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May Robertson

Toronto, Friday, 2 September 2005

I came to Canada in 1975 and worked in a couple of offices, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It was just to integrate me into Canadian society. I met a friend who owned an employment agency for office positions, a headhunter. I said to her, “If anything comes up that’s different, interesting, let me know.” She let me know about this job and Conklins. I applied and after several interviews I was hired. It was interesting, Joseph Pigott, our lawyer, now deceased, interviewed me. He liked the fact that I was Scottish because he’s from Scottish heritage. Al Ross, who’s also gone now, he interviewed me. He took me into the shop and I got paint all down my coat.

I was hired to do insurance, to place the insurance on some kind of plan. It was a mess when I got there. I started doing that on Edmondson Street, actually in the back shop upstairs. One day this fellow came in when I was working. He looked at me and he looked at me, and then I looked at him. The look he gave me, I thought, “I don’t like him.” I carried on working, so then he left. I said to Barry Jamieson, “Who was that?” He laughed and said, “You better get to like him because he wants you moved over to the other office.” I said, “He never even spoke to me.” He said, “Well he wants you moved to the executive offices over on Elgin Street.” I said, “OK.” He said, “That was Jim Conklin,” and I thought, Oh my God.

I worked for Jim at the Elgin Street office, and Mr. Ross was there, and Ross Caldwell. My husband moved with Ontario Hydro to Pickering and I moved with him to Toronto. I thought I’d have to give up my job and Jim said, “No, no, you can drive in everyday.” I thought, I’ll need to give this a shot, because my children were much younger then. I was here in the office at the Horse Palace for six years. My husband didn’t like the nuclear aspect, so he wanted to go back to Brantford and apply for a transfer to Nanticoke. I told Jim, “We’re going to move again and I don’t know what that means in terms of my job.” “Wonderful, May,” he says, “wonderful. I’m going to do more work at the Brantford office.” Again, I didn’t have to leave my job, I just moved to Brantford again. I’ve been there ever since.

My job progressed from insurance when I moved to the other office. Jim said, “Would you like another job?” I said, “What is it?” He said, “Just doing my personal stuff.” I said, “Sure, but who’s going to do the insurance?” He said, “Well you are.” So then it was that and new equipment stuff, then it was immigration, it evolved from there. Whatever needs to be done. I loved it. Not too many people can say that they love their job, but I did and I still do. Of course, I moved to Frank, when Jim downsized his company. It was a choice to stay with Jim or go with Frank. I work for Frank now. I was asked to move to West Palm, but it didn’t make sense family-wise. I do my job in Brantford and communicate with Frank, and it’s worked out fine, but of course everything’s changed now. We’ll see if it’s for the better or not eventually.

Frank’s not a morning person. If you call him before 10, that’s too early for him. Jim’s a morning person and so am I, so that worked well for us. Jim was wonderful. In this office here, I used leave home from Ajax really early in the morning, so that I would miss the traffic. Often I would come in at 6:30 and Jim would be in already, he would have the coffee made. He was a really great boss. I’ve seen things, I’ve done things that I’m sure I wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t worked for this company. I met some choice people.

On the grounds here, I remember Cy Hardy. I rode the Flyer with Cy just before it was taken down. Red Ratthe, I remember him, and Jimmy McSorley, of course. And Heinz Schlichthorn, who now lives about two blocks from me. We had wonderful people, Karl Bilzer and Poul Bramming-Hansen, they’re both gone now. Paul was a wonderful artist, a scene painter. Carl also was a painter. They were great people; lots of fun with them.

But Cy Hardy was my favourite person in the whole world. He was interesting, he could tell you stories … He worked for Patty. He was the lot manager or something. At night he got the money, the take for the day to take to the bank. He used to carry it inside a newspaper and he was a drinker in those days. Cy told me himself the story. One night on the way home he went to the bar and had a few drinks. He woke up the next morning and he didn’t have his newspaper. He thought, “Well, this is it, I’ll be fired today.” On the way to the lot, I guess he went to the bar and the barmen said, “Here, you left this here last night.” He got it back. All the money was still there. That’s gotta be in the ’30s, sometime. That’s when he started with Patty.

Cy was wonderful; I just loved him. He had so many stories, a million of them. He used to come in to see us in the office every day, in the winter months, too. If we needed anything done downtown, he would do it for us. It gave him a purpose. Of course, he never drank, after that happened to him with the money, he stopped drinking. He never drank again. His wife, Maude, was still living two years ago, I don’t know if she still is. I probably have her phone number.

I’ve gone out sometimes to the road show. I’ve never gone to Calgary, because I was too busy at that time. But I’ve been to Winnipeg a couple of times. I’ve been to Miami, to Springfield. And out on the eastern road show too. I like to visit the show, but six days is my limit. Then I need to leave. The gossip gets to me. I never listen to gossip.

They teased me all the time about my accent. Of course it was pretty thick then. Jim likes my accent. If I say Canadian things, he’ll say, “It’s time you were back in the UK for a holiday.” He wants me back to Scottish. He would like to be Scottish. He flies the lion rampant at his cabin. He has Scottish dogs.

Zdebiak, Gravelle and Jamieson, they were always doing things to me. I have a scar from Mike Zdebiak. Knocking a chair over and making me fall over. It was in my office and they were goofing around and a chair got knocked over and hit my leg. The language out here is different, they joke about donikers and this and that. I had led a sheltered life until I came to the carnival. I would ask, “What does that mean?” and they wouldn’t tell me the real meaning. They would tell me something totally different, usually it meant something bad, but they wouldn’t tell me that. So I got caught out a few times before I got smart. Don’t take them at their word. They were good to me too. We had lots of fun. It’s not so much fun anymore. Maybe because you get older, it becomes less fun.

I was only 30 when I started. I had my 31st birthday in Collingwood, at a management meeting that Jim held up there. It was a week long, but I didn’t stay the week. Yeah, we were out for dinner and I realized it was my birthday. I had forgotten. I was so wrapped up in having fun. There was 36 of us. Nothing was achieved. After that Jim ran management meetings once a month in the office with about 8 of us, and more was achieved. That was more a party week than anything. Jim believed being good to the employees, he really did. He’s been very good to me. His family is more like family to me than employers.

It’s eight years or nine maybe that I’ve been working for Frank. I think we’ve been over in the new building about nine years, so it could be ten, actually. I’ve been here a total of almost 27 years. There was over a 100 years service between Bill Kane and myself, Wayne and Eric MacKay. They just left. August the 31st was their last day because of the new environment. Just Bill and I are left of the old crowd. It was a sad day for me because I worked with them for all those years. It’s sad. Things change.

We sort of went from a family business to a corporation overnight. Obviously, it’s a different environment. You have to get on with it, the job doesn’t change. There was a definite lack of communications. Initially there was a great deal of uncertainty, but it’s better now. You didn’t know whether you had a job or not, although Frank assured me that I did. I asked, “Just tell us what’s going on.” He said, “May, you’re fine, just relax.” And it was true. I am fine. The others chose to go. Their jobs, being accounting, they changed. They didn’t like it, so they left.

We used to pay payroll out of this office up here, after the CNE closed. There was Alfie, Edna and myself, and Maureen “Mo” Kawasoe. She still works for us and she’s in the states. It was either after the Ex or after the CHUM midway, but they were there for their last pay cheque and we were paying them out of that office. Some of them were very disgruntled with their salary and so one guy came in and started yelling and screaming. We had a real melee up there. Alfie came out. He was so brave. He faced them. We were scared. There was a big line up right down the alleyway. We had no protection in that office. There was no barrier of any kind, just a desk. Alfie came out and pushed the one guy outside and shut the door. It sounds like nothing, but it was scary. Alfie wasn’t afraid of them.

Somebody stole Jim’s golf cart one night. I was just coming out of the office and here’s two black guys driving away on Jim’s golf cart. I yelled at them and they ran into the wall with it and damaged it. They jumped off and ran. Without thinking, I took off after them. I had heels on, which we wore then, and I’m running up that Horse Palace alleyway. Mo, who was tiny, she had seen what had happened also, but she was a wee bit further away. She’s running along with me. And then we catch them. I’m like, OK, what are we going to do now. Two motorcycle cops came down the alleyway just then and helped. We took them into our office. There was more than two of them, but there was two that we caught. We brought them into our office. A third one came to the door and said, “Can those guys leave?” The cop says, “No, but you can join them. You can come in.” They ended up having drugs in their pockets. We had some exciting times. Alfie said, “What were you going to do when you caught them?” You wouldn’t do that now. It was a different environment then. Now they would have weapons.

We worked open till close in that office. I said to Frank, who had two bull mastiffs, “I think we should have one of the dogs up here at night, because often I’m sitting here by myself. Alfie goes out on the midway and there’s all these kooky people walking in this office.” Frank said, “Oh May, you’re fine, you’ll be fine.” So a few days later, Frank’s in the office and in comes this kooky guy, who’s just out of his head on something. He walked right in the office, right through to the back into Mo’s office. I’m like, “What do you want?” Frank came and got him out of the office. He says, “I’ll be right back. I’ll bring Ruby or Satch up.” I said, “See? That’s my point. We need some protection.” After that one of the dogs stayed with us all the time. It could be scary in there.

It’s not as much fun as it used to be but I can’t think of a reason for that. People change. The people you work for change. Plus we’re larger. I was there for Swordfish, the big expansion. I’d been there for awhile when Swordfish happened. That was in the ’80s that we did that. That was a huge expense for Jim and it was very good, it was very positive for everybody. We were having this corporate image thing and Jim was big on it. He wanted to have perfect business cards, perfect letterhead; we got new offices, the ones we’re in now. It really went away when Jim sold the carnival to Frank. Frank’s not a corporate image type of guy. That’s fine too; it’s just his makeup. He’s more laid back. Jim was very hands-on, he wanted to be out there, more than Frank. Frank’s happy to let you do your work for him. Don’t bother him, unless it’s a problem. That works too. It worked well for Frank and me. I also like Jim’s makeup too because he likes to talk about things.

The change really came when Jim sold the carnival to Frank. I never would have left Jim, I never did leave him really. He still thinks I work for him. That’s fine too. Frank flew up from Florida when they were discussing who would work for whom. Just from a financial standpoint it made sense for me to go to Frank. Jim was going to have a lesser-sized carnival to run. I said to Frank, “Do I still get this, do I still get that.” He agreed. I said, “Well, there’s still one other thing. You know that if your father comes and asks me to do some things for him, I’m going to do it.” He said, “May, I figured Daddy-O came with the deal.” So that’s how it’s been. Sometimes it can get you in trouble, because at some point you have to say who your loyalties lie with. I’ve been put in that position. Then I walk and say I’m not saying another word. Blood’s thicker than water. They sort themselves out eventually.

Trish was very involved in the carnival too. And she had super ideas, on the marketing side, she’s very good at that. So we had World of the Child and that was all Trish’s baby. Then she met her husband and moved to California. She finished with the carnival in ’90. She had a relationship in California and moved on to bigger and better things. Then she opened her business on the pier and it expanded from there. She’s so successful, she’s got stuff all over the place. I’m always in trouble because I haven’t gone down to visit her. I can’t visit anyone else until I go there, that’s what she told me. I go and visit Melissa in Vermont sometimes. I’ll probably go visit Trish in California next year; I like Trish very much. I like them all. I don’t have any complaints. If I have, I tell them; I can do that. As I say, they’re more like family to me than employers. That’s going to change too, though; it has changed now. Your job is separate now from your relationship with the family.

When I first told my parents that I had a new job and that I was going to work for the carnival, my father said, “The carnival? You mean like the shows?” That’s what they call it in Britain, the shows. I said, yes. He said, “Oh for God’s sake, I think it’s time you came back here.” He thought that was degrading. My dad came every year to Canada, and he would be out there when they were setting up. He loved it. When he saw all the goings on and the offices and stuff, his attitude changed. Usually one of my boys was bringing a load down and my dad would come along just to see the hubbub. Oh, they were horrified that their daughter would be working on the carnival. In England, like here, there’s a stigma, there definitely is.

We used to have a dinner every year to raise funds for the Patty Conklin Memorial Fund. I remember one year inviting some insurance people. It was $100 a plate or something. This insurance guy that I dealt with came with his wife. She had a fur jacket and the whole night she kept it under her arm. I said, “Chuck, why is your wife carrying her jacket around?” He said, “Well, she’s in among a bunch of carnies, isn’t she?” I thought, what an insult. I was mad as a hatter. But that’s what they think. My husband doesn’t do it now, but when we were out socially when people asked where do you work, he would say, “My wife works for Conklin. She’s the man on the Tilt.” It gets old, after a while.

My daughter was working in retail; she was the manager of a store. We needed a receptionist in the office and she wanted to take the job. I said, “No, Tracy you’re not going out the carnival business.” She says, “Well, you can’t really stop me, you know.” My dad’s there, siding with her, saying, “You can’t stop her. She does what she wants to do.” So she phoned Jim up and he interviewed her and she was hired. She went from reception to Guest Relations on the road, for a few years, to being manager of financial operations. She’s not here right now, she had a baby last year and she just came to work in the Brantford office. She’s not travelling anymore. After working as a receptionist when she wanted to go on the road, I said, “No. Jim just hired you here as a receptionist,” it was maybe a year or two later. She went over my head and spoke to Jim. Jim said, “Sure, Tracy, if you want to go on the road.” I said, “You’re worse than her.”

I can tell something he did to Tracy here, at the Toronto office. She was only young, maybe 12. She was Conko in the parade that they used to have, and then she would just run errands for us. I came out of the office one day and here comes Tracy driving a golf cart. I said, “What are you doing?” She said, “Mr. Conklin told me to bring it back up to the office. I said, “Jim, she’s only 12.” He said, “Yeah, but she was fine. I watched her. She could drive it up.” I don’t know how long Tracy’s worked for them, a long time now.

I have two sons and both of them have worked in the carnival too. Alan, my oldest son, went to Puerto Rico with the show and got left behind at the airport in Puerto Rico, when they just arrived. Howard Pringle was the one that was picking them up. I called him and said, “You better find my son.” Billy Gordon helped him out. He liked it in Puerto Rico.

I went to Puerto Rico too, one time. I’ve done things because I worked here that I would never have done. Travelled a lot and met a lot of people that I never would have. Jim allows us to use his chalet up north. My kids go to ski only because of Jim. It’s a private club and it’s very expensive, but it doesn’t cost us. Jim arranged all that. He’s very kind. Now I have to look after his dogs.

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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