Carnival Museum

The Death of Carnival & Circus

The Carnival Museum - The World’s Only Carnival & Circus Museum

In Canada, the Carnival industry is dying a not-so-slow death. Major fairs are now only a blip in the vast landscape of multi-media interactive entertainment opportunities. The few families that once controlled the Canadian circuits of rides, games and shows that travelled in loops across the country are now second and third generation members, struggling to hold onto what was once a very lucrative and extremely colorful profession. American companies now control the vast majority of holdings of the major fairs such as the C.N.E. and P.N.E. It’s a different time for the industry, an industry that is destined to disappear from the landscape completely in years to come.

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A Carnival is not a circus. A carnival is now known as a collective amusement organization consisting of shows, rides, and food and game concessions. The difference being that a circus is something that you watch and a carnival is something that an individual participates in.

HISTORY

The history of the Carnival business in Canada dates back to the 1800’s. “Rod” J. McDonald, who called himself “the Prince of Street Fair Promoters” and who had won against “all comers” in the Scottish Dancing competition at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876, said he promoted the first street fair in North America in 1871, in his home county, Glengarry County, Canada.

The first Agricultural Fair (Agricultural Fairs and carnivals are now known as the same thing) to be played by an organized Carnival in Canada was in Winnipeg in 1903.

Prior to 1892, North America only knew independent showmen who traveled to fairs and other celebrations. Although the 1893 World’s Fair introduced the idea of organized traveling companies of shows, it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that organized carnival companies took to the roads.

The earliest carnivals had no rides or games. It was all about the entertainment, which was in the form of “Shows.” “Shows” could range from everything from Wild Animal shows and Freak shows to Hootchie Coochie girly shows and Sporting Wrestling Shows.

Carnival Dynasties

Conklin Shows

Not much is known about James Wesley Conklin, the founding member of the Conklin dynasty, except circuit records from his carnival. James (b.1861) worked in management for both the Ringling Brothers Circus and Barnum and Bailey circus. In 1916 “Colonel” J.W. Conklin opened the Clark and Conklin’s All Feature Shows. His wife Ella was also active in running the operation. Around 1917 they met Joseph Renker, who later became part of the family and took his “adopted” father’s name. The Clark and Conklin shows played the mid-western states but folded after four seasons. J.W. Conklin Sr. died of a heart attack while on the road in the fall of 1920, while with the Famous Broadway Shows.

Patty Conklin

Born Joseph Renker in Brooklyn in 1892, James Wesley “Patty” Conklin left home around 1900 and lived with foster parents for several years before going out on his own. Around 1906 he was selling peanuts outside the original Madison Square Gardens as well as selling newspapers and herring on the streets. His first brush with the amusement industry began when he became a sideshow talker at Coney Island. He met the Conklin’s sometime around 1917 and was traveling with them when the “Colonel” passed away. James Wesley Conklin Sr.’s obituary noted that he was survived by his wife and his one son, Patty. In 1921, Patty, his brother Frank and Ella decided to try their luck in Canada.

A few seasons later Patty met Speed Garrett and Conklin and Garrett Shows was born in 1924. Over the years the company grew and prospered, partly due to the relationship that Patty had with the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. The local elks would provide the support for setting up the carnival. The show grew to include as many as 200 carnies, more than a dozen shows, five rides and scores of concessions. They worked the “C” circuit of fairs, and eventually acquired the “B” circuit of larger fairs which ranged from Vancouver to the Maritimes.

In 1930, Patty bought Speed’s half of the show and sold it to his brother Frank. They moved the carnival headquarters to Ontario in 1932, setting up office in Hamilton, and then in Brantford.

Also in 1930, Patty married Edythe, an aspiring actress from Nanaimo, B.C and in 1933 their only son James was born. Patty’s growing success was recognized when he was elected president of the showman’s League of America for both 1935 and 1936. Not since Buffalo Bill Cody, the League’s founder in 1913 had any president been re-elected for a second term. The Canadian Chapter of the league, the Ontario Showman’s League was founded in 1958 and in 1959 Patty Conklin was elected first president of the new chapter.

As early as 1939, Conklin Shows advertised itself as “the World’s Finest Shows”. By following the “gigantic scintillating skylights” to the grounds, one could be treated to “a million laughs on the glittering gayway, 50 startling midway attractions, spectacular free acts and a rainbow of color.” A typical lineup of attractions included rides such as the Rolloplane, Octopus, Tilt A Whirl, Auto Speedway, Merry Go Round, Sky Rocket, Twin Ferris Wheels, Stream-lined train and kiddie rides. The side shows included a “Sally” girl show, Baby Thelma fat show, an illusion show, the World’s Fair Freaks, the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Show and the Ro-Lo Funhouse. The Conklin games…the joints…continued to rake in the biggest part of the midway gross.

Up until 1937 the midway at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto had been provided by major American shows. Conklin Shows won the midway contract in 1937 for what had become the biggest annual outdoor exhibition in the world. By 1940, Conklin was making profits on the “EX” and in later years he would shatter records for midway rides and show grosses for any exhibition anywhere.

In 1940, due to the war, the C.N.E. grounds were taken over for billeting and training troops. The C.N.E. would not resume operations until 1947. At that time the C.N.E. convinced Patty to come out of retirement with a ten-year contract. In 1953 he built the “Mighty Flyer”. This classic wooden roller-coaster would be a landmark at the C.N.E. for over 40 years. In 1955 he opened North America’s first major European spectacular, the “Wild Mouse” rollercoaster. He and his brother Frank concentrated on the “Ex” and on developing the eastern road show. With the help of Jimmy Sullivan’s World’s Finest Shows, Patty and Frank acquired all of the major fairs in Quebec. Eventually, they had almost every big fair in the east. In 1963 Frank Conklin died of Multiple Sclerosis and Patty’s son Jim, then 30, took over the management of the road show.

Patty Conklin died in 1970 in hospital in Hamilton. The “King of the Carnivals” with the magnetic personality and who, in his 60 year career did so much to lift the carnival industry from the disreputable state it was in to the highly respectable position it now holds, was gone.

“This business is a combination of hokum, salesmanship and sex. Most of the rides throw the girl against the fellow. I believe in helping the natural instincts.”
Legendary carnival king, James “Patty” Conklin

Jim Conklin

Jim Conklin continued to expand his father’s legacy, diversifying the company’s holdings to include an amusement park at the CN Tower in Toronto. Partnering with a theme park in Niagara Falls and an amusement park at the Pacific National Exhibition grounds in Vancouver.

Jim was born into the carnival life. Summers, he lived on a railroad car, and the rest of the year, home was the Royal York Hotel and Ridley College. “I was sheltered by my father. He never encouraged me to hang around shows.”

When Conklin was a child, the midway included exotic animals and freak shows that always had a midget, a fat girl, Siamese twins and people with an assortment of physical oddities. He recalls a boy from Winnipeg, named Ernie and Len, with two bodies – really a growth that looked like a second body.

“We were about 9 and were playmates. Eventually my father paid for Ernie to have the growth removed. The last I heard he was a postman in Vancouver,” says Conklin, from his home in Brantford, headquarters of Conklin Shows.

At 16 in 1950, Conklin was given his first carnival job, running a kiddie ride, at Crystal Beach. He soon graduated into games. “I went to McGill for a couple of years, but the carnival dragged me back.”

Conklin served an apprenticeship, working small fairs and then the Ex. He describes the dismantling of the Alpine Way in 1995 – the last of Patty’s permanent rides – as a heartbreak. He wasn’t the only one to feel this way. When it was taken down, Sam (the Record Man) Sniderman bought the sign and donated it to the CNE archives.

Conklin is proud of his business accomplishments. Besides retaining the CNE business for over 30 years, he considers landing the contract for the midway at the Calgary Stampede a highlight. He also recalls with pleasure the CNE’s 100th anniversary in 1992 when he reproduced his father’s 1928 carnival.

In 1975 Conklin shows biggest rival, Royal American was banned from Canada due to tax evasion. In 1976 Jim Conklin acquired the “A” circuit and all of the previous contracts held by the competitor, including the Calgary Stampede and the Vancouver Pacific Exhibition. Jim Conklin retired in 1996. The Conklin dynasty can boast that “more people have enjoyed themselves on Conklin midways than on the midways of any other carnival company in the world.”

In this one-hour documentary, Jim Conklin, who recently sold the vast majority of his rides and equipment to one of his senior employees, looks back at the legacy he was born into and the dying industry he sees today. The Carnival is not just Jim’s history and legacy, it’s in his blood. Today, age 80, Jim works tirelessly to create a Carnival Museum and Archives to permanently display Conklin’s historic 3,000 artifact collection to the world and preserve a world that’s fast disappearing from today’s technological landscape.

Barry Jamieson, World’s Finest Shows

Barry Jamieson started with the Conklin road show in 1974. The same year Jim Conklin and Alfie Phillips, the show’s president, produced the first awards dinner for the fair boards. An annual event for more than 30 years, it’s the company’s opportunity to show its appreciation to the people who sign its contracts.

Conklin Shows returned to the western exhibitions in 1976. Two years later the show bought Bernard and Barry Shows. With this purchase came fairs in Gloucester, Beamsville, Welland, Ancaster, Caledonia and Brigden. The expansion led to the division of the eastern road show into the Bicycle Unit and the Bernard Unit. By 1986 a third unit was added. The three units of the eastern road show were now known as the Bicycle Unit, World’s Finest Show and Supershows.

In 1992 Barry Jamieson became President of a new company, World’s Finest Shows, that bought out the assets and contracts of the Conklin eastern road show. The show remained based in Simcoe with the barns at the fairgrounds used for storage and a workshop in the winter months. World’s Finest needed its own workshop and two years later bought a vacant fabricating plant in an industrial park in Nanticoke, Ontario, which has been home to the show ever since. The company continues to upgrade its rides and equipment in the new facilities, striving to always live up to its name, World’s Finest Shows. “I try to run a successful entertainment business,” says Barry. “I’m a showman. My business is worth at least $15 million. People have no idea how much work goes into giving people a good time.”

In 1997, World’s Finest won the contract for the Central Canada Exhibition in Ottawa, the only major exhibition that had eluded Patty Conklin. This new contract in hand, the show picked up several new spectacular rides. The show retains all the other major dates it has played over the years.

West Coast Amusements, The Hauser Family

For more than 45 years, West Coast Amusements, a homegrown multi-generational travelling carnival business, has brought a pirate ship of fun to millions of thrill-seekers on its way to becoming the largest mobile midway outfit in Canada. And it 100% Canadian owned.

By late March, B.C.’s most enduring carnival family departs from winter digs in the Fraser Valley and splits into four mobile midways, travelling through B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan. Some 200 trucks emblazoned with vivid carnival paintings and the WCA trademark logo, the units carry over 100 rides, 85 concessions, 80 games and all the infrastructure of a self-sufficient midway.

WCA’s found is 84-year-old Irvin “Bingo” Hauser who started in the Carnival business 70 years ago, working for Patty Conklin. WCA has a lock on the PNE, Canada’s third largest summer fair as well as the majority of the B and C circuit fairs west of Manitoba. The company also partners with a US-owned circuit at the Saskatoon Ex, Red Deer’s Westerner Days and the Calgary Stampede.

West Coast Amusements was founded in 1962 by “Bingo” Hauser who still serves as President. Bingo, who was raised and educated in Brandon, Manitoba, has been a showman since the 1940s. Drawn to the excitement of the carnival and life on the road at a very early age, Bingo became well-versed in the business. He operated a number of rides and concessions and then decided to go out on his own with an animal act. The star of Bingo’s show was his beloved lionwhich is now depicted in the West Coast Amusements’ logo.

Bingo eventually placed his animals in zoos and purchased his first ride, a Merry-Go-Round. Together Bingo and his wife Jackie, and now many members of the extended family, have built West Coast Amusements into the world-class, four unit operation it is today.

“Everyone’s got the itch to hit the road,” says Bingo. The spring itch is a common trait among Carnies, but this close-knot family of 10 adults and seven children is not simply craving momentum and adventure. After spending the off-season (October to March) visiting carnivals in Europe, attending outdoor amusement trade shows in the I.S. and shopping for rides and equipment to the tune of about $1.5 million, says Hauser, “We need the money, honey! Doesn’t matter what you made last season…by spring you’re ready for the road.”

There are four individual units that make up West Coast Amusements’ operation. These units travel to different locations in order to accommodate WCA’s wide variety of clientele. Members of the Hauser family oversee and operate on each unit.

Bingo Hauser – President and founder, Bingo Hauser owns and operates West Coast Amusements’ Unit 1.

Robert and Wendy Hauser-the son and daughter-in-law of Bingo and Jackie manage WCA Unit 2, Bob manages operations while Wendy manages the show office. Their Unit is efficient, clean and safe. Bob and Wendy have brought many innovations to the carnival industry.

Stephanie and Rino Buttazzoni – daughter and son-in-law of Bob and Wendy Hauser are involved in West Coast Amusements’ midway. They own and operate a wide variety of food concessions.

Rob Hauser, Jr.- Son of Bob and Wendy, Rob, along with his wife Tarah and their family travel with Grandma Jackie’s Unit. Rob co-manages the Unit and he and his family own and operate a wide variety of rides and game concessions on this show.

Jaclyn and Darcy Benson – daughter and son-in-law of Bob and Wendy Hauser are managers on Unit 4. Jaclyn and Darcy also own and operate a mini donut stand.

We’ll be interviewing “Bingo” and his family members, all of whom participate in the business to find out how the once magnetic entertainment of the midway has slowly become a sideshow attracting one third of its original audience of fifty years ago and fading faster than invisible ink on today’s landscape.

Campbell Amusements

Campbell Amusements has been a provider of family entertainment for over 45 years and when Don and Joyce Campbell started it all, they didn’t imagine things would get to where they are. With over 45 carnival rides and countless midway games, Campbell Amusements travels throughout Ontario and Eastern Canada bringing fun and excitement to all communities, big and small.

Don and Joyce raised their family with the show and every summer, they were on the road together. Their son, Danny, together with his own young family, is now leading the team. Danny’s commitment to the family tradition of accessible, safe and fun family entertainment has earned him a respected place among his entertainment operator peers as a person who knows the business and cares about the quality of the midway and carnival.

Campbell Amusements’ shows are run and maintained by trained and licensed technicians in an environment approved by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority (TSSA), a national system of control measures that Danny Campbell, himself, helped design and implement. The public can be worry-free at a Campbell Amusements show and concentrate on spending quality time with their children and maybe even becoming kids again themselves.

“Be a kid with your kids,” Danny says, “If you take your kids someplace, you want to have fun with them. You have fun watching them have fun.”

The Campbell family hopes their shows inspire a return to childhood for parents, grandparents and guardians alike with all generations of thrill-seeking ‘kids’ attending the shows.

Beauce Carnaval

1930 Florian Vallee, the founder of Beauce Carnaval, was 14 years old when he visited the Quebec City Provincial Exhibition with his father and discovered his keen interest in amusement parks.

1945 to 1949

A hardworking visionary, Florian Vallee developed his event planning skills by organizing shows at Lac Poulin in Beauce. For 5 years, he organized tours in Gaspesie and the Maritimes featuring various acrobats and performers, including a German man fighting a 500 pound bear. With his good show-business sense, Vallee decided to pursue his childhood dream in the winter of 1949: to operate a traveling amusement park. And so, he went to the United States to purchase three small rides.

Above all a family business, Beauce Carnaval began to operate two separate tours from this year forth. The three children, Jacques, Paule, and Pascal, became directly involved in operations.

In 1995 Paule and Jacques Vallee became the owners of the family business. Today

Today Beauce Carnaval Inc. consists of more than 50 rides, countless skill testing games, and a number of concessions. You’ll find Beauce at major events in most regions of Quebec and Ontario.


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