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The History of Conklin Shows

Background

J. W. Patty ConklinIn the 1920-30’s, most if not all carnivals were (graft shows) specializing fleecing the public. Most of the attraction including the shows, rides and games included a fraud of some kind. Conklin & Garrett, All Canadian Shows, Truthfully Advertised and Honourably Presented was no exception (both owners, Speed Garrett & J W (Patty) Conklin, were Americans).

The shows, freak, girly and others seldom presented what was painted on their banner lines, most games were fixed (controlled or flat stores), the food was often doctored and the ticket sellers on each ride or attraction were mostly short change artists. Patty Conklin team was one of the best, so much so it was nicknamed the “40 thieves”.

The early carnivals were so bad that Canada’s parliament passed a special Criminal Code section Z267 that pertained to carnival games. All carnivals carried a specialist (fixer or parch) to patch up the complaints (beefs) that resulted from the scams carried out joints (games) and the operators (agents). On The Conklin & Garrett Shows, the job was handled by Patty’s brother, Frank Renker Conklin.

Since the 1940s the carnival industry has changed dramatically there are no more shows, no more funny games and no more fraud of any kind but carnies in general are still trying to live down their past reputations.

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The Founder

J. W. Patty ConklinThe U.S. fair dates Conklin Shows won in 1978 would have been something of a homecoming for James Wesley "Patty" Conklin, the show’s founder, born Joe Renker in Brooklyn in 1892. He left home around 1900, lived with foster parents for a while and then went out on his own. An immigrant kid on the streets of New York City, he sold peanuts, newspapers and herring, and worked as a sideshow talker on Coney Island. By the early 1910s, Patty was operating gambling games on midways in the wild-west oil boomtowns of Texas and Oklahoma. He not only survived, he made money.

Patty next joined up with the original J.W. Conklin, owner of Clark and Conklin Shows, which he began in 1916. The show played the mid-western states, folding after four seasons. Patty became one of the family, taking his adopted father’s name and staying with the Conklins when they went to work for other shows. J.W. Conklin, Sr., died on the road in the fall of 1920.

Patty and Mrs. Conklin remained in the United States for most of another year, then in the middle of the 1921 season, at Patty’s urging, he, his 18-year old brother Frank and his adopted mother decided to try Canada. They planned to book with Wortham Shows at the Winnipeg Exhibition, but the plan fell through. With their boxcar full of kewpie dolls, they were about to head back across the border when they spotted a rag-bag show playing St. Boniface, outside Winnipeg. They hooked up with the International Amusement Company and stuck with the show through its remaining Canadian dates that season. Their future lay in Canada.

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Speed

After a few seasons working tiny fairs, rodeos and vacant lots with various carnival companies in Canada’s growing west, Patty met Speed Garrett, part-owner of a small show based in Seattle. Conklin & Garrett Shows was born when Patty bought half of this operation in 1924. From two railroad cars, the company grew within a few years to fifteen. The relationship Patty developed with the Elks club helped the show grow, starting with a still date in Vancouver that became an annual affair to open the season. The show booked more and more spots under Elk auspices.

1928 Letterhead, Conklin & GarrettConklin & Garrett played small farming, mining and lumber communities throughout the prairie provinces and British Columbia. They worked the C circuit of fairs for several years, and eventually acquired the B circuit of larger fairs. The show grew to as many as 200 carnies, more than a dozen shows, five to six rides, and scores of games concessions or "joints," Patty’s specialty. In 1932 they ventured as far east as the Maritimes, losing money and skirting bankruptcy. Money was tight during the depression, but labour was cheap and the show survived. It remained a "gilly" outfit, traveling in railroad boxcars then hiring local draymen to cart the equipment to and from the lot. They somehow managed to play as many as four spots a week.

Speed contracted tuberculosis in 1927, spending less and less time on the road until becoming an invalid two years later. Patty bought Speed’s half of the show in 1930, selling it to brother Frank, even though Frank was hospitalized in a Los Angeles TB sanatorium, where he remained until 1932. In the meantime, Patty handled the carnival, attended the fair meetings and negotiated new fair contracts, almost single-handedly. Since 1924 the show had wintered in Vancouver. In 1932, Patty moved the show east to Hamilton, Ontario. Five years later he moved on to nearby Brantford, the location of the Conklin head office ever since. The show’s centre of gravity became Ontario, the home of the world's largest fair, the Canadian National Exhibition.

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Showman

Patty was a showman’s showman, effortlessly occupying the centre of attention, whatever the crowd. He was elected president of the Pacific Coast Showmen’s Association in 1929, a position he thought would help the business. The following year he met and married an aspiring actress from Nanaimo. Edythe and Patty had one child, James, in 1933. Patty 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.

In 1935, Patty hosted the Showmen’s convention in Toronto. With his eye on the Canadian National Exhibition, he asked the new general manager of the Ex, Elwood Hughes, to act as toastmaster. Major American shows had been providing the midway at the CNE since it had become the biggest annual outdoor exhibition in the world, many years before. Against this competition, Conklin Shows bid and won the midway contract for 1937, partly because of Patty’s expertise and partly because of his rapport with Hughes. After the contract was signed, Elwood and Patty toured Europe to find the best and newest attractions. A polio epidemic hit Toronto that summer and attendance at the Ex fell sharply. Financially, it was a severe setback to both the show and the CNE.

By 1940, Conklin was making a profit on the Ex and in later years would shatter records for midway ride and show grosses for any exhibition, anywhere. In 1940, however, the exhibition grounds were taken over to billet and train troops for Canada’s war effort. The CNE would not resume operations until 1947. In the interim, Patty promoted a huge charity show, the Fair for Britain, at Christie Pits Park in Toronto, and was granted the right to play the coveted prairie A circuit of big fairs, including the Calgary Stampede. The war years were good for Patty. He retired and sold everything in 1946.

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Renewal

Elwood Hughes lured Patty out of retirement and back to the CNE for 1947 with an unprecedented ten-year contract. Contract in hand, Patty invested in permanent attractions for the Ex. On a borrowed half million dollars, he built a permanent line up of games, fun houses, rides and shows. In 1953 he had the mighty Flyer built, a classic wooden roller coaster that remained a CNE landmark for 40 years. Midways used to be dominated by shows--freak, girl, athletic, illusion, animal and anything else that imaginative producers could contrive. As patrons have demanded more excitement, rides have taken over. Patty began exploring the festivals of Europe to find spectacular rides. In 1955 he set a new trend in the industry by purchasing right off the Octoberfest grounds North America's first major European spectacular, the Wild Mouse.

Back in the business, Patty concentrated on the Ex and, with brother Frank, on developing the eastern road show. He would never again play the fairs in the west. Under Frank's management and with the help of Jimmy Sullivan’s World’s Finest Shows, Conklin Shows began working a string of solid Ontario fairs and acquired all of the major fairs in Quebec. The show eventually got almost every big fair in the east, with the exception of Ottawa’s Central Canada Exhibition.

At the age of 70, Patty partnered with Harry Batt to produce the "Gayway" for the Seattle World’s Fair. World’s fair midways were notoriously unprofitable. Brother Frank and son Jim tried to talk him out of taking on this huge task at this juncture in his career, but Patty’s persistence won out. With imagination and energy belying his age, he helped make the Seattle midway a winner that has yet to be surpassed at a world’s fair.

Patty sent his son to a private school and then to McGill University in Montreal. Few expected Jim to fit into the rough world that was his father’s home. Jim began working games at Crystal Beach, accompanying his father on scouting trips, learning the fine points of running a road show office, attending the fair conventions and operating a line up of joints at the CNE. In 1963 Jim’s uncle Frank died from the multiple sclerosis that had crippled him for several years. Jim, 30 years old, stepped in to take over Frank's eastern road show operations.

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Expansion

Patty survived the 1960s and Jim continued his training. Along with Jim, came Alfie Phillips, who had also apprenticed at the Crystal Beach amusement park. Alfie was another second-generation showman. Alfie Phillips, Sr., after his career as a world-class diver, including both the 1928 and 1932 Olympics, had produced water shows for Patty. Still working the Ex, one of the most respected men in the business, Patty died at 78 in 1970. Jim, Alfie and a roster of loyal and capable senior staff trained by Patty were ready to carry on.

Jim Conklin expanded on Patty’s legacy, but had his own ambitions for the show. He diversified its holdings with an amusement centre at the CN Tower in Toronto, partnership in a theme park in Niagara Falls and an amusement park on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds in Vancouver. Then fortune--and the Canadian government--threw Conklin Shows a plum it could not refuse.

Royal American Shows, at its peak the largest carnival company in North America, since 1946 had played the A circuit of western Canadian fairs, a circuit comprised of the Calgary Stampede and other big fairs in Brandon, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. Because they could all be booked as one through the Western Canada Fairs Association, this route was a real prize. During their 1975 Canadian season, Royal American was investigated by the RCMP and later by other Canadian authorities for tax evasion. Royal American was barred from working Canada. Conklin Shows acquired the A circuit for the season of 1976. Royal American would steadily decline until it folded in 1997.

With a lock on almost every major fair and exhibition in Canada, Conklin Shows set its sights south. In 1978 they bought Deggeler's Magic Midway, another major American show, this one based in Florida, with its U.S. route. To expand in Canada, Conklin & Garrett Ltd. purchased the Bernard and Barry Shows, an Ontario company. Conklin Shows even tried its hand in the Caribbean, playing Puerto Rico in 1979 with great success, but in Santo Domingo the following year they lost money badly. Back in Canada, interest rates were climbing and the country was entering a recession. The expansion came to an abrupt halt.

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Third Generation

In 1980, Conklin & Garrett Ltd., under the management of Alfie and Jim, operated permanent amusement parks in Niagara Falls and Vancouver, three Ontario travelling shows, a large carnival in the U.S. and the big Canadian show. The operations included scores of rides and a myriad of game and food concessions, and employed hundreds of permanent and thousands of temporary carnies. In the fall of that year, the bank called in its seven million dollar loan. Rumours were rife that Conklin Shows was about to fold. To meet the show’s financial obligations, Jim restructured and downsized all operations. He sold excess equipment, sold or cut back on the show’s permanent locations and closed most of the U.S. route, keeping only those fairs that could be played prior to and following the core Canadian shows.

Another Conklin generation became active on the midway in the 1970s. Frank, born in 1959, started out moving the show's newest and largest rides. He gradually advanced in managerial responsibilities, until he took over Conklin Shows International. He rebuilt the American route in the 1980s and ’90s, until the Canadian and American operations of Conklin Shows became independent of each other. With the addition of several large fairs at the beginning and end of the season, the American circuit under Frank has taken on a life of its own. The show now has two winter quarters, one in West Palm Beach, Florida, and one at its Brantford shop, with an office in Calgary. In 1996 Jim retired and Frank took over Conklin & Garrett Ltd., retaining all of the show's personnel.

The three Ontario shows have been restructured in a management buyout. Barry Jamieson is the president of the World's Finest Shows, still one of the Conklin Group of carnival companies. The World's Finest Shows' route includes more than 60 fairs, festivals and celebrations, all in Ontario.

It’s now the Conklin Group, but all the units still carry Conko the clown as their mascot. The red and black Conko logo, designed by the show’s graphics firm, remains the continent’s most recognizable symbol of midway merriment and thrills. Three generations of Conklins and as many generations of loyal, skilled and dedicated staff have steered the show through good times and bad, to fairs big and small. It's safe to say that more people have enjoyed themselves on Conklin midways than on the midways of any other carnival company in the world.

Canada’s Conklin Shows & Conklin Shows International, that provided the midway at Miami, Florida’s, Dade County Fair, Calgary Alberta’s, Calgary Stampede, and The Canadian National Exhibition, has been sold in 2004 to a US conglomerate. The Conklin Shows title, Conko logo and ConklinShows.com web site was not included in the sale. To continue the tradition, Conklin Shows has been reborn, see Conko.com. It is now a much smaller carnival but with the same philosophy, corporate logo and many of the same senior staff.

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