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Carnivals at the Calgary Stampede

<< The Midway on the Margins: The First Half of the Twentieth Century

Although it would be fair to speculate that many of the travelling carnivals described above frequented the smaller agricultural fairs in the western provinces during the late nineteenth century, the earliest account of a carnival-like presence on the midway at the Stampede is found in Gray, who states that, in an attempt to attract larger crowds to the Exhibition in 1901,

The freelancing merry-go-round and ferris wheel operators, snake-oil pitchmen, and other itinerant merchants were gradually brought into the operation. But not always with favorable results. Public grumbling developed over the crookedness of some of the gambling games and it was universally resolved that greater emphasis had to be placed on elevating the moral standard of all the attractions at the fair.23

Typical of most carnivals, then, the midway occupants at the Stampede tended to be viewed with varying degrees of suspicion24 as lurid repositories of sin, sexuality, and moral degradation. An illustration of the outrage expressed by the agricultural purists is the following from the Farm and Ranch Review, published in Calgary in 1915:

One of the most repugnant experiences which can befall the average man or woman is afforded by a tour of the midway at any of our Western agricultural fairs. Raucousvoiced vendors megaphone the merits of their show. From weather-beaten tents emerge girls in misery, who, at a word from the official orator, force their faces into smiles and dance on a crazy platform … All this is done, and linked up with the name of progressive agriculture. Is it that our exhibition boards consider this banal form of entertainment in keeping with the standards of rural people? Or is it that the financial success of the exhibition is made precarious without the presence of the midway?…The matter of abolishing the unquestionably immoral effect of the midway should commend itself to our social reform leagues.25

Although moral entrepreneurs made ongoing attempts to “clean up” the midway, they rarely had much success, as fair organizers became increasingly dependent on the revenue from the carnivals.

From its earliest days, the Stampede locale was visited by various forms of small travelling entertainment entrepreneurs, specific details of whom were rarely recorded. Most were independent, transient sideshow operators who disappeared as quickly as they appeared on the midway, making their way to the next potentially lucrative location. The practice of bringing diverse entertainment groups to the Calgary Exhibition existed for many years prior to 1920. Examples include the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show in 1908, a “three-girl motorcycle act in which the girls raced each other around the inside of gigantic wire cage,...acrobats, and Howard’s Dogs and Ponies” in 1909.26 In the same year (1909), the Exhibition also included what appears to be the first formal carnival operation, the C.W. Parker Carnival Shows,27 as well as Al G. Barnes’s wild animal circus.28

According to historical records, the main carnival companies that played at the Calgary Stampede in the twentieth century are as follows:

1920Johnny J. Jones Exposition
1921C.A. Wortham’s No. 1 Show
1922–1924Johnny J. Jones Exposition
1925Rubin & Cherry Shows
1926–1929Johnny J. Jones Exposition
1930Morris & Castle Shows
1931Johnny J. Jones Exposition
1932–1933Castle-Ehrlick-Hirsch Shows (reorganization of Morris & Castle Shows)
193429–1940Royal American Shows
1941–1945Conklin Shows
1946–1975Royal American Shows
1976–presentConklin Shows (which became part of North American Midway Entertainment in 2005)30

The carnival companies listed above were augmented by many independent carnival acts, a practice that continues today. Most travelling carnivals subcontracted a variety of rides and concessions. However, there is very little extant evidence of precisely who the early “independents” were. The informality of historical record-keeping reflects the quite loose arrangements made between a carnival owner and the independents that he employed.31 The independents themselves also tended to move from one carnival company to another in their ever-present search for the most viable spots at which to set up their tents.

A significant turning point for the carnival companies that subsequently played at the Calgary Stampede was the formation of the western summer fair circuit.32 According to Gray, the Calgary Exhibition suggested a need for a set route for carnivals, which became established in 1911. The “A Circuit” (or route) comprised Calgary, Edmonton, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina.33 The establishment of the route system that endures, albeit in modified form, today was beneficial to both carnival companies and the exhibitions. Benefits to carnival companies included the right to bid on the circuit and to acquire contracts that guaranteed them at least five weeks of work for a set number of years.34 For exhibitions, the advantage of the circuit system was that they were able to attract larger carnival companies rather than often having to accept smaller companies with fewer attractions and a higher likelihood of illicit business practices. The circuit system, therefore, set the stage for moving the travelling amusement companies from the cultural margins (out of which grew the image of carnivals as inherently evil and criminal) towards the centre of legitimacy, crucial to the financial success of both the carnivals and the exhibitions that hired them.35

As the largest of the western exhibitions, Calgary was considered the ideal starting point for the western Canadian route, as it could include both Dominion Day (July 1) and the Fourth of July (the latter date attesting to the large American presence at the Calgary Exhibition). The Edmonton Exhibition, however, challenged this on the grounds that it was equally entitled to be the Dominion Day location for the carnival. The parties reached a compromise, which was “to alternate the first weeks of July between Calgary and Edmonton.”36

Most of the carnival companies that worked the Canadian circuits from 1914 onwards were American. A typical carnival route for the American shows was to cross the border at Emerson, Manitoba, in June, travel west through the southern prairies to the Rocky Mountains, and then travel east as far as Ontario before returning to Minnesota.37 Some small Canadian carnival companies operated in the prairies, an example of which is the Moyer Amusement Company from Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, which provided four rides in the 1928 season and was no doubt attached as an independent to the larger American companies.38

Between 1918 and 1932 there appears to have been intense competition for the entire A Circuit. The competition is reflected in the fact that, occasionally, the successful A Circuit bidder also achieved the highly-sought-after Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). In other years, the carnival company that successfully outbid its predecessor for the A Circuit had played at the CNE in the previous year. Performance at the CNE provided a potent source of revenue that enabled companies to build ride inventories and thus assured a stronger presence in subsequent contract bids. Some unsuccessful A Circuit bidders were awarded the B Circuit (smaller agricultural fairs) instead, before acquiring the A Circuit. Gregg Korek, vice-president of The Canadian Midway Company,39 adds a further explanation for the number of carnival companies that played the A Circuit, a pattern that eventually gave way to the dominance of Royal American Shows:

Jones [Johnny J. Jones Exposition] had the circuit for the most number of years, seemingly being given a break every few years while the circuit tried out a new show. They must not have been satisfied because they kept going back to Jones until Johnny Jones died in 1930. The Jones show quickly went downhill after that. Morris and Castle Shows I think bought out Wortham early in the 1920’s and eventually changed the name. Castle-Ehrlich-Hirsch Shows is the successor to Morris and Castle. The carnival companies that then serviced the Calgary Stampede were certainly no match for the powerhouse Royal American and lost their contracts for Western Canada. To my knowledge, there was not a bidding process. Royal at that time had a far superior product and won the opportunity to play the lucrative Western fair route. Royal had a fantastic Stampede in 1934. The new show proved to be very popular with Calgarians and, for that matter, Western Canadians.40

Carnivals changed rapidly in the 1930s in a profoundly Darwinian fashion, as the economic effects of the Great Depression resonated throughout the entertainment industry. The smaller shows simply could not survive without sufficient revenue from the public. Technology was also salient to the changing form of carnivals: a component of carnivals that began to decline in the 1930s was the collection of variety acts that showcased singing, dancing, and humour, victims of the invention of the radio and the growing film industry.

During the 1950s the freak shows began to disappear from carnivals, in reaction to mounting public opinion that the display of “abnormal” human beings was fundamentally immoral. Another key component of carnivals that diminished significantly from the 1950s onwards was the girlie shows. Carnival operators were being pressured to present more wholesome entertainment. As well, televisions and movie theatres presented images of women that largely rendered the burlesque-type revues obsolete and no longer titillating to the heterosexual male population. A further factor that influenced changes on the midways was the growing competition from amusement and theme parks, particularly in the United States and eastern Canada, the consequence of which was that carnival companies focused strongly on expanding the number and variety of rides, which were far less expensive to transport and operate than the live bands, vaudeville acts, and water shows, all of which required large numbers of people and which were becoming increasingly less profitable to carnival companies. Only the larger carnival companies could afford this necessary expansion in carnival rides and games, which spelt the demise of many of the smaller travelling shows and ushered in a new era of carnivals.41

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


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