Midway to Respectability: Carnivals at the Calgary Stampede
by Fiona Angus
Beckoning the crowds to enter the grounds of the Calgary Stampede, the carnival midway rides act as highly visible markers of the presence and the promise of excitement for Stampede participants. Curiously, however, despite this visibility, carnivals at the Stampede have been largely neglected in historical records and sociological analysis. For example, in James H. Gray’s comprehensive history of the Calgary Stampede, A Brand of Its Own: The 100 Year History of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede,1 various wider cultural and economic influences are expertly interwoven with historical facts to demonstrate the remarkable evolution of the Stampede from a relatively small agricultural exposition to the multi-faceted and internationally renowned event that is seen today. However, interspersed among Gray’s historical facts are only a few tantalizing but rather brief references to the carnivals that have played at the Stampede over the past century. One might be left with the erroneous impression that this component of the Stampede is, indeed, marginal and only incidental in the grander scope of the annual Calgary spectacle.
A strong case could be made that the midway at the Stampede is, in many ways, peripheral to the central themes of the Stampede. The midway has rarely reflected the same contradictory, albeit highly successful, guiding principles as those of the Stampede: the vision of a retrospective (and historically inaccurate) glorification of the myth of the Wild West, combined with contemporary notions of what constitutes social and technological progress. Despite its ideologically segregated status at the Stampede, however, the history of the midway and its many carnival occupants is an equally evolving phenomenon, one that reflects broader cultural beliefs and practices that largely focus on issues of morality and respectability. Like the Calgary Stampede, which has evolved over the decades in response to economic and political dynamics and the perceived need to maintain a vibrant balance between nostalgia for the past and celebration of the economic and ideological promise of the future, carnivals have also responded to changing beliefs and public demands that centre mostly around issues of decency and general social acceptability.
As a component of the Stampede that has always been considered a necessary yet fundamentally separate entity, the midway at the Stampede has never felt the same need to share in the overall Stampede vision and its outward manifestations of emphasized themes of celebratory Prairie West traditions (with the exception of some of the earlier Wild West shows). As a strictly profit-oriented entity, the carnival at the Stampede has always had only one goal – to generate money by offering affordable and irresistible entertainment to fairgoers. This vision, a reflection of the tenets behind all carnival companies in North America, was the impetus behind the earliest travelling carnival companies, and continues to this day. What has changed, however, are two central features: the types of entertainment offered by carnivals and, even more profoundly, the social influences relative to morality, deviance, and overall respectability. This examination of carnivals at the Calgary Stampede demonstrates the gradual evolution of an entertainment activity that began as tantalizingly deviant and, over time, has moved from the cultural margins to a place of relative public respectability, while continuing to retain an aura of mystery, excitement, and diversion. 2
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