effect. It would be some C fairs in, like, Oregon, that would feel the effects. Everybody would just move up a step, leaving nobody at the bottom. That’s if it fails. Who knows, it might work. You don’t know unless you try, I guess they’re trying: try hard. We’ll have to see how it ends.

If I had to do this all over again, I would in a second, I wouldn’t think twice. Sometimes we had to hold it together and I’m proud that we all could do that; and sometime we made it the best it could possibly be, and we all worked together when we did that; and sometimes, it was downright disgusting, and we all had to live through that too. The outdoor amusement business can be ugly and it can be rewarding. It’s such a varied scale out here. When we hurt somebody, it’s as ugly as it gets and I’ve seen five get hurt. I invariably wake up and say to myself, what the fuck am I doing here? But, when you see a million dollars for the very first time, you say, wow, isn’t that something.

They let us do it our way, and if they didn’t like what we were doing, they’d come through and tell us to stop doing that. And we would, but that didn’t happen very often. During my marketing period, I was able to do a lot of things that I always wanted to try because I had been down on the ground floor, I sold tickets, I know what happens in a ticket box. That’s where it all happens. They gave me latitude to see how I could bring more money through the ticket box and that was pretty rewarding. I got involved with the upgrade program, I did the majority of all that and that was fun too. If you had an idea, they’d let you do it.

Note: There are over 200 pages of interviews here, mostly verbatim and unedited. If you find spelling mistakes or typos, or want to add something, contact me at john [dot] thurston [at] sympatico [dot] ca. Thank you!

 

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