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

<< Carnivals at the Calgary Stampede

The presence of Royal American Shows at the Calgary Stampede was another critical turning point in the evolution of carnivals not only at the Stampede, but throughout Canada. Gregg Korek provides the background of Royal American Shows’ acquisition of the Calgary Stampede contract:

In late 1931, Carl Sedlmayr [owner of Royal American Shows] and a contingent of his people came to Western Canada to visit the fairs in Brandon, Calgary, Edmonton and Regina, although not Winnipeg, as the date in Winnipeg was not a fair yet but a Kinsmen fundraiser. Carl presented a midway to these fairs that was unmatched anywhere in North America. The fairs in Western Canada, including the Stampede, of course, were impressed with Royal’s lineup of rides, sideshows and games. Also, Carl was a very good salesman and a very likeable guy. In the late summer of 1932, representatives from Calgary, Edmonton and Regina exhibitions attended the State Fair of Minnesota, while the fair was in operation, to see the show and again visit with Carl. During the Minnesota visit, Carl cemented a deal that would bring his show to Canada for the 1934 season to Brandon, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and I think Saskatoon.42

Founded by Carl J. Sedlmayr, who was born in Nebraska in 1886, Royal American Shows was one of the largest American carnivals throughout most of the twentieth century.43 Although Royal American’s first contract with the Calgary Stampede was in 1934, the company was unable to travel to Canada from 1942 to 1945, during the Second World War, as it relied on a large train (up to 90 rail cars) for transportation.44 During the war, use of the rail system was restricted by the United States government to the movement of military personnel and equipment.45

In 1967 Royal American Shows was at its pinnacle in terms of size, “over 800 people along with livestock and equipment and over 80 railroad cars,” and by 1971, “Royal American Shows carried the greatest number of flatcars ever carried by any traveling amusement organization in the world.”46 The show travelled with a full complement of “carpenters, canvas men, electricians, painters, full working machine shops with mills, lathes, drills, welders, mechanics, cookhouse, portable showers, [and] mail department.”47 A somewhat sentimental history of Royal American Shows takes a sad turn as the author describes how the changing economy in the latter 1970s led to a loss of revenue for Royal American Shows, “due to longer distances involved in the carnival’s season, culminating in the loss of its Canadian route in 1977 [sic] during a tax evasion scandal that led to Carl Sedlmayr’s arrest. Although Carl Jr. was fully exonerated, Royal American was now locked out of Canada.”48

In fact, the “tax evasion scandal” proved to be far more than an anomalous incident in the history of Royal American Shows. The alleged tax evasion not only resulted in numerous charges being laid, but also launched a Royal Commission49 (known informally as the Laycraft Inquiry, named after the Commissioner, Justice James H. Laycraft) inquiring into the affairs and practices of Royal American Shows in Alberta.50 The results of the inquiry led to the formation of the Alberta Gaming Commission (the first of its kind in Canada) and permanently changed many of the historical practices of carnivals in Canada.

The following quotation from the introduction in the report of the public inquiry demonstrates the magnitude of the investigation and its findings:

On July 24, 1975, at 2:00 A.M., a force of more than 130 police officers of the Edmonton City Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police converged on the carnival midway of Royal American Shows Inc. then situated at the grounds of the Edmonton Exhibition Association Ltd. Acting under a Search Warrant issued in Alberta Provincial Court late on the previous day, the officers seized from R.A.S. and from a number of independent midway concessionaires operating on the midway under arrangement with R.A.S. several thousand documents and large sums of money. For the most part, the documents consisted of accounting records. Using evidence derived from this seizure, some 87 charges under the Criminal Code of Canada and under The Income Tax Act were subsequently laid against individuals and R.A.S.51

The seizure and arrests were the culmination of many years of suspicion and surveillance spanning British Columbia east to Manitoba and conducted by various policing bodies (RCMP and several city police departments) as well as the federal Department of National Revenue. Suspicions of illegal accounting practices heightened in 1974 when, on several occasions, RCMP officers at the Vancouver airport recorded the transportation in suitcases of large sums of cash by persons associated with Royal American Shows.52 Carrying significant amounts of money was not illegal. However, the source of the cash was sufficient to raise strong suspicions in various government bodies. The primarily cash-only basis53 of carnivals had long confounded law enforcement agencies as well as the Department of National Revenue.54 As Laycraft states,

The traveling carnivals from the United States had always presented the D.N.R. [Department of National Revenue] with a difficult audit problem. Not only were carnivals a business about which little was known, but the duration of their stay in Canada afforded little opportunity for examination. R.A.S. was a typical example. It visited four cities in three provinces over a period of six weeks, dealing almost entirely in cash. A tax audit involved not only R.A.S. itself but also each of the independent concessionaires. When the fair closed in Regina, the whole carnival operation moved overnight into the United States.55

After a lengthy and highly complex set of meetings that involved RCMP in Ottawa, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta, as well as various Department of National Revenue agencies, the decision was made to single out Royal American Shows for intense investigation, as it was the largest in western Canada (although all carnival companies were considered equally suspect). A Task Force was formed to investigate three main areas: income tax fraud, fraud against exhibition boards (in the form of not paying them the amount designated in contracts), and the presence of illegal games.56 One of the main intentions of the Task Force was “to set up surveillance to detect the ‘skimming’ of money from carnival operations or from the casinos” in each of the main exhibitions.57

Winnipeg was the first operation to be watched, followed by Calgary. The Task Force arrived in Calgary on June 26, 1975, to set up its surveillance for the beginning of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede on July 3, 1975.58 Its main objective at the Stampede was to watch the movement of tickets from the rides and shows. Calgary Exhibition and Stampede officials were aware of this and gave their full co-operation. Nothing illegal was observed, reflected in Laycraft’s finding that “careful monitoring of the rides and shows over several days disclosed that the accounting made by R.A.S. [Royal American Shows] to C.X.S. [Calgary Exhibition and Stampede] for rides and shows was accurate and that C.X.S. was obtaining its proper share of the gross revenue derived from them.”59

As well as the lack of sufficient evidence of illegal activities, another reason why the eventual “take-down” of Royal American Shows did not take place in Calgary was due to inferior telecommunications technology. During their surveillance in Winnipeg, the Task Force had strong suspicions that it was being monitored by Royal American Shows, which appeared to have better equipment than the Task Force members.60 In Calgary, the Task Force attempted to monitor communications among the various carnival employees, using “better equipment obtained from Ottawa together with two civilian radio technicians to operate it.”61 Despite the improved telecommunications technology, the monitoring project was further hampered by local citizens’ band (CB) radio transmissions, which resulted in Royal American Shows changing frequencies several times, thereby creating even more difficulties for the Task Force, which decided to abandon radio surveillance in Calgary and resume it in Edmonton. However, some arrests were made at the Stampede that year due to the presence of the Task Force. Calgary City Police shut down two of the midway games that were considered illegal under the Criminal Code, and four people running the games were prosecuted.62

The Task Force’s investigation in Edmonton resulted in Royal American Shows being charged with six counts of defrauding the Edmonton Exhibition of a total of $52,164.63, along with many other Criminal Code charges.63 Royal American Shows never returned to its Canadian route after 1975.64 Following their release on bail, the people who were charged returned to the United States. Had the carnival come back to Canada, the individuals would most certainly have been arrested and detained at the border. The carnival equipment seized from the 1975 raids at Edmonton and Regina was held in storage until the mid-1990s, at which time the assets were sold at auction and the proceeds were used to pay the outstanding fines.65 Royal American Shows continued to operate in the United States for the next twenty years, diminishing in size over time; its last show was in Lubbock, Texas, in October 1997.66

Royal American Shows played at the Calgary Stampede from 1934 to 1975, except during most of the Second World War, when Conklin Shows replaced it at the western Canadian exhibitions. The disappearance of Royal American Shows after a total of thirty-five years of playing at the Stampede opened the way for Conklin Shows to take on the A Circuit, which it continues to hold to the present day.

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


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