Home  |  Info  |  Contact 

Home » History » Stories » Midway to Respectability


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

In 1939 H.W. Waters, an American carnival historian, argued that carnivals would eventually become bland and boring when neutralized of their more deviant components to meet legal and societal standards. Waters predicted that moral entrepreneurs would eventually succeed in their quest to rid midways of their sinful temptations. Positing also that “younger people lose interest [in carnivals] at a certain age,” Waters states,

Attempts have been made to refine and dignify the midway. It has here and there been dressed up in a more sedate coat and it has been given a new name, and such an air of respectability that it has lost its carnival or festival spirit which in the past has been the secret of its success. Long experience has shown that the more successful the carnival owner is in creating the carnival atmosphere at the fair the more successful he will be financially.94

Waters did not entertain the possibility that carnivals would prove to be one of the most durable and flexible of human social creations. It can be strongly argued that carnivals in North America have never become sufficiently sanitized in either image or substantive content that the public has lost interest. Certainly, many of the early smaller carnivals did not survive, but it was not due to public disinterest. Inefficient or overtly illegal business practices were the main reasons for their disappearance, rather than any significant successes by agricultural purists in ridding the midway of its “slippery vermin.”95

This examination of the carnival companies that have played at the Calgary Stampede has demonstrated that the successful carnivals have adapted to changes in technology, public morality, and the ebb and flow of the economy. Indeed, as the largest agricultural fair and exhibition in the western provinces, the Calgary Stampede has attracted the largest carnival companies in North America, thereby opening up what quickly became an extremely lucrative carnival route with mutual advantages for the carnivals and the various fair boards.

Once the mainstay of early twentieth-century carnivals, the tented sideshows displaying “freaks” and girlie shows have disappeared, with carnival rides and games of chance now dominating the midway at the Stampede. For most Stampede attendees, however, the midway continues to emanate an aura of decadence, particularly at night, with the overwhelming noise, bright lights, and nostalgic smells of popcorn and candy floss. One might conclude, therefore, that the ambience is rooted in the same confluence of myth and nostalgia that envelops the Stampede in its entirety, and that the midway has indeed reached the centre of respectability and legality. Most of the illegal activities have been purged from carnivals due to closer scrutiny by authorities and the general public’s refusal to either tolerate or sustain interest in some of the more dubious attractions and practices. However, an issue that has remained problematic, although largely invisible to the general public, is what could be characterized as exploitation of a largely powerless carnival workforce. As stated earlier, carnivals have relied on a small core of permanent workers, augmented by temporary employees at the larger exhibitions and fairs. With no protection from unions, carnival employees tend to work between twelve and sixteen hours a day, for a fixed weekly wage, seven days a week, and with little time off.96 Historically, the workers have tended to accept these conditions as normal and natural, as many of them are used to working in marginal unskilled labour. However, in 2005 some of these conditions came to the attention of the general public when a large number of the South African workers at Conklin Shows spoke to the press and, eventually, left the carnival in Edmonton.97 The consequence was an investigation by Alberta Human Resources and Employment, which showed that “the company failed to maintain proper payroll records, record employees’ breaks or limit individuals’ work to twelve hours.”98 Conklin Shows was issued a warning. In 2006 Alberta Human Resources and Employment continued to monitor working conditions at the Calgary Stampede and Edmonton’s Capital EX (formerly Klondike Days).99

The fact that the wages and working conditions of carnival workers are largely ignored by the general public (and the media, until the issues are brought to their attention) is a consequence of the enduring belief that carnival workers occupy a very low social class location and continue to be seen, and portrayed, as a quasi-criminal element of carnivals. North American Midway claims that “the workers are hired from abroad [South Africa] because they are energetic and dedicated, and an important aspect to changing the image of the dirtier, grumpier ‘carnie’ that people associate with midways.”100 The people hired by the carnival, therefore, are yet another projection of the image that carnivals attempt to attain, along with the bright lights, music, and family-oriented ambience. Carnivals, including all the shows that have played at the Calgary Stampede over the past century, have always been an illusory social phenomenon. From their earliest manifestations as sinful and decadent through their gradual evolution towards more mainstream entertainment, the carnivals at the Calgary Stampede will, no doubt, continue to simultaneously repel and entice fairgoers with their paradoxical nature, appealing to our desire to be entertained within the margins of respectability.

Notes and Thanks >>


[ Back to Top ]