GENERAL ARTICLES

Carnival King

He runs a circus factory in Brantford. He runs a 45-car special train. He ran a few kewpie dolls into Canada's biggest carnival show

JACK MOSHER July 15 1941
GENERAL ARTICLES

Carnival King

He runs a circus factory in Brantford. He runs a 45-car special train. He ran a few kewpie dolls into Canada's biggest carnival show

JACK MOSHER July 15 1941

NOTHING surprises the citizens of Brantford, Ontario, any more. If they hear a man in striped suit and cowboy hat order a thousand gallons of orange paint in the local hardware, or see him pay a seven-thousand-dollar account at the town’s best hotel, they don’t bat an eyelash.

What’s more, they don’t even turn a hair at sight of a lady sunning her 450 pounds in their favorite park, or a man casually twisting an iron bar into the shape of a pretzel as he strolls down the main street. A gang of pygmies from the Ituri Forest of the Belgian Congo climbing off a train at their station excites no comment.

But don’t go looking for these oddities in Brantford right now, because you won’t find them. They’re on a train heading West—and no ordinary train, naturally.

It’s a bright orange caravan, forty-five cars long—and on each is painted CONKLIN SHOWS, the name of the up-and-coming carnival company which plays ninety-eight per cent of the major fairs throughout Canada each summer, including the Calgary Stampede and the Canadian National Exhibition.

Box cars eighty feet long and fitted with special doors to speed loading and unloading hold all the equipment necessary to set up the fifteen feature attractions and the twenty-one rides which draw millions of customers between May and October.

The train carries 700 people. Bunks in passenger cars are never made up because most of the passengers are pretty busy and sleep when they get the chance. A happy idea for all concerned is the rumpus car, where performers and staff can get together en route, enjoy a bite to eat, listen to the radio, and make as much racket as they like without disturbing the rest of the company. And bringing up the rear is a five-roomed private car—a mansion on wheels purchased for $65,000, since equipped with air conditioning, and redecorated Mexican style—in which rides Brantford’s man in the striped suit and cowboy hat.

He is James Wesley Conklin, who five years ago landed the contract to handle the amusement area at the Canadian National Exhibition when he had scarcely a major attraction to his name; who darn near lost his shirt that first season, yet this year has spent a quarter million on prizes alone—teddy bears, fans, stick pins, stuffed rabbits, looking glasses, canes and kewpie dolls.

“Patty Conklin has a particular weakness for kewpie dolls. And for St. Boniface, Manitoba. He never fails to make it his first stop west of the Great Lakes, for it was there, twenty years ago, that Patty Conklin first broke into show business in a big way, with twenty gross of kewpie dolls as his feature attraction.

“I used to work behind the trap—counter, you know—myself in those days,” he says. “I had a secretary to keep up at fifty a week. But I could manage. It was nothing for me to clear twenty-five to thirty an hour on a good night. And we had quite a few good nights there in St. Boniface. We netted eighteen hundred bucks in two weeks. Enough for me to blowze around a bit, talk to a few gazoonis and frame new attractions as we worked our way West.”

The showman’s talk is packed with expressions which spring from the fertile tan bark of carnival lots, like blowze and trap, but gazooni is his own particular contribution to the lingo. It means chump, punk, palooka, hunky, dope, stooge or what have you. Words like that—as well as the way he walks, his wide-brimmed fedora and his free-and-easy-to-meet-you manner—lead a lot of folks to believe Conklin is a Westerner. Certainly, when he first came riding out of the West eight years ago to stampede the lordly gents who control the affairs of the C.N.E. he looked like a cowboy.

But this cowboy came from Brooklyn, N. Y. As a kid, he hawked peanuts—bootlegged is more like it, because he didn’t have a license—at Madison Square Gardens every time a circus came to town. Then his dad, a legal adviser to outdoor showmen, dropped dead on the Robbins lot at Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Patty Conklin—just turned twenty-one—found himself with a legacy of $3300 in cash, a good credit rating among carnival supply houses, and an acute recollection of Conklin Senior’s oft-related advice about the soft dough to be made with a tent show on the wide open spaces of Canada’s prairies.

“So I bought a lot of kewpies,” he says, "and headed north, opening in St. Boniface one warm Saturday toward the end of May.”

Circus Factory

THAT WAS in 1921 and now Conklin Shows amuse millions of customers annually throughout Canada, travelling from coast to coast. Back in winter quarters at Brantford, a town usually associated with the manufacture of paint and farming utensils, they are considered a major industry and spend more than a hundred thousand a year on labor, materials and general service connected with readying their carnival for the road.

I have that on the word of Neil Webb, Hamilton-born man once superintendent of one of the largest Sunday schools in Canada and now secretary-treasurer of Conklin Shows, who met me at the train when I went to visit Brantford’s circus factory.

“We open in Hamilton next week,” he explained as we came to a three-story building standing on a ten-acre lot not far from downtown Brantford, “so things are humming.” And it was no less than the truth. Inside that building the 200 men who are employed all year round to manufacture and assemble carnival equipment were working like bumble bees. On the ground floor a gang was checking the working parts of rides ranging from the old reliable Merry-Go Round to the Loop-the-Loop, which the Conklins introduced to this continent in 1933, and as we climbed the ramp leading to the floor above the building rocked with a blast of sound that made you think a wall had been bombed out.

“That’s only the man from the factory out in Iowa tuning our calliope—a ticklish chore,” Webb chuckled, leading the way to where carpenters, electricians and plumbers were fussing around a midget hotel, complete to the last twin bed and bath. In another corner of that same floor he pointed out all that’s left of Tom Mix’s once famous circus, now part of Conklin Shows, and in a back room a dozen women were sewing canvas, stitching flags, mending uniforms and caps.

Returning to the ground floor, we paused under a sign which read “Absolutely No Gambling On The Lot,” to watch workmen welding frames for popcorn booths, hot-dog stands, ticket boxes. Then, crossing the yard, we entered a hangar-like building—it looked big enough to house a Goodyear Blimp—where Jack Ray and a dozen helpers and twice as many kibitzers were putting the finishing touches to the shapely ladies who adorn the front of the Artists and Models show.

Born in Edmonton and only twenty-seven, Jack told me he has worked for the Messrs Shubert, Broadway producers, Minsky the burlesque king, and Warner Brothers of Hollywood, but felt it “no bring-down” to work for Conklin Shows because, in addition to some mighty fine fronts, he draws a hundred and twenty-five dollars a week—enough he figures, to keep a wife and a couple of cameras on. A circus is heaven for a candid camera fiend.

In the paint shop, which seemed to be a rendezvous for the general staff, Neil Webb introduced me to Herman Larsen, a Dutch lad who, during the past ten years, has progressed through the merry-go-round and ferris-wheel departments to become train master and, in the off season, chauffeur for Conklin. We met Brother Frank, the genial, hard-to-annoy Conklin who handles the business end of things while the shows are on the road; and Jack Halligan, manager of freaks, who confessed that his toughest problem arose last summer, when the Strong Man fell for the Girl With the Alligator Skin. “I had a devil of a time,” he said,“ breaking that up.”

Then along came Harry Seber, the rotund, Sultan-like gent you’ll find talking out in front of shows like Artists and Models and The Oriental Follies these warm summer evenings. Harry began his career as a stage magician and still knows a cute trick when he sees her, to judge from his present line-up—and his share of last year’s gate. It was a cool fifteen thousand.

Conklin, Harry confided, likes people around him who can make a lot of money, won’t keep anyone who can’t. “He puts everybody except the mechanical workers on a percentage basis,” he explained. “So they can go ahead and make as much as they like—for themselves and for him.” And when we had finally run the head man to the ground under the stage in the girlie-show tent, checking on its supports, he confirmed the statement.

“They make it,” he laughed, “and I spend it.”

Coming back across the lot a few minutes later he demonstrated what he meant by pointing to a heap of track used for the Kiddies Train, a streamlined job which makes eight rounds for a dime, the price of a soda, only ten cents. “I got it for nothing at a mine up near Timmins six years ago,” he said. “But you see the switch connection on one length? Well, that set me back a thousand bucks.”

The chances are, however, that he’d have laid out ten times as much for that switch, because he has a weakness for juvenile attractions, the greatest of which is an eight-year old son attending Ridley College, whose classmates fight for tickets to the opening of Conklin Shows in Hamilton each year. “During the summer he works for his old man,” says Conklin. “Last year I paid him a nickel a day, this year he gets a dime.”

Kewpie King

ALWAYS a great believer in keeping busy, Conklin himself works eighteen hours most days, nearly twenty-four when he’s getting his shows ready for the road. He can do any job on the lot as well, if not better, than the man he hires to do it. But it took a good deal more than just plain hard work to bring him to his present position so far up in the outdoor show world, with a forty-five car train, a plant in Brantford and a private car with all the trimmings.

Patty Conklin has a quality called showmanship, plus a better-than-average business sense, which first displayed itself when he landed in St. Boniface twenty years ago with all those kewpies. His second season proved that his old man had spoken only a half-truth. There was easy money to be made on the prairies but you made it the hard way, because so many others had the same idea. So even that early he began to buy out competition and by the end of the 1924 season only a guy called Speed Garret was giving Conklin Shows any kind of run for their money.

Conklin went to see Garret. “Speed,” he told the other showman, “I’m offering you a partnership. I’ll pay you five thousand a year. I want ten. You have thirty days to think it over. I’m going on to Vancouver tonight.”

The turtle’s habit of laying eggs, then beating it while they hatch, is a favorite trick of Conklin’s, and in this case he had no sooner got nicely settled in winter quarters than along came a wire from Speed wanting $1500 to buy out his partner. Conklin sent him the money. A week later Speed arrived in Vancouver, and for the next seven years the Conklin and Garret Shows shuttled back and forth between there and Winnipeg.

Westerners are easy spenders. They make a positive binge of a carnival and the Conklin and Garret enterprises didn’t do too badly during those seven years. But not well enough to suit this cowboy from Brooklyn. He had his eye on bigger pitches, as carnival men call locations, to be found east of Winnipeg. He knew he would never be quite satisfied until he had played the Canadian National Exhibition, Broadway of outdoor showmen all over the world.

“World’s Fairs,” he told Brother Frank, in 1931 winter quarters at Vancouver, “may come and go. But the C.N.E. goes on forever.”

Brother Frank agreed that this was only too true. But a couple of other things, he said, were equally true: If they ever hoped to crash the C.N.E. they’d need better equipment, more feature attractions, and with depression sinking its teeth just as deeply into show business as any other they stood a fine chance of getting them.

So Conklin decided to coast for a couple of years, think it over. In 1931 he bought out his partner, sold Garret’s piece of the shows to Brother Frank. Next season they played all around Toronto, going as far east as Brome, Quebec, as far north as Timmins, Ontario. In the Fall of 1932 they made winter quarters in Hamilton and Conklin hiked off to Europe—his first real vacation in twelve years.

He brought back a lot of new ideas and the pep to put them over. That was the season he introduced the Loop-the-Loop Ride and by October the Conklin Shows had made quite a hat full of money, still circling Toronto, never landing there. Then Conklin decided to have a talk with the directors of the Canadian National Exhibition. It wouldn’t do any harm, he told Brother Frank, just to go have a talk with them. See what was on their minds.

So he went; and Elwood Hughes, the man who promoted the Marathon Swims and later gave Conklin the break of a lifetime, still develops quite a fever whenever he thinks of the talk the showman delivered at that directors meeting. No barker out in front of a snake show or a strip tease, Hughes feels, ever gave a better spiel. He began with kiddies scarcely out of rompers and anxious to see as much as they can for a nickel. He traced the development of such customers through adolescence, the courting stage, marriage. He had them still coming down the midway when they were old and grey. Only he didn't call it a midway. He called it Frolexland, a name he had just dreamed up. He painted his Frolexland as a positive Shangri La among amusement centres in which the Cooch Dancer of old was replaced by a Sally Rand, the snake-charmer’s pipe by the dulcet strains of Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo and Benny Goodman.

"It sounds great,” said H. W. Waters, then general manager of the C.N.E. when he had finished. “But you haven’t got the equipment.”

That infuriated Conklin, who believes in giving every customer his money’s worth but takes nothing from anybody, not even the general manager of the C.N.E. “Give me a contract,” he said, “and I’ll soon get the equipment.”

But he was bucking the stiffest competition in the business. Ruben Grueburg, who had held the contract for eight years, was big and tough in ways only outdoor showmen know how to be. He had no intention of giving up such an entertainment plum without a tussle. So Conklin didn’t get the contract that year, but when he returned to his corner he was just beginning to fight. In 1934 the contract again went to Grueburg’s Ruben and Cherry shows, but Conklin managed to land the odd punch. The same year saw Conklin’s election as president of the Showmen’s League of America and when he was re-elected in 1935 he went to see Hughes, who had succeeded Waters as general manager, staging a repeat performance of his historic 1933 speech.

Hughes was still firm. “I don’t think,” he said, “you have the equipment to handle the job.”

“All right!” Patty cried. “If I haven’t I’ll get someone who has. Come on down to Dallas with me, tonight.”

Frolexland Flop

THE TEXAS Centennial was still going strong and he intended to get the Beckman and Garrity Shows for the next year’s C.N.E. But on arrival in Dallas he felt sicker than ever at the thought of not getting the contract himself. A few hours before they were due to get together with the other showmen he shook Hughes’ hand as if he never expected to see him again this side of Jordan. “Sorry I can’t go out there with you tonight, Elwood,” he said, “but I’m leaving for Vancouver first thing in the morning. I’ve got to get some sleep.”

Again playing turtle, making the strategic move of one who is a businessman and at the same time an actor. Three weeks later, while loafing around Vancouver, he got a wire from Hughes asking him to stop off in Toronto en route to the annual showmen’s convention in Chicago. He wired Brother Frank to see what Hughes wanted. Next morning he received a wire from Hughes offering him the contract. He hurried East, to find everybody who is anybody in the outdoor-show business camped on Hughes’ mat at his Royal York headquarters. The big guns of powerful American interests which first got Hughes’ range in Dallas, had followed him back to Toronto.

Everybody called on Hughes that day, Patty Conklin last of all. Hughes kept him up in his suite until 3 a.m. Conklin made another speech. He snapped his braces, which is his way of putting a period at the end of a statement, and sat down. Hughes looked out the window at the lights blinking along Toronto waterfront and when he looked back a few minutes later there were tears in his eyes. “You win, Patty,” he said. “But I won’t give you the contract until we get to the convention next week. Meanwhile, what can you deliver?”

Anything in the world, Conklin said. What did the C.N.E. want? Then, before Hughes could speak, “What it needs are big Canadian attractions. How about the Dionne Quintuplets?”

Hughes goggled. “Can you get them?”

“I can try,” the showman said, and half an hour later, with twenty-five thousand-dollar bills in hand—to carnival folk a bundle of lettuce like this means more than a check for a million—he had the ear of the late Senator F. P. O'Connor, partying over at the King Edward. F. P. was amused and not a little alarmed. “You better put that money in a safe place,” he advised the perspiring showman, “and take it easy. I’ll be talking to the P.M., Mitch Hepburn. I’ll see what he says.”

The Prime Minister figured it would be all right and only the Honorable David Croll, then chief defender of the Callander Miracles, stood between Patty Conklin and a gold mine. “Sorry!” O’Connor told him on the phone next morning. “No luck!” Then, just as Conklin was hanging up, “Say—I hear you’re heading for Winnipeg. Get me a horse for my daughter, will you?”

While in Winnipeg Conklin got another bright idea. He phoned Hughes, promising he’d have Tom Mix to take the place of the Quints. It was a promise born of desperation, however, for he was afraid the contract was off, and he admits being the most surprised man in the world when Hughes walked up to him in a Chicago hotel a few days later and handed him the contract to sign.

“You and I,” he yelled, with an impulsiveness that has marked his progress ever since he landed in St. Boniface with all those kewpie dolls, “are going to England.”

Over there he was pointed out as Canada’s Number-One Showman. He wore a blue-serge suit, a pearl-grey Stetson, carried a cane. Austere gentlemen from Fleet Street tried in vain to interview him. “Not talking, thank you!” So they did the Riviera, then returned to Canada, and in 1937 James Wesley Conklin handled his first season at the C.N.E.

That was the year, remember, that infantile paralysis swept southern Ontario. It lopped a half million off the usual two million attendance. His attractions, featuring Tom Mix, had been framed for juvenile patrons. He managed, despite their absence, to gross $16,000 more than Grueburg had the previous year, but when he had paid off the last gazooni around the lot he found he had lost twenty-four thousand dollars.

It was a bitter blow.

Twelve days after the C.N.E. closed he walked into Hughes’ hotel room and did something he doesn’t do once in a month of Good Fridays—drank two bottles of beer, one right after the other. Then, turning to Hughes, “All right! What have you got to say?”

Hughes said, “I think you’ve done the most remarkable job any man ever did, Patty. The contract’s yours for next year.”

“I don’t want it. You couldn’t pay me to take it.”

Conklin said a lot more, using the sort of language he has mastered during twenty years of loading carnival trains in driving rains, watching tents and equipment go with the wind on the wide open spaces of Canada’s prairies. But Hughes was firm. He sent a delegation to London, where Conklin Shows were trying to recoup some of the money lost at the C.N.E.

Conklin Carries On

I WON’T do it,” the showman insisted.

“You can’t quit like this,” snapped Brother Frank, while Mrs. C. echoed the sentiment. But Patty stood pat. That’s the reason for his nickname, incidentally, and he went right on standing pat for nearly two months. Then Hughes cornered him in a restaurant on Adelaide Street, Toronto. “You told me two years ago,” he reminded, “that I was the only gazooni you’d ever met who had as much guts as yourself. That was when I backed you. It’s your turn now'.”

That put it strictly up to Conklin. “I had to get in there and frame something bigger than ever,” he told me, “or get clean out of show business.”

Result: In 1938 he lost only a thousand dollars. In 1939, the year war broke, he managed to do all right. Last year Frolexland shattered all records for the amusement area at the C.N.E. and this year Conklin holds a virtual monopoly of outdoor show business for Canada.

Conklin Shows open around the first of May in Hamilton and for a month cover local points. Early in June, with a larger show, they travel west, to play good old St. Boniface, Winnipeg and all important fairs between there and Vancouver. Mid-August finds them at the Calgary Stampede and when that is over Patty heads back east, to assume his post as director of the amusement area at the Toronto exhibition.

Actually, his position is that of producer. During the rest of the year he shops around with Elwood Hughes, looking for the best attractions the show world has to offer. His job includes the engaging of big-name bands for the community dancing, superintending the erection of fronts especially prepared at his Brantford plant, and acting as general trouble shooter on a lot which employs more than 1200 people.

Meanwhile, a part of Conklin Shows is playing Quebec, Three Rivers and Sherbrook and when leaves begin to fall the forty-five car caravan pulls back into winter quarters at Brantford and Showman Conklin takes a month off before starting all over again. “Which,” he says, “is fair enough.”