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Howard “Lurch” Pringle

Ottawa, Tuesday, 30 August 2005

The first time I worked for Conklin Shows was in 1979. I actually started in the carnival business in 1968 at the Calgary Stampede.

I was visiting my grandparents out there for the summer as a 12-year old and being the only kid on the block, the Stampede came to town and I got my quarter or fifty cents, whatever it was, and went down to the Stampede. I roamed around for a couple of hours, and some guy asked me if I wanted to work. So I ended up working downstairs in the Big Four and was demonstrating the new item that year, a big rubber ball with a handle on it. The parents could buy these for their kids and the kids sat on the ball, held onto the handle and bounced all over the place. For four hours a day I just bounced on this stupid ball all over the basement of the Big Four. The guy probably gave me two or three bucks for the four hours work of bouncing, which was fine. It was 1968 and that was good money for a 12-year old.

It was a much different fair than it is today, and they had a lot of farm displays and implement manufacturers there. They had a smaller area reserved for tool manufacturers. When I finished working for the ball guy, I went and worked for the Stihl tool representative. I kept their little area clean and ran and got them coffee and whatnot, and probably received another dollar or two dollars for the two or three hours I worked over there. I’d come home very late at night. I always had four or five dollars in my pocket, and I told my grandparents what I was doing and they thought it was just great. Every day I walked down to the Stampede and fulfilled my duties. I think that’s where I got a taste for it.

I didn’t work for the carnival again until sometime in the early ’70s. At that point in time I was living in Ottawa. The Ottawa Ex, when it was on in the summer, Amusements of America would come up and I worked the ten days it was open. I worked on a variety of rides. I was old enough then to work on rides. I wasn’t actually operating them. That would come a little later in the ’70s. I remember working for Tony Mason, Senior, and Tony was a partner with Stacey Johnson back then. They had a couple of rides. They had a Saturn 6, a Tilt-A-Whirl and a Spider. They also had a girl show. We would set up and tear down the rides, and if need be go over and help set up and tear down the tent for the girl show. I never had anything to do with the girls, but there was always that dream. I never got in for a free show. It was always, “Get back to work, you lazy bastard.”

I was stuck on the rides for a couple of years. I never travelled, just when they came to town I worked every year for them. You know, your first year, you’re out there and you’re the local that’s given all the crap jobs to do. I’d clean up the puke whenever some kid comes along and can’t handle a ride. I’d stand there on the Monday morning, watching as the guys all pulled out of town, just sort of wondering.

I was working for the RCMP in ’74 and ’75. I quit in July of ’75. I thought that’s what I wanted to do; I was working in headquarters, but it took me a year and a half to figure out that I didn’t want to do that. After I left there, I went to work for Inco. I was an explosives technician up in Thompson, Manitoba. That lasted the winter of ’75 and the spring of ’76.

I spent the summer travelling around western Canada. I look back on it now and it’s kind of strange. My route, almost day-to-day, followed Conklin Shows. That was their first year out west. I went from Winnipeg, to Calgary, to Edmonton, and I was working my way around the west, just travelling around, having a grand old time. One of the guys I was travelling with, we ended up parting company in Edmonton and he actually went to work at the fair, and travelled to Regina; I don’t think he came back out to Toronto. He ended up working for Conklin, and I just continued getting jobs working as a bouncer in bars. In ’76 in western Canada, the oil boom was in full force. People were paying astronomical wages to anybody. I remember working at a couple of different bars in downtown Edmonton for $15 an hour, in 1976. I ended up working the latter part of the summer, I think I was getting $18 dollars an hour.

The summer was coming to an end, so I started travelling east again and got back to Ottawa. Then I went back to college, went to Algonquin. I was going for bar and restaurant management. Completed my courses there and got into the bar business for a little while in around Ottawa.

The summer of ’78, Amusements of American came back to Ottawa, and as had been kind of a tradition, I took those two weeks off and worked at the fair. It was the end of the Ex, and I said, “You know what, there’s nothing to hold me here, maybe I’ll go south with you.” So I met the guys on the other side of the border. Things were done a little differently: “If you can get across the border, we’ll see you on the other side.” I met up with them in Ogdensburg, New York, and I loaded my motorcycle up on the back of one of the trailers, and they handed me the keys to a tractor. It was a double-axle Chevy tractor-trailer. I was pulling a Motordrome booked in with Amusements of America and I ended up driving one of the loads down. This truck they gave me was a gas tractor. I’d never driven a gas tractor; I’d driven a diesel truck, but it was just a complete new experience driving a gas engine tractor-trailer. I don’t know if they didn’t want their trucks on the interstate for fear of the department of transportation, but they routed us through hell’s half acres to get to Chatham, New York, which today in a car or a diesel truck would take probably six hours. It took me two days in this goddamn gas truck.

I finally showed up, and we played Chatham and a bunch of small county fairs down along the eastern seaboard of the US. Then got down into Miami. Amusements of America had winter quarters down in Princeton, which is just south of Miami. We played every church, every shopping mall, every high school around Dade County. Finally, just before Christmas, we pulled everything into Princeton and we had two weeks off. My bonus at the end of the year was $300 and I just looked down and thought, “I might be able to make this stretch out for two weeks.”

The day after New Year’s, we set up at Florida International University, which shares property with the Dade County Fair. The fair wasn’t on at that time, but again we started with our shopping, church, school, parking lots still dates. We had played 17 different dates, starting the day after New Year’s, up until probably about the last week of the Dade County Fair and Exposition, late March.

A friend of mine that I was working with said, “We got the night off, why don’t we run down and see the Dade County Youth Fair?” That was the name of the fair at that time. I said, “What’s the Dade County Youth Fair?” He said, “Well, it’s a carnival.” I kind of looked at him quizzically and said, “I work for a carnival. Why would I want to go to a carnival?” A pig, is a pig, is a pig. He said, “No, this is something different. This is Conklin Shows.” I’d never heard of Conklin Shows and he was amazed at that fact because Conklin Shows was a Canadian outfit and, I being a Canadian at the time, he thought everybody knew Conklin Shows. After much cajoling, he talked me into going to the Youth Fair.

We drove down there on my motorcycle, parked and walked down to the fair grounds. There was a hill at the Dade County Youth Fair that overlooks the midway. I got up to the top of the hill and looked out over the midway and I just stood there with my mouth open. I had been working for a true carnival company. I got up to the top of the hill and looked down upon Conklin Shows and I was awestruck. My mouth was open. The rides were enormous, they were lit, the employees looked … I equated it with, “Jesus Christ, I’ve just walked into Disney World on wheels. Look at this place. It’s absolutely amazing!” I walked down the midway and the food concessions were clean and professional, and the ticket boxes were enormous, they weren’t just some beat up little rat shack that said “Tickets” on it, the rides, the employees all dressed in uniforms, the lights all working—and all the rides were working, which was strange. There was no bailing wire and duct tape holding the doors closed and the pieces on.

We walked down the whole midway and I got to a ride called the Enterprise. Working on the Enterprise at that time was Jack Park, a.k.a. Hippy. I’d known Hippy from my days with Amusements of America; he had worked on an Enterprise with a gentleman named Dixy Griffith, who had previously worked for Amusements of America. They were working for an independent out of Maryland who owned a couple of big rides and booked them with a couple of different shows.

When I saw Hippy working on the Enterprise, I immediately went up to say hi. We hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’ve come down south with Amusements of America.” He says, “Oh, man, you oughta come and work over here.” I said, “Fine, no problem, hire me. I’ll quit. If you say this is the place to be, then this is the place to be.” Certainly, my short little trip down the midway has told me that and now I’m looking for a job. “I’ll just go back to Amusements, pick up my stub and I’ll be back in an hour.” He said, “Well, I’m all full up.” It’s the last weekend of Youth Fair. I basically told him to pick somebody on the ride that he didn’t like and boot him, and fire him. He said, “I can’t do that.” So I said, “You pick somebody you don’t like and I’ll go fire his ass.” That’s exactly what happened, I walked up there and told the guy, “You been messing up all day, we’re tired of your act, get the hell out of here, you’re fired.” The guy looked at Hippy, and Hippy just shrugged his shoulders like there was nothing that he could do about it, and the guy walked off the ride.

I started working the next day. Working for Amusements of America, we didn’t have any dress codes or anything, so I had a full beard and long hair, and looked the part of the typical American ride employee. It was the last weekend. Actually, the next day was the last day, so I just kind of hung around behind the scenes and helped tear down that night and move the equipment into Fort Lauderdale where our winter quarters was at the time.

It was down there that I met my future employer, Frank Conklin, his ride superintendent, Bob Shaylor, and Chuck Grosvener, who was the purchasing agent back then.

We worked around winterquarters for a couple of weeks. They kept me on there; I was a potentially valuable employee. I had a truck driver’s licence, so as far as they were concerned I was as qualified as the next guy. I’d worked for Amusements of America, and was familiar with setting up and tearing down, and getting to the next spot. I was hired and paid an astronomical sum of money that basically doubled my salary from Amusements of America, so Frank had won my loyalty right off the get-go.

That year we played San Antonio, Spokane, Portland and then came over to join up with the Canadian unit in Winnipeg. About week before we went to San Antonio, I knew about the no-beard policy, rather than getting to San Antonio and shave then, I thought I’d shave up real nice and clean, and get my haircut, and hopefully I’ll be tanned a little bit before we get to San Antonio so I don’t look so odd. So after work that night, I went and shaved. I’d just got out of the shower and was sitting outside reading a book. Bob Shaylor and Frank Conklin came out of winter quarters and they were going to go into town and get something to eat. They spied me sitting down, and I could see them talking between themselves, pointing over my way. Bob Shaylor finally came over and said, “Hey, how ya doing?” I just said, “Good.” I didn’t get into a long conversation with him. At that point, I didn’t really know what he wanted. I just went back to reading my book.

So Bob was still looking at me quizzically and I still didn’t understand why he was over standing above me. He says, “Can I help you with anything?” I says, “Yeah, you can leave me alone, so I can finish reading my book.” Now that I’d had a chance to speak, he said, “Holy shit, it’s Lurch!” He turned around, “Frank, it’s Lurch!” They both started laughing and I’m going, “What the hell’s going on?” “We didn’t recognize you without the beard.” I goes, “Ah, I wasn’t standing up.” My most redeeming feature, of course, being 6’ 10”, and when I was just sitting down, I was unnoticeable to them.

In San Antonio we were set up in the streets. They have a parade every year, I think it’s Battle of the Roses. It was a real eye-opening experience in San Antonio. I remember setting up and further out in the street, there was three Mexican boys walking one way, and four Mexican boys walking the other way, and for no known reason to me, a big knife fight started. One guy got slashed, the other guy got stabbed, and I’m going, “Oh, man, you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

We had some young girl who had ingested some chemical mixture of some kind and she was right out of it. She came up and wanted to go on the ride. I was standing at the top of the stairs of the Enterprise and said, “No, no, no you can’t come up here, you’re too messed up.” She pulled out a knife and was going to walk through me. I think that’s just something they do in San Antonio. Fortunately for me, there was a policeman not too far away, who saw everything as it was transpiring, and he immediately pounced on her, locked her up and took her away.

Three or four days later, during the parade, some old guy was camped out on the parade route in his RV. As the parade started up, he had a whole selection of weapons in his motor home, and he opened fire on the crowd. I think four people ended up getting killed and 11 or 12 people were wounded. There were some policemen in the mix. The whole time this is going on, me and Hippy are underneath the ride, laying as flat to the ground as we could get. The fair was open, the rides were open, we thought it was fireworks in the beginning, until everybody started running and screaming. I don’t know if the gentleman ended up committing suicide or the police ended up helping, but that was pretty well the end of the parade that day, and much of the fair. I’m not sure if that was the last year for San Antonio or not.

We travelled up to Spokane after and that was fairly uneventful. Then Portland was a different fair. That was the Rose Festival, I think. We set up the rides and we were booked with Ranier Shows. We set up the Giant Wheel and the Tidal Wave, the Wave Swinger, the Enterprise, and I’m not sure if we had anything else there, I know the four were there for sure. It was funny, we had to set up in this park, right downtown. Right beside the park is the docks, big, huge shipping docks. The port’s right there. We were set up, probably 20 feet away from the edge of the dock. You go over to the wall and look down, the water was 75 or 80 feet down, so they were parking some big boats. You’re not bringing you little 15 foot motor boat and parking it there, because there’s no way up to the top. We found out later on exactly what kind of boats were parked there.

During the fair they had a US Navy tanker ship, 1,380 feet, parked right beside us. A Korean officers’ training ship was there, a little small boat, about 400 feet. They had a couple of cruisers parked in there beside it. I think the only thing they couldn’t get in there was an aircraft carrier. The Canadian navy showed up one day, and we down looked over the wall and there it was all the way to the bottom, and they were tiny looking vessels. They couldn’t have been much more than 60 or 75 feet long, just small boats.

Of course, once the US Navy shows up, the protesters show up. Who knows what they were protesting, but they were protesting. The sailors on the boat were instructed by their commanding officer not to do anything to impede these protesters’ right to protest, but that didn’t apply to the rest of us. The sailors off the boat had become very good customers. The told us that it really irked them, so we took it upon ourselves to maybe get rid of some of the protesters. We ended up throwing a bunch of their pamphlets and some of their signs over the edge of the dock, to a lot of cheers from a lot of sailors on top of the boat. Then we made ourselves scarce. The police looked very vigilantly for who did it, but I’m certain not too vigilantly because they knew exactly who it was. They kind of made a little cursory look around and couldn’t find us, and then sent the protestors on their merry way. We didn’t get into any trouble. I don’t think the police liked them too much either.

On the way to Winnipeg, somebody was driving the Music Express. That was set up too; I knew there was a fifth ride in all those spots. On the way to Winnipeg, whoever was driving the Music Express got off on a soft shoulder and flipped the scenery load. So we got to Winnipeg and put as much together as we could and plywooded a lot of the stuff up, and managed to make opening in Winnipeg. Played the Canadian route, Winnipeg, Calgary—Calgary we were having a midnight madness and that was absolutely insane. People were just going home at eight o’clock in the morning. I’d never seen anything like it. Edmonton, another great fair.

I remember tearing down in Edmonton, pouring rain. I think it finally stopped raining about 15 minutes after we finished tearing down. The whole grounds had flooded out. We 5 were literally jacking the Enterprise up in the air, standing in three feet of water. It was hydraulic, but it was man-operated hydraulics and you just kept jacking it up until you got in the air. We got everything out; extremely exhausting. I get in the truck and start driving to Regina. Of course, I don’t know this because I was the one that was sound asleep. But one of our other drivers was right beside me and he swears to this day that my head was down and I was sound asleep for at least three or four minutes at 60 miles an hour going across highway number one on the way to Regina. He didn’t want to honk the horn to wake me up because he didn’t know what my reaction would be. I guess I eventually just woke up and splashed my face with a bottle of water that I had in the truck and continued on. We all got safely into Regina.

We opened the next day, so we started set up immediately. We worked all day in Edmonton. Tore down all night. Drove, it was probably an eight or ten hour trip. Then immediately starting setting up and then opened. We managed to get the ride up and pretty well done by nine o’clock, so we could get a couple of hours. Sometime in the middle of the night, when we were really on our last legs—we weren’t going to make it—the ride superintendent came over and he had a little bag of something. He gave us each a pill, it worked, I don’t know exactly what it was but 20 minutes later we were all on fire, setting up the ride, wide awake, and we got it all done. Then we had to work all day in Regina. At that point, we had a full-time crew of three guys. I was the one that was picked to operate the day shift, let them get some sleep. They come back out around six or seven o’clock that night and they took over. I went to bed and don’t remember waking up until the next morning.

Regina at that point was the last stop in the west, so we started coming to Toronto. At that point, we were driving in small convoys, groups of four or five trucks were assigned to one another. One guy had the money to fill up all the trucks. Well I had the slowest truck. These boys got on ahead of me and they let me know where they were going to stop. It was my first time driving through northern Ontario and I overshot the truck stop, where they were, somewhere in the middle of northern Ontario. So I pulled over on the side of the highway and immediately the truck and trailer started to tilt like it was going to tip over and roll down this little ravine. The soft shoulders in northern Ontario were infamous, like quicksand. I guess I had forgotten what they told me. How it managed to stay upright, I’ll never know.

I immediately jumped out of the truck. I wanted to be the lone witness, I didn’t want to be the victim. I watched and eventually the other trucks caught up to me. We tried to pull it back onto the road. We hooked up a bunch of chains and had people blocking off the highway so no cars were coming so we could try to get it out. That wasn’t working. We got a couple of big wreckers and finally the OPP showed up. We got the truck out of the ditch. You can imagine the attitude of the ride foreman and some of the other guys when they saw me. I was getting non-stop shit from all of them and deserved it. After a little while, I was getting a little tired of it and I threatened Hippy with intense bodily damage if he didn’t stop. I said, “You know, I understand I messed up. Now stop.” He just kept going. I finally threatened that I was going to break something on him if he didn’t shut up and go away. That was Hippy’s last straw. We got the truck back on to the road and I continued back into Toronto. We got the ride set up. Then he unceremoniously fired my ass; not personally, he sent someone to do it, just in case I still carried a grudge. I just kind of laughed and said whatever. So I got as far as the CNE that year and open, and when I got fired I said OK and went back to Ottawa.

I got back in the bar business for a year there. Moved to Toronto. The owners of the bar in Ottawa were interested in buying a bar in Toronto, and were looking for a partner. There were four or five of us involved with the Horseshoe Tavern here in Toronto. That lasted for about a year and a half, and I could see that was going nowhere quick. I got out of the Horseshow and opened up my own little place in the basement of a bar that was located at King and Sherbourne, Hoofers. I had my own little place downstairs, it was called McNasty’s. It turned out to be a huge hit with the police and they were down there every night. August of ’83, we had a new owner take over the building and there were some demands that were made, and I said, “You know what? The CNE’s on right now. I’m going to go back over and see all my friends and maybe just get the hell out of Dodge.” I’ve tried living in one place, working in one job long enough. I don’t like it. So it’s maybe time to get back on the road. I went down to the CNE and Dave Sellers, who was the office manager at that time, offered me a job being a ticket supervisor and away I went.

It was a little late to get work visas, so I managed to make my way across the border and make it into Springfield, Massachusetts. I was ticket supervisor at Springfield. We were going to Little Rock at that time and then Mobile. I think in Mobile, I got into some kind of discussion with the female manager of the ticket office. We had had a baseball game earlier that day between Conklin Shows and Cumberland Valley, that was in there playing with us. Quite possibly I might have had a few beverages during the game and came back, I thought, in plenty of time to do my job. Tina Kovaks, was the young lady’s name, and she started yelling at me. As you can tell from the previous story with Hippy, I don’t mind taking a little shit over doing something wrong. But when you continue on to the point it becomes annoying, I fire back.

Tina had a black eye and she had told everybody that she had got it in a vehicle accident, but I think everybody knew where she got the black eye from and it was her boyfriend at the time. I made that fact well known to the entire office staff at that point, so she fired me. I kind of laughed at her and walked out the door, and she was screaming and throwing stuff. I didn’t even make it down the steps of the ticket office and Gerald Grounds, the transportation manager, was there and I said, “Well, Gerald, Tina just fired me.” And he says, “Well, that’s good. Do you wanna start running loads?” I didn’t make it down the steps before I got rehired again.

I went back to work immediately, driving loads. I can’t remember from where, either going to Little Rock and coming back to Mobile, or going right back down to, I believe it would have been West Palm, at the time. We had moved to West Palm, probably in 1980. I know this, because in ’79 when I got fired, I had left my motorcycle in winter quarters in Fort Lauderdale. When they moved all the equipment, they moved it up to West Palm. I went down there in 1980 for a visit and got my motorcycle and brought it back up to Canada.

So we were moving loads into West Palm. I took the winter off. I went back up to Canada, which would have been my last winter ever in Canada. I came down in the spring in time for winter quarters in West Palm. I brought down a load from Brantford. I called over to Brantford to find out if there was anybody going south. There was a gentleman working for the eastern road show, Bloke. He was in charge of Kiddieland. He was going to drive a truck from Brantford to West Palm. He was going to bring down what used to be the old cookhouse. Jimmy Caskey had bought it and turned it into a mobile waffle ice cream concession. It was loaded up fully with gas-powered go-carts. We were going to bring it down to West Palm.

I made my way to Brantford, hooked up with Bloke, and away we went. We made it across the border, and I helped Bloke drive all the way down. I’m sure Bloke’s probably forgotten this and more than likely wishing that I’d forgot it. From my adventures with Amusements of America, travelling through the eastern seaboard, I knew of a couple of less than reputable truck stops. We pulled into one in Saint Matthews, South Carolina, and it was a truck stop for truckers only, they wouldn’t allow any other vehicles in there. They didn’t sell a whole lot of fuel there either. They mostly had an operating cat house out back behind this little restaurant where you could get coffee or a meal, although I don’t know if I’d trust any of the food there. But a coffee seemed in order and we did need some fuel.

We were sitting in the restaurant portion and all these girls kept coming out, asking us how we’re doing. I just kinda looked at Bloke and he was just amazed that these southern girls really liked his looks and his English accent. Boy, he was better looking than he thought he was. About the time I got to the bottom of my cup of coffee, I says, “Bloke, come on, we gotta get out of here.” He says, “But these girls, they’re asking us if we wanna party.” I informed him at that point, exactly what kind of truck stop this was and why these girls wanted to party with him. I’ve never seen him turn that red before. We left the truck stop and got in the truck, and that was it and got the hell out of there. I laughed for several miles at Bloke’s initiation into one of the truck stop cat houses that dotted the highways along the Carolinas at that time.

We finally made it into West Palm and I started working for Jim Caskey, helping him convert this old cookhouse into what he called the Waffleswich, short form for waffle sandwich. Because it belonged to Jim Caskey, he couldn’t rightly ask the company purchasing agent to run and get parts for him. So any parts that we needed, I started going and getting them for him. The purchasing agent at that time, Kenny Robinson, noticed that I was pretty good at it. He asked if I could go over and help him. So I ended up working for Kenny, as his assistant, purchasing, I started purchasing in ’84.

I think it was the summer of ’85, I was pretty well left to my own, doing the purchasing everywhere we went. We got to Calgary and we had the Double Loop at that point. It was it’s first year out in Calgary. Two days before we were due to open the Calgary Stampede, the ride foreman informed me that he needed some stainless steel, six millimetre metric rivets. I just looked at him like he had two head: “Where the hell do think I’m supposed to get those with two days’ notice? This should have been done long before it got to Calgary and blablabla …” I went off, looking for metric rivets, driving all over the city. I was just beside myself. It really did cause me a lot of distress that I couldn’t find these stupid things, and couldn’t find anybody that could pull them out of their ass within the next two or three hours, or next day. In this one instance, I failed to come back with what was necessary to get the ride open and operating.

Probably about five o’clock that night, I’d stressed right out, and decided that I needed a drink. I went back to the hotel and started drinking with Noel Jacobs, affectionately known around the fair grounds as the missing link; a huge individual that worked for Bobby Hunter in the gambling concessions. He and I sat down and polished off several bottles of vodka. I don’t remember much about the evening. I just remember waking up in the morning and I knew that I was in trouble.

According to eyewitness reports, gathered by Frank Conklin and Gerald Grounds, I drove back on to the lot, very late at night in a company vehicle almost unable to walk, which is probably why I drove back. I bumped into Frank, literally. He was sitting on his ATV during set-up and the bumper of the car bumped into his ATV. He got off the vehicle, come back to me, took one look at me and asked me had I been drinking. He told me to get out of the truck. I had flip-flops that I was using for footwear and I couldn’t manage to get the flip-flops on me feet, I was that drunk. He sent me out of there. He told Gerald, “That goddamn Howard, I’m so hot at him, I should have kicked his ass.” He thought about for a minute and looked at Gerald and said, “And I could have!”

The next day I got up with just the biggest head. I made it back to the fair grounds and was told by everyone I saw that Frank was looking for me. I went and found Frank and we walked a little ways away and found a nice quiet spot to talk. We had a discussion. I credit him with changing my life. My years in the bar business had turned me into an alcoholic. I couldn’t function without it. My last days in the bar business, I’d get up in the morning, and it was nothing to fill up a beer mug with ice and vodka, squeeze a little lemon into it and that was my morning coffee. We had a talk, and for whatever reason, it really opened my eyes. It was probably the first time that anybody I respected and that wasn’t just as drunk as I was had told me that maybe I was drinking too much.

Frank was three years younger than myself, but I gave him a lot of respect because of his position and the way he lived his life and carried himself. And if Frank Conklin thought that was a problem in my life, then that was a problem in my life I needed to solve. For the third time in my illustrious career with Conklin Shows, I was fired. But I’m just like a bad penny, I keep turning up. Immediately started my life back on the straight and narrow and stopped drinking anything. I promised him I would stop drinking and take a look at my life and give a call sometime during the winter. From that point on I hadn’t touched another drop. I quit drinking totally, which wasn’t too hard because also that year I had given up smoking.

Cigarettes were three dollars a pack up here and I was smoking two and half packs a day. I said that’s it, I’m going to quit smoking. That was our last year of CHUM Days. I quit smoking during CHUM Days. I managed to quit smoking cold turkey and I said, well maybe I can quit drinking cold turkey. I didn’t have another drop probably for three or four years. I would sit there and say, I’m not going to drink. We would go out for dinner and I would have water, coffee, milk, coke, whatever it was, but wouldn’t drink. Eventually, I got to the point where I thought I could test the waters again and I would go out for dinner and I would have one beer and that would be it. Then I’d switch to coke or coffee. Once I had figured out that I was now back in control again, I’m still to this day just a social drinker, beer or wine here or there. Very occasionally, but I’m not what I used to be. Frank kind of looks at me, “Come on, don’t give me that.” But I still credit him with saving my life. He pointed out that I was at the crossroads and I could take the right road or the left road, the decision was up to me. I credit him with helping me get through that difficult time.

In the winter of ’86 I gave him a call. I wintered in Orlando. He let me know that it wasn’t going to be an easy season, I had to do some punishment time. I ended up being the foreman of the Tidal Wave, much to my consternation. But I moved the Tidal Wave all year. I had a young kid with me, named Roger Thompson. I made his life a living hell and he did probably the same thing for me, but we made it through the season and today Roger Thompson is the ride superintendent out here. I think that was his first full year with the show and he was probably 18 or 19 at the time. I really did break him in. There were a few arguments or discussions, but we made it through the season without killing each other.

We got to Mobile, the last spot of the season. There was absolutely no help anywhere. It was cold and raining, very unusual for Mobile. We had no help and the two of us tore down the Tidal Wave by ourselves. Took us forever, but we got it all done. That was the first time that two guys ever torn down the Tidal Wave by themselves.

The following year I asked to come back into purchasing. The gentleman that had been doing it didn’t like it, so I went back to purchasing and remained there for several years. I can’t remember what year it was exactly, but Frank came to me and said he’d like to try and get me in as a midway manager; maybe 1994. Just to try to clean up things, do sound control, check the uniforms, make sure everybody was doing his job. I looked at like he was nuts.

We were at a convention in Dallas, a gun convention for hunting and fishing, when he first proposed this to me. I told him he was nuts and he didn’t have anybody who could do the purchasing so I got a one-year reprieve. The following year he just said, “No, that’s it, I need you on the midway.” At that time, John Anderson came over, he was concession manager, and the following year, Frank said he needed me to be the concession manager. Gerald Grounds had died at the South Carolina State Fair. John was thrust into the transportation role and I got thrust into the concession business, after having absolutely no experience whatsoever in games. I’d never worked one, didn’t know anything about them, and here I was concession manager, which again caused me to shake my head and say, “Somebody around here has got to wake up and hire somebody that knows something.” He said, “That’s good, you’ll learn and there’s only one place to learn. You can’t go to school for it.”

So I started out the first year or so, putting concessions in and laying out the lot and helping Alfie. You do whatever has to be done. I was taught how to talk to the media by Alfie Phillips. I’ve been called a lot of things by the media, King of the Carnies, Master of the Midway and might even have been president at one time. I’ve wanted to be known as Emperor of the Midway, but that one’s never come up.

One of the saddest stories was about Gerald Grounds. He was a big guy and had diabetes, but had decided that he was just going to live his life the way he wanted to. And if the big guy upstairs wanted him, well that’s the way it would be. He drank his cokes and ate his doughnuts and just did what he wanted.

Well, one day he was supposed to go a get a part or something. And, after a while he doesn’t come back. So me and John Anderson went out to look for him. We eventually found him in his trailer. He had been just taking a shit, and fell off the toilet. We found him there with his bare ass to the world, like he was saying, you know, kiss my ass goodbye.

One time we got rained out at tear down in Calgary and it was still raining when we set up in Edmonton. The ride guys had had a really hard time of it, but they had got the job done. So after everything was set up, I noticed a crowd gathered over by one of the trailers. I go over and ask what’s going on. Well, Barry Jamieson had arranged for a young lady by the name of Bubbles to treat the ride foremen. They were all lined up at this trailer and here she was, give them their reward.

Whether it’s because of my time with the RCMP or whatever it is, I’ve always got along well every spot we played with the police and the officials. You can look at it as being a modern-day patch, but we’re giving to the kids of the officials, you know stuffed animals and ride bracelets. We’re not giving money to the officials themselves.

I’ve been real good friends with one guy, now a chief of police. This started when I was working a ride. There were two cops with warrants on guys on the midway, not carnies, and they were trying to execute their warrants. The chief’s partner had problems with one of them. They were struggling just below me. I reached over and grabbed the guy by the throat and picked him up. That was the end of that skirmish and I’ve been friends with this guy ever since and now he’s chief of police.

Is the carnival my home? No, it’s my job. My home is in Florida. It is, however, my community. One of the things I like to share with the media is, you have to look at this as a small town of three or four hundred people, like an old mill town. Everybody in town works for the guy who owns the mill. Some people work at the general store, some people work at the hardware store, or some people have a restaurant, whatever it is. Basically our life revolves around the guy that owns the mill. We have school, we have a commissary, we have laundry facilities, we have the boss’s big house on the hill and the trailer park community down at the bottom of the hill. Every two weeks, we take our town and go someplace else. The mayor of the town would be Alfie. The guy that owns the mill is Frank. I’m probably the chief of police. All the guys that have different businesses around the mill town are all the independent operators around here. The bulk of the mill employees are the guys that work. All we do is move our little town from week to week. Once you explain that to the media, they look at your dumbfounded.

“What do you teach them in the school?” “Well, obviously, how to lie, cheat and steal.” They look at you trying to discover whether you’re lying to them. It’s like any other school, writing, reading and arithmetic; except it’s a very unique school because it also moves from town to town, along with the teacher and the students. It’s a private school and it’s a Christian education where they’re taught certain things you can’t teach in public school. Some of those are bible studies. That really sends them for a loop. “Oh my god, these godless carnies aren’t so godless after all.” There are some of our kids that go to a regular school in the off-season, I suspect purely for the parents’ entertainment, because they get a full school year in our school system. A lot of the kids get the winters off.

I had my twins in the school for pre-school and kindergarten. The one thing I found is that when they went to “stuck” school, they were well ahead of the rest of the kids. I went to a private school as a young boy and the biggest class had 13 kids, the smallest had one. The entire school was 67 full-time students, maybe 12 teachers. Our school is very similar; we have two teachers and an assistant, for about 18 kids. They can really focus on the areas where the kids are having problems. In a regular school, you’re taught a general education and if a kid’s a little slow or can’t understand, he’s just going to have to catch up. The bad to our system is the lack of any kind of sports activities. They still get some physical education. They have some outings where they make sure the kids get some kind of physical recreation.

The kids in the Conklin International Academy have been to the Everglades and different things around West Palm. In New York City, they’ve gone to the best museums and galleries in North America. In Winnipeg, they’ve visited some of the prairie museums that specialize in life in the Midwest. In Alberta, they’ve visited the dinosaur fields. In Toronto, they’ve been to many different areas around here. So our kids are really exposed to many different ways of life that the average child is only going to get from reading in a book. The Conklin International Academy has done a very good job of educating children. The school also helps keep families together in that their kids can come out with them.

When the school began, there were some employees out here who had never completed high school. There was a big push for the ones who were interested to complete their high school through adult classes. There’s always time during the day and we make time to let them take a class here and there. If it’s an evening class, we can afford to give an employee an hour so he can go to school. We had a guy out here, Herbie Perkins, who had been here forever. He couldn’t read or write. He would drive from spot to spot and had to take someone with him to read the signs, read the route map how to get there. After a long time of being out here, he knew his way around so eventually he just knew that he had to turn right at that Pizza Hut. Herbie Perkins learned to read and write at our school. He’s now married, living in Winnipeg and has two children. He’s working in the auto recycling industry, doing quite well, and comes out every year during Winnipeg to help set up the Wave Swinger and he’ll even come out weekends to earn extra income. He’s one of our success stories.

I’m sure there’s a great portion of successful businessmen, either retired now or close to retirement, that can think back fondly to their time working at the CNE. Some will admit it and some won’t. They’re all for two or three weeks carnies at heart. We used to have quite a large number of university students. We’re now having a little difficulty getting the university students to come out and spend the summers with us. The person who was in charge of doing that recruiting, Scooter, now lives in Calgary. That program has fallen by the wayside. But we have replaced it with some South African employees. We have about 90 South Africans that travelled all summer with us. We’re getting some very good employees out of them. These are kids that have their secondary education, some are working on their university. They can’t get jobs in South Africa and have come over here and are working and sending money home. They’ve kind of taken over from the Canadian and American university students who are getting very lazy. They want to do a little work for a lot of pay, and no responsibility. Good luck in the real world.

The way the business has changed, the business itself has continued to improve; we realize that we’re now in the twenty-first century. We’ve tried to change to meet the times. I don’t know how the carnival business has changed because I’ve been with Conklin Shows for the last 23 years, but I know how we’ve changed. We’ve always recognized the need for change to keep up with the ever increasingly sophisticated tastes of our clientele. People want higher, faster, bigger, more … they’ve got a very big appetite for our industry and we’ve always tried to maintain their thirst for thrills by buying the biggest equipment available and to travel across North America with it.

We were the innovators of electronic ticketing. It’s been improving yearly. The biggest change has been the people. If you think back to the introduction of the ATM. People didn’t use them, they didn’t know what the hell to do with them, didn’t trust them. Now, nobody carries cash anymore. You go to the grocery store, you swipe your card, you go to the gas station, you swipe your card. So now that people are used to swiping their card everywhere, let’s give them a card to swipe here.

It was funny, in the beginning years, the people that had the hardest time with it were the people over 35-40 years old. They’d grown up with tickets and liked tickets. The people that didn’t have a hard time, were the 8, 9, 10-year olds, they didn’t have any idea about tickets. I saw, on many different occasions, the adult looking at the card, and the kid trying to explain to the parent what to do with the card. Finally, out of frustration, the kid would just grab the card out of dad’s hand, give it to the operator to swipe and give it back to dad. As long as the kid got on the ride, dad was, “Oh, that’s good.”

It’s opened up a whole new field of information that’s available to us. We can track the riders, we can track exactly how many people are going on what ride, we can track individuals throughout the fair, their purchases; we can pretty well tell you what time they went for supper. Even though we’re not using the card in the food concessions, there’ll be that hour-long lull in between rides.

The limitations of the card are only boundered by your imagination. The technology is available, the programs are in place, how much do you want to rely on this card? Scooter is the innovator of this technology with us. He has got probably the broadest imagination of anybody. That card could eventually be tied in with your ATM card, where you put a preset spending limit on it. You’d be able to use that card to gain admission, buy tickets to a show, eat food, play the games. At the end of the day, on your way out, swipe your card to say goodbye, and your total purchases would come to you as an itemized bill on your monthly statement from the bank. So you don’t have to worry about reloading the card every couple of hours. There’s a huge world of possibilities out there just waiting for someone to attempt them.

The people that don’t like this technology are the guys who have been in the business 30 or 40 years. They like the cash. It’s funny, when we introduced the card, how the grosses seemed to go up. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination.

On a personal level, there’s the three eras of any business. The first generation builds. The second generation administers. And the third generation liquidates. That’s not the carnival business, that’s business in general. You can see all kinds of corporations out there that it has happened the same way. Frank is a very smart individual. He’s also got other concerns than the carnival business. He’s got two young daughters. He’s got great experience because he knows his grandfather’s trials and tribulations, his father’s, and from his own experience. Frank’s personal choice is not to subject his daughters to this business. It’s getting harder every year.

Outside agencies—anybody outside this business with their hand out whether it be the trucking companies, the fair boards, the governments, the different fees required to get this business across the road, the fuel salesmen, stock salesmen—prices don’t go down. Year after year the bottom line is shrinking and shrinking. I’m extremely happy for Frank Conklin that he found a way to get out of this business, provide for his family for probably the rest of his life. I don’t know how much he got for the company, but I don’t think that he sold it cheaply.

Frank’s a smart enough guy, if he gets bored, he’ll find something to do. Maybe he’ll call. He’s got a vast repertoire of ex-employees, maybe they’d come to work for him, maybe they wouldn’t. He knows he’s got some pretty good friends out there, we’d offer him assistance in whatever way, shape or form we can.

It does represent the end of an era. The Conklin family has been in business since the twenties. It’s certainly the end of an era at the CNE, where they’ve played since 1937. But, all things come to pass, and it was a good run. Not many companies can enjoy a 70-year plus run being in business, and finishing on top of the game. Muhammed Ali had the opportunity to finish at the top of his game, and didn’t. Wayne Gretsky, finished at the top of his game. Maybe you have to come from Brantford. You know a lot of people finish at the top of their game and know when it’s time. Some don’t and they’re not remembered as fondly as I’m sure the Conklin family will be, for many, many years.

I had a strange thought about the future of the carnival business many years ago and I told Bob Negus, who was Frank’s marketing man, for many years, and fair board liaison. I said, “You know, Bob, I can envision in 40 or 50 years, the carnival business, with the regulations, with the shrinking bottom line, the small individual, the independent operator, is not going to be able to exist because, yes, he’s in a business, but the following generations are not going to want to do it. So I can envision four or five super companies carving up North American like a pie, and saying, “You stay in your part of the pie, and I’ll stay in mine, and we won’t compete against each other. We’ll go to the fair boards and say, ‘If you want to have a fair this year, this is what it’s going to cost you.’” I didn’t think it was coming so fast. Maybe Mr. Rosen and company can see the future better than I.

Cumberland Valley didn’t come out with us this year. Astro and Allstar—Blomness and Theobald—fortunately came out, and did a fantastic job, just as Cumberland Valley did for years. And it was kind of neat, because we had to meet some new people. On the other hand, we didn’t see all of our old friends. So you gotta balance the good with the bad. Somewhere down the road, we’ll run into our old friends, just like we always do, whether it’s in Gibtown, or IAPA or IAFA, or any other of the smaller events that we always seem to be attracted to like moths to the light. And we’ll go in and say, “Hey, there’s Terry Portemount set up, let’s go say hi.” It’s a small world, but a big business.”

I’d don’t think I’ll ever be able to retire. Once you’ve been in this business for a number of decades, you’re always in this business. Whether you go out at the beginning of the season and travel with the show, or you just visit once in awhile, you always take a piece of it with you. I’m going to stay with North American Midway Entertainment group as long as they’ll have me or until we decide we should part company. With my vast life experiences and experiences out here on the road, I don’t foresee any problems switching careers even at this point. I’m not quite 50 and I know lots of guys who start careers later than that. We’ll see.

As for switching shows, once you’ve driven a Cadillac all your life, it’s hard to step down. It doesn’t get any better than this. I don’t know if I’d go to another show or not. Part of me says no, what’s the point. You’ve been with the best, why bother. Another part of me says, you know what, it might be neat to go and help somebody else. Give them some ideas, give them a helping hand in the right direction, and see what happens from there. The fair boards are not having any easier time than we are. The one thing that’s unique to the fair industry is that while they’ve had people working for them for 20 or 30 years, basically that’s only 20 or 30 fairs. I’ve got that experience in two years. So your talking to someone that’s got three or four hundred running fair days worth of experience under their belt. I think that in some cases could be a big help to some fairs that maybe are not looking at things from a different perspective. That happens in any business, the longer you’ve been there the more tunnel vision you have and when you have someone who comes from different experience, and asks questions or presents ideas that are new.

There’s a bunch of opportunities out there and I’ve got a wait-and-see attitude. The one thing that’s unique up here is the border and the border is the great equalizer. You have to have a squeaky clean history to get across the border. Someone that has a Canadian and an American passport is a benefit, especially someone that knows the carnival business up here and has a good working relationship with the people in place. I think in those respects I have some valuable assets that the North American Midway Entertainment group may want to hang on to. We’ll work a trade, my experience and help, for a job. As long as I continue to do a good job, I’d like to keep it. Like I said, we’ll go down the road, maybe at some point in time we’ll both decide to part company and that’ll happen. But we’ll see.

There’s been a few bumps. There’s always a few bumps. We’re doing the same job that we’ve been doing for 25, 30 years, but now we’re doing it for a new CEO, that’s got different ideas. We gotta work together and try to implement his ideas, and at the same time give him the benefit of our experience and help him along the way as well. We’re running into a few bumps, but that’s to be expected. Hopefully they’ll iron themselves out. I ain’t counting on it, but travel with hope. I think I said that earlier.

The one thing that doesn’t need saying is that everybody out here, whether they’ve been here since Patty’s days like Bobby Hunter, whether they’ve been here since Jim Conklin’s days like myself and Scooter and Ross Curry, whether they’ve been here for Frank’s turn at the wheel, the one thing that I’m certain of is the amount of love for the Conklin family, the respect, that they rightfully deserve. It was a great run. I’ll miss ’em.

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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