Manages "Greatest Show on Earth"
All Canadians and a great many other people on this continent and abroad are familiar with the Canadian National Exhibition. Here is an intimate sketch of the mainspring of that great show—a figure without whom the fair would have gone on, perhaps, but not with the magnitude and tremendous winning spirit which it presents to-day.
ALAN MAURICE IRWIN
TO SAY that John G. Kent, Managing Director of "The Greatest Show on Earth, "makes you think of an elephant, is, remembering his size, a risky thingHowever, perhaps the sting is taken out when you explain that the elephant referred to is the one featured in the old poem about the six bhnd sages who, on feeling different parts of the pachyderm, likened it to six different things.
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the future President and. later. Managing Director of the Canadian National Exhibition. The family moved to Hamilton before J.G. was out of petticoats, and it was in the Ambitious City that the boy first attended school. After some years Toronto was selected as the site of the about-to-be-formed wholesale crockery business of Gowar.s. Kent & Co., the partnership consisting of Kent P'T' and his brother-in-law. Here, although in his own words he was “far from being a model scholar,” John Kent attended the Model School, sitting under such well-known teachers as the late William Scott, the late General Sir Sam Hughes and Professor McPhedran. It was the principal, Mr. Scott, who gave him his first lesson in the art of successful practical joking. During an arithmetic lesson five of the boys, John Kent, Albert Gooderham, Henry Pellatt, Eddie Gooderham and Willie Walker developed an unusual obtuseness. Finding them apparently unable to comprehend a simple problem. Mr. Scott very kindly stayed after four o’clock with them 30 that he might give them patient and personal attention. As the minute hand of the clock traveled slowly downwards five looks were exchanged and by fourthirty five boys, realizing that their wonderful joke had been quietly and effectively turned against them, agreed that they “quite understood.” The kindly principal, in a short lecture, pointed out the advisability of playing practical jokes only when the joker was sure that the joke could not be turned to his “You know,” J. G. said to me, “that was one lesson I never forgot. Not only the joke, but the way he kept his temper and beat us with our own weapons.” Joking, however, was soon put aside. The stern, workaday world called; it was none the less stem because it was the family warehouse. At seven-thirty each morning the new “handy-boy” presented himself—to learn the business by sweeping floors, filling inkwells, running errands and polishing “the handle of the big front door,”—all for the sum of SI.50 a week. There were chores to be done at home, too. Before the days of electric cooking when cordwood baked the pies much of the energy now expended on driving Dad’s car was worked off on a cross-cut saw. This job in the Kent family fell to the lot of John and his only brother, senior by six years. Another well-remembered lesson dates back
to that time. Elder brother, wise boy! would saw one log alone, timing his effort by a watch in his brother’s hand. Whereat John, not to be outdone, would do the next and endeavor to beat the record. Finding himself considerably slower he would try again and again with the result that, as he says with a tenderly reminiscent smile, “I used to saw about three to his one.”
Perhaps that explains the ability of the “Chief” to extract such a full measure of co-operation from his staff.
Amusements back in the early ’eighties would be voted boring by the wide-trousered youths of to-day, but, says Mr. Kent, “I think we had a better time then, creating our own amusement. When I was a youngster my cousin, the late Dr. C. K. Clarke, was in charge of the Queen Street Asylum (now known, slangily, as 999) and I can remember well how, after attending dances there, we used to walk from Strachan Avenue to Yonge Street, and farther, at midnight. The last buses left at eleven.”
He was never very fond of sports and most of his leisure time was devoted to the breeding of thoroughbred dogs. Specializing in greyhounds and Russian wolfhounds, he became a regular exhibitor at the then Toronto Exhibition and won his first prize there in 1882 with a greyhound named “Robert the Devil.” Eight years later, at the age of twenty-nine, he was made a member of the Dog Committee and the connection then made has never been sundered.
Coincident with the successful career thus launched in the exhibition field came business advancement, and after passing through the various departments of Gowans, Kent & Co., the junior son was admitted to junior partnership. He became a member of the Board of Trade a few years later.
The year 1906 saw John G’s. elevation to the directorate of the C.N.E., which august board has been graced continuously since then by his presence. Six years later he was elected to the Presidency. In his complimentary second term, although it was the year of an unlucky number, the Big Show attained its first million. A writer in the St. Thomas Times-Journal interviewed him at that time and headed his story, “The Man Who Made a
Million.” Then, in the article below this heading, after explaining that the million was nothing so commonplace as dollars— but people, he quoted John G’s. modest disclaimer:
“No one man on the Canadian National Exhibition board got that million attendance. It was the result of all pulling together, of co-operation between directors, the press and the general public.”
That sort of statement illustrates John G’s. makeup. In conversation with him you seldom hear the pronouns, “I,” “my”; but “we,” and “our” are always in evidence. Mr. Kent says that public enthusiasm that year was so great that when the million was announced in front of the grandstand 8,000 people stood up and cheered for fifteen minutes. One man told him afterwards that, fearing the figure might not be reached he had purchased five dollars’ worth of tickets and walked in and out of the gates thirty times!
From the year of his presidency Mr. Kent became a sort of unsalaried assistant to the late Dr. Orr, who had been manager for some years and whose failing health made assistance necessary. During this time he was successively Vice-President and President of the Toronto Board of Trade, and when the merger of 1917 disposed of his principal interest, Gowans, Kent & Co., he settled down to a quiet existence, dividing his time between the exhibition and the little private office from which he kept an eye on his other interests. He was busy enough as president of a printing company, of John G. Kent & Son, contractors, and director of an insurance company, but when Dr. Orr died he willingly took up the reins and acted as general manager for a year on the understanding that he was not to be paid.
A unanimous vote of the directors in 1918 invited him to become permanent manager and since that time the big, genial figure of John G. Kent has come to be accepted as the outward and visible
sign of successful exhibition management. The Annual Report of the Association for that year commenting upon his appointment says, “This is a guarantee that the Canadian National Exhibition will go on to larger developments in the years to come.” A short study of the big fair’s balance sheets over a period of years is evidence of the fulfilment of that prophecy. It is generally known that the profits after payment of all charges, are handed over to the City of Toronto, the exhibition’s “financial angel,” and since 1917 the amounts handed to that city have been:
1918. & 90,597.00 1919. 175.007.00 1920 146.830.00 1921. 135.016.00 1922. 177.250.00 1923 251.739.00 1924 271,459.04
During that seven year period the show has consistently broken attendance records and has added many new features. The exhibits have been housed in magnificent new buildings; Young Canada's Day, and Floral Day, have been instituted; Manufacturers’ Day, starting this year, has been made much more attractive and distinctive and France, Great Britain, Cuba and Bermuda have been induced to exhibit as units. Just recently the Pro\ince of Ontario decided to erect its own building and when Premier Ferguson opens the C.N.E. he will turn the first sod. The building, which is to cost half a million dollars, will be ready for the 1926 show.
O' kNE of the directors told me recently that John G. Kent’s "wonderful executive ability, and his organizing genius are the main reasons for his success. He gives everyone a hearing, not only listens to what the> say but puts their suggestions into effect. And you must remember that there are 127 members of the Association as well as an expert staff.” ' And then, answering my question, “There are not enough words in the English language to express the value of John G. to the exhibition.”
What J.G. Looks Like
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Manages “Greatest Show On Earth”
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That’s strong stuff! but coming from a man who has been connected with the C.N.E. for eighteen years it must have a foundation.
Let us take a good look at the subject.
John Gowans Kent is a big man. Standing well over six feet and built proportionately, with a square face and the sandy hair of his Scots forefathers, he calls to mind pictures of Richard I of England. Sartorially he is as urbane as his manner, always affecting white slips in his waistcoats and usually garbed in grey.
lie radiates goodfellowship and instantly puts callers at their ease. His geniality is obviously of the heart—none of the artificial haii-fellows-well-met of the old time showman. Y ou feel that he is glad to see you and that propositions made to him will get consideration. He listens, seldom saying anything until his caller has finished, but evidently balancing the matter in his mind as he balances the ruler or paperweight in his hand. Usually the decision is reached by the time the caller has finished, and the matter either goes to the board or is terminated.
On his desk stands a little sign. Pacing the caller is “No Barking Here” and on the reverse “Keep to the right.” One is inclined to believe that neither legend is necessary in that office—although the Canadian-made cigars with which J.G. is so generous do tempt one to stay.
Mr. Kent believes in an exhibition “of the people, by the people and for the people,” and says that the only way to continue its success is to give the public what it wants, to keep faith and to interpret the spirit of the times.
“P. T. Barnum may have thought he was right when he said that the public liked to be fooled, but that is not the way we do things. Here we will not make misleading statements or publish advertising we cannot back up.”
There was an instance in the early days of his managership. A famous British Regimental Band was billed to play on a certain date, but owing to heavy weather on the Atlantic the boat arrived in Montreal too late to make a rail connection. One of the directors had gone to meet the bandsmen and he wired the bad news to J.G. Without hesitation an answering wire was despatched instructing the director to hire a special train. Thus the exhibition kept faith and the public listened to the Guards at the advertised time—at a cost of $3,000.
Then—very characteristically—the incident was capitalized in the Fair’s advertising and general publicity.
A Genial Chieftain
TECHNICAL members of the staff are encouraged by the “Chief” to keep tabs on all new developments capable of adaptation to the uses of the C.N.E., and last year “Cully” Ross, the Amusement Director, accompanied Mr. Kent to Wembley. That trip did not turn out exactly as intended, however, the Empire Exhibition getting several suggestions from John G. which have this year been acted upon.
Every member of the permanent staff is a “scout” and all are sent to different fairs each year to observe and report. No show is too small to be visited and every separate impression is afterwards analyzed, the office-boy, for instance going to Oakville or Richmond Hill to get the juvenile “slant.”
That Mr. Kent keeps his eyes open is evidenced by his speech at the Ottawa Fair a few years ago. He was invited to open the show at the Capital and during his tour of inspection was struck by the way in which the food exhibits were all grouped together. In his official speech he complimented the exhibition and said that he intended to take advantage of what he had seen. The result of that visit was the Pure Food Building, now an outstanding feature of the Toronto Exhibition.
The permanent staff of the C.N.E. is more like a clan owing allegiance to its chief, than employees of an abstract corporation working for a concrete manage*-. Here is another of the secrets of J.G’s. success. The feeling in the Lumsden Building is one of complete friendship. It is like a newspaper office. Recently, when I went in to see Mr. Kent a very good illustration of the spirit of the force was presented.
Someone, probably a would-be concessionaire, had left a number of samples. The office boy, temporarily at leisure, lounged against a door-post busily licking a frozen confection in the shape of an all day sucker; Joe Hay, the publicity man, always in a hurry, came bustling past, his tongue curled about another; the telephone operator manipulated her board with one hand—when out of his private office walked the “Chief.” There was no scuffle to hide the confectionery, no attempt to look busy, everyone continued with the absorbing (the pun was unintentional) business of the moment. Thoughtful onlookers could not fail to sense the feeling of fellowship responsible for this Utopian condition.
In the private office, Mr. Kent reached for his cigars. They were not in their usual place. Then they turned up in another drawer. “Here they are,” he said, “I thought someone must have run short and taken them—I was just going to go out and forage in Joe’s desk for some of his.”
The Purpose of the C.N.E.
JOHN G. KENT says that he conceives the purpose of the exhibition, and therefore his own mission in life, to be to advertise Canada, to increase the purchase and use of Canadian products and to show Canadians the resources of their wonderful country. He said to me: “There is a tendency towards Americanization, especially since American magazines have flooded the country with their tons of American advertising; the offsetting of this and the development of a Canadian and British Empire spirit will well repay the directors and members of the Exhibition Association for their arduous work and self-sacrifice.”
The C.N.E. is not a one-man affair, it is too big to be that, but, talking to the man whose name is probably one of the best known in Canada (he sends out 750,000 personal invitations to school children each year), one could wish that his insistence on that point did not tend to exclude mention of his own share. Ex-President Miller, in his address last year, said that J.G. had been detailed to make the arrangements with the Weatherman. He called it “a responsibility that no ordinary man would undertake, but he did it and did it well. Similar arrangements should be made this year.”
Kent’s fondness for children finds expression on Children’s Day. Every year Young Canada’s own day finds him surrounded by admiring youngsters watching him pacify, and do it expertly, some heartbroken kiddie who is “losted.” He attends personally to the supply of toys for the Lost Children’s Tent and apparently has an inexhaustible supply of nickels with which to purchase cones for the mislaid ones.
As this is written, some weeks before the opening of the Exhibition, he is enjoying comparative leisure. So well organized is his work that nothing but routine remains for this year’s effort. Already, however,
concrete plans for 1926 are taking shape and the Jubilee Year, 1928, is under consideration. The two weeks during which the Fair exists for most of us are just part of fifty-two for John G. Kent.
Dogs, not so much, and boys, very considerably, largely absorb his spare time. He is President of the Armenian Relief Association of Canada, and was one of the founders. This body supports a farm at Georgetown, Ontario, where refugee orphans are trained to become good Canadian citizens. Through his membership in the Kiwanis Club and as Commissioner of the Boy Scouts in Toronto, he is able to come in contact with many other boys. His kennels to-day are not so large as formerly, but his interest in dogs is great enough for him to fill the presidential chair of the Canadian Kennel Club. He does not play golf.
During his years of service for and fatherly interest in boys, Mr. Kent has formulated standards, the application of which will stand all boys in good stead. He thinks they should keep before them the ideals of Service, Clean-living, Truthfulness, Honesty, Self-effacement; that they should treat every man as a brother and try to see the other fellow’s side of things.
Which is the sort of plan he must have followed for himself, for, when I asked him why he decided to accept the position his fellow directors offered seven years ago at a considerable financial sacrifice, he answered:
“I was never very anxious to become a millionaire. The job of managing the world’s greatest annual fair offered a chance of serving Canada, of helping my country, and I felt that if I was to render any public service here was the opportunity.
“My ambition? Then, it was to see the Canadian National Exhibition become the greatest show of its kind in the world. Now, it is to leave things in such shape that it will run just as smoothly after I am dead.
“The life of a showman is not all fun, you know. There is more to it than ‘Walk up! Walk up! and see,’ et cetera. There are always unrealized hopes ahead of you. But the beauty of this life is that if things don’t come out right the first time you can try over again, and, profiting by experience, work at them until they do.”
John G. Kent’s pre-eminence as a showman is conceded not only by his colleagues —it is universally accepted. In 1922 he was elected President of the American Association of Fairs and Exhibitions (the first time that honor was paid to a Canadian) and a year later was invited to give the opening lecture at the University of Chicago School for Fairmen. The paper on Concessions read by him on that occasion has been hailed as a classic.
^Although in his official position Mr. Kent has “no politics or religions” he was an officer of Old St. Andrew’s church, Toronto, years before his professional showmanship, and has been treasurer of that congregation for a long time.
Foundation of Success
T~Y ESPITE the early lesson administered by Mr. Scott, he is very fond of a joke and possesses the happy faculty of enjoying a joke at his own expense. Many people, listening as he reminisced, have accepted the quiet “away back in the ’fifties when I was a boy” with the gravity with which it was uttered only to realize later that they have been victims of genial “leg-pulling.” His favorite story is one of a Kiwanis luncheon at which he sat beside that arch-joker, Ralph Connable.
At the same table was a visitor, also a Kiwanian, from Sault Ste. Marie. A mutual friend introduced Mr. Connableto the visitor. “Glad to meet you, Mr. Connable, we have one of your stores in the Soo.” Retorted the then Woolworth head, “Ah! that’s it! I wondered what was familiar about you—I recognize your necktie.”
^ According to those about him, John G. Kent owes his success to his executive ability, his organizing genius, his willingness to listen, his diplomacy, his long experience and love of the work.
According to the man himself the Exhibition owes its success to the directors, the co-operation of the exhibitors, the press and the public he so gladly serves.