CANADA

CALGARY'S BIG SHOW

For 10 days every July, this normally buttoned-down city lets loose with an extravaganza of hedonism—and loads of western authenticity

BRIAN BERGMAN July 23 2001
CANADA

CALGARY'S BIG SHOW

For 10 days every July, this normally buttoned-down city lets loose with an extravaganza of hedonism—and loads of western authenticity

BRIAN BERGMAN July 23 2001

CALGARY'S BIG SHOW

CANADA

CALGARY STAMPEDE

For 10 days every July, this normally buttoned-down city lets loose with an extravaganza of hedonism—and loads of western authenticity

BRIAN BERGMAN

For 50 weeks of the year, this is a buttoned-down, workaholic city. In suburbia, the electronic garage doors start clicking open at 6

a.m., dispatching the office warriors. For many, how early they get to work, and how long they stay there, are essential bragging rights. But for 10 days every July, the normal rules don’t apply. During the Cal gary Stampede-the self-proclaimed “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”—the city’s corporate masters loosen their grip. At a series of social functions, most of them sponsored by Calgary businesses, employees are encouraged to get in touch with their inner hedonist.

This being Calgary, of course, the festivities start early. At a typical corporate function last week, participants lined up at 7:30 a.m. for their morning elixir (vodka and pineapple juice served in boot-shaped cups). Denim jeans and shirts and a wide array of cowboy hats are the order of the day, though the cell-

phones strapped to many a hip tend to detract from the western look. After scrambled eggs and sausages, washed down with more “kickapoo juice,” the first “yahoos!” of the day are being shouted. At this point, some are preparing to slink into work; others are contemplating a full day of sanctioned hooky.

By early afternoon, many of the latter

THERE IS SOMETHING UNDENIABLY STIRRING ABOUT THE STAMPEDE’S CENTREPIECE EVENT: THE DAILY RODEO

have made their way to Desperados, near the downtown Stampede grounds. For most of the year, Desperados is a standard 400-person sports bar. But for Stampede, it becomes Calgary’s biggest watering hole, sprawling over 9,000 square metres of tented patio space and serving more than 2,000 thirsty souls at a time. Among the midday revellers is Tim Bowes, a 40-

year-old software sales executive who moved from Halifax to Calgary four years ago and has become an ardent Stampeder. Ticking off the list of activities—the family pancake breakfasts, the neighbourhood block parties, the blow-out spots like Desperados—Bowes marvels at how Calgary embraces the event. “I don’t know of any other city in Canada that has something like this,” he shouts over the din. “It’s one big urban party.”

As owner of Desperados, Omar Polyniak

has a front-row view of the action. Polyniak describes the Stampede as “Calgary’s version of the running of the bulls or the Mardi Gras. People need a time to vent, and this is it.” This being Calgary, though, it’s not all about fun. Behind the bacchanalia is a lot of corporate hustle. “There’s so much business done over Stampede week,” says Polyniak. “It’s done over a beer and a handshake or a vodka and OJ on a Monday morning.”

The Stampede, which many city merchants gratefully dub “Christmas in July,” is big business in otherways.Thisyear,an estimated 500,000 visitors came to Calgary forthe 10-day event; together with Calgarians, they were projected to spend up to $142 million along the way. Among the out-of-towners was Jack Hanna, an Ottawa-based communications consultant and former Calgary resident who was back last week for his first Stampede in 13 years. In between family camping trips to the Rockies, Hanna made the rounds of several upscale downtown pubs one evening before ending up on the wrong side of the railway tracks at the St. Louis tavern. A favourite haunt of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein when he was mayor of Calgary, the St. Louis is the sort of unpretentious establishment where the beer flows freely by the jug, the patrons know all the words to the band’s hard-luck country songs and cowboy hats don’t look so out of place. “Now this,” said Hanna, surveying the scene approvingly, “is more like it. It’s nice to see some traditions don’t die.”

In fact, much of what surrounds the Stampede these days is faux western (think Joe Clark in a Stetson and bolo

tie). Still, there is something undeniably stirring—and authentic—about the Stampede’s centrepiece event, the three-hour rodeo that takes place every afternoon at the fairgrounds. In the best tradition of Guy Weadick, the New York City-born cowpuncher who founded the competition in 1912, the world’s foremost cowboys dazzle thousands of fans by trying to rope, ride or wrestle fast and angry animals that do not want to be roped, ridden or wrestled. Unlike a lot of other professional athletes, these cow boys exhibit class: they don’t gloat when they triumph or pout when they lose. This is the true West and, with a little luck, it too will never die. Eü3