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Ross Curry

Toronto, Thursday, 1 September 2005

I run the accounting for the show. I’ve been with the show since March 1979. I started as the accountant for the two eastern road shows and four parks. 1980 was my first year out west. I continued paying the western circuit and back in head office until 1991, when I was relegated to head office for two summers, ’92 and ’93. In ’93 I was transferred to the office in West Palm Beach, Florida. And it’s been West Palm Beach from the fall of ’93 until now. Once I was transferred to the United States, I didn’t play the western circuit, I just played the US route. The summer was our quiet time.

I’ve been helping out this summer with the Canadian circuit and I’ll be back in the States in another week. It’s been five straight months. It’s usually about five months that we’re on in the States, but not continually. West Palm Beach is in January and then we play Miami in March. In other years, we played in New York for part of April and May, and then the show would go to Canada for June, July and August.

I’ve been in accounting pretty much for all these years. I started with responsibilities for two shows and four parks, and a couple of years later I took over the financial operations group, but then eventually went into Head Office accounting. Down in the United States we run it all—both accounting and financial operations. The scope of the work is much broader. The eastern road show and the American show are very different. In their own way, they’re as trying. Eastern road show you play 26 gates and you’re up and down, up and down every week. The western show is only four or five dates but it’s very intense, you go very, very hard. It’s two different styles. I found that some of the concessionaires who worked very well on the eastern road show couldn’t adapt to the west; it’s just two different styles and it takes two different types of people to work on those different units. So that was an interesting observation, to see that. Because the western road show is so big, it’s specialized. You have to be very focused. On the east you have to be more of a generalist, you have to be able to do everything.

I have an Honours degree in Business Administration from Laurier and I sat my exams for the Society for Management Accounts so I’m a CMA. After university I worked for the Toronto Dominion Bank for a year and learned how to shuffle paper, which was helpful when I moved on. I got into the restaurant business in my early twenties, and when I was 29 I decided I wanted to travel for a year so I collected all my bad debts and sold my car, and travelled around Europe for a year. When I came back, I upgraded my accounting skills and then put my résumé out on the street. Conklin was looking for an accountant and I was looking for interesting employment. So, we found a good fit. They found someone who had accounting skills and business skills, and I found a place that was conducive to my “oddball” behaviour, let’s say. I don’t think I would have survived in a nine-to-five, five-day-a-week job where there wasn’t some freedom and some informality. I was able to find a work experience that suited my personality and Jim found a person who had some accounting and business skills. It was a good fit. I just applied cold. The accounting people took a look at me first and thought I was too screwball for them so they passed me over to financial operations. Dave Bastido interviewed me, and we hit it off. I think I went to see him on a Wednesday and by the next Monday I was in the office, working. Dave was a great guy to work for; we got along very well.

My friends go with the flow, but my father is a business man, he’s a business executive. I thought he might raise his eyebrows but I told him I was going to run away with the carnival and he said, “What show?” and I said “Conklin Shows.” My father had worked at the CNE in the ’30s so he knew of the show and he knew that it was a reputable business and he recognized that my personality was such that it would probably be a good fit for me as well, so he gave me his blessings and off I went. My father hadn’t worked for Conklin, he had just worked on the grounds.

We all could write a book of remarkable characters. There are so many colourful characters that I really couldn’t start. Most of the people that I worked with for the last 25 years, I’d call them all colourful characters. I would hope I would have some of that term applied to me as well. A lot of the concessionaires are very interesting guys. I guess the most remarkable would be Cy Hardy; he was one that I respected a lot. He was a very decent man; he was a gentleman. He was one of my favourites. He was brilliant with figures. He used to come into my office and try to get me to work out what the pay-off or the hold was on a percentage wheel, or how I would calculate the hold on six arrows. He’d have a twinkle in his eye, too. I don’t think anybody knew what the hold was on six arrows, but he certainly did know his percentage wheel operators. He was a very good gentleman. I enjoyed business with Cy when he came in to visit me in Toronto.

In university I took a course where we studied the carnival as a subculture. I remember looking at the text, and in the bibliography they had a book that was called “I Love You Baby, But the Season’s Over.” There really is a book that describes it. I’ve enjoyed this experience. It was wonderful for me and I hope I’ve made a contribution to Conklin Shows. I get out on the midway. Not as much as I should, not as much as I’d like to, and not as much has I have in the past. As I get older, I get tied up in the office more; it’s quiet here. I have a feel for what’s going on.

In the mid-1980s, the concessions and the rides had a rivalry that was sometimes expressed in the pranks that they would play on each other. The concessionaires would put mannequins in the ticket booths and the ride operators would put soap in the fishpond. It was good fun in those days. As we get older, we don’t participate as much as we could or should or did in the past, that’s for sure. It’s a change in general with the business and I think it’s a change in the people that are with the show, but probably more so, we’re just getting old and we don’t do as much as did when we were in our thirties.

Greg and I worked together for most of the ’80s. He has a delightful sense of humour; it’s off the wall. He and I used to play with each other as the straight man, we used to feed off each other. We had some wonderful times pulling pranks on the fellows, Greg Gravelle, or some of the others. He’s a good storyteller too. Greg Korek you would call a sophisticated carnie, one of the true, old-fashioned breed. There are some wonderful people on this show.

I’ve been here for 26 years, and I try and maintain a separation between work and outside life. We talked about it in the ’80s Scooter has also maintained interest in the outside world. If you don’t have outside interests, because of the travel, you tend to just have friends who’ve been with the carnival, and that can be suffocating. Greg had his curling. He was quite the curler, and Alf is quite a curler. I had tennis and some other outlets that kept me occupied when I wasn’t travelling with the show. You can tell people outside the show what it’s like, but they won’t believe you, and they really don’t have the feel for it.

I’ve enjoyed the travel, too. I’ve been a bachelor all my life and I’m finally getting married in a couple of months, actually. Greg Gravelle gave me a funeral wreath for the demise of the single Ross Curry. But the travel was never a hardship for me. I enjoyed the travel—across Canada, down the east coast of the United States, even down to Puerto Rico for three years. That was an interesting time. And a different culture, too. I remember the first year there we had the office compound fenced in. They had a dozen security guards with visible weapons. I went to Mr. Phillips and said, “Who’s going to protect us from the security guards?” But they escorted us out to the car at night and sent us back to San Juan and said, “Don’t stop at any stop lights. If somebody bumps into you, don’t stop, they’ll create an accident to get you out of the car and rob you.” It was wild stories. Nothing ever happened, but the driving was crazy. Red lights didn’t mean anything to the drivers in Puerto Rico. We had a lot of fun; it was a good experience.

I remember in Winnipeg, the Tuesday or Wednesday before we opened, there was a bar across the road in the hotel. It was a substantial bar—you could get 200 people in there. The show used to take it over. We all used to go over there at night and play pool and there would be a little bit of friction with the locals. They didn’t like us taking over; it was their bar. I don’t think we ever got into any physical fights. There may have been verbal abuse from time to time, but when the show got together and partied, it was a sight to see. It was a lot of fun. I had friends in the rides, the concessions—you could always walk around and visit people and talk to people all the way around. It was fun when the show partied together. Often I think on the eastern road show you had more of the “them versus us” with the locals. Especially in Renfrew. Renfrew was always a challenge. Valley of the goons. We used to overhear them in town saying, “Well, we’ll go down to the show tonight and beat up the carnies.” And we’d end up sitting o the sidelines watching them beat up on themselves. There was always a certain “them” and “us.”

I never felt there was a stigma to Conklin Shows as there was to some of the shows in the States. People looked at you as being reputable, a good operation, and we felt proud of it and I think they respected us as well. The stigma is stronger in the States than it is in Canada, partly through the CNE being such good exposure to it. Jim had a show that was top-notch, with quality people and very responsible. And that was evident in the relationships with the fairs and with the communities. It helped to have a logo that was recognizable as well. That logo is a big part of the success of the show. I heard at one point it was one of the top five logos in terms of recognition. Only McDonald’s and CN were stronger, and Coca Cola.

I’m still located in West Palm. I found that I would often go to parties or groups with my family and talk to other businessmen my age or older and they were always quite curious about what the carnival was like as a business. They were always quite intrigued by the problems of running the carnival, the logistics of it. They were really quite amazed. It really is quite the operation. You have to take a small community and move it sometimes three or four hundred miles in a couple of days—it’s mind-boggling. And the accounting problems are a bit different; the business problems are a bit different. You talk to an accountant in business, his normal headaches are accounts receivable and inventory. The show has neither—it’s all a cash business. There’s no accounts receivable and we have virtually no inventory. It’s controlling and counting the huge amounts of cash that we have to process that’s our problem. And payroll—they don’t understand how you can have your payroll changing every two weeks. “Well, what’s your payroll?” “Two hundred.” Well, that seems almost normal, but it’s a different two hundred two weeks later and then a different two hundred two weeks later. So at the end of the year you’re dealing with a huge amount of year-end tax returns.

It was a very interesting business, very interesting work, and I’ve enjoyed all of it. If you asked me would I do it all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat. Sure, there’s bad points—the travel can wear down on you, the long hours can wear down on you. But I think the good points outweigh the bad points. The atmosphere is very different from a bank—a completely different style. There are certain people who can work at this environment and others prefer a different environment. As I said, I’ve enjoyed my years with Conklin Shows very much.

The change in ownership has not affected us as much; it’s early days. There are some very positive changes and I think it’s a great opportunity for us and we’ll see how it plays out. I’m optimistic that we’ll end up with a better show.

Scooter and I used to pull gags on various parts—Mr. Phillips used to put us up to it. He’d be the catalyst—he’d say “Now why don’t you do this…” and then Scooter and I put our heads together and come up with some prank we’d pull. One year we did one on Alfie at the CNE. We were sitting in Calgary and I said, “This business is tough, Calgary’s a tough fair. Long hours. We’re getting old before our time.” And we talked about doing the aging. And then Scooter says, “You know, I’ve been involved with the theatre and I know a chap in Toronto that can do the aging. What’s the plastic they put on your face? He’ll make us look like we’re 60. When we get to Toronto, why don’t we go and see him?” So we got it lined up, about 8, 10 or 12 of 14 days into the fair, about now, when everybody’s tired. Dave put about 40 years on us; I guess we were in our late 30s. And we looked like we were 80. We bought canes. We still had the CNE office. Scooter’s girlfriend was working in the office at a desk in the front and she didn’t recognize us. So we went back to Mr. Phillip’s office and said “Alfie, this is pretty tough on us, we’re getting old before our time. Can we talk to you about a pension?” He took a look at us and said, “You guys are …!” So we had fun with that one. Scooter’s probably still got some pictures.

We had a couple of others. They had that Stampede breakfast down in Calgary where they served a pancake breakfast. Well, the two accountants decided that we would have a Stampede breakfast of our own. So we got Laurie Mitchell and some food business and he ordered us a case of individual boxes of cornflakes and some milk and a bag of sugar. And for the beverage, we decided we were going to serve Kool-Aid. We mixed it up in a big pail. It was a low-budget affair, obviously, since we’re accountants, and plastic spoons and cups. We made the Kool-Aid—we called it Jimmy Jones Koo-Aid, after the Jonestown Massacre—and we set up one morning at the Stampede. It was the Two

Accountants’ Lumpy Stampede Breakfast. And they came by and we gave them the cornflakes, and they picked up a cup, and Scooter would serve the Kool-Aid with a squeegee mop—put the mop in the bowl, hold it over the cup, and pull the handle and squeeze the Kool-Aid all over the guy’s hand and in his cup, and off he went. But it was free. Eat the cornflakes out of the box. And we didn’t tell Mr. Phillips any of this. He would come around the corner and he’d hear about it on the radio and wonder, “What are those guys up to now?” We just set up a couple of tables in the office compound.

Another time, it might have been the same year in Calgary, we decided that it was a beautiful day outside and we were cooped up in this office. We just moved our computers and all of our calculators and set up outside, umbrella on the table. Mr. Phillips comes around the corner. “What are these guys doing now?” We had the outdoor office. Before wireless, for sure. We had some fun.

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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