I can remember every vivid detail and events that took place on Friday, July 8th and Saturday July 9th 1977 like it happened last week. In fact, I’m sure I will take those memories with me until my final days. I keep those memories fresh for my story I tell on occasion when I get the chance.
The first day of the 65th Calgary Stampede opened without a hitch, the Sun was shining and a warm breeze blew over the Stampede Parade that had concluded and well attended much like many other Parades. The grounds opened and the crowds began to amass much like many other opening days at the annual event, nothing really too out of the ordinary to report, except that the Stampede was open.
The head custodians of the Stampede at that time, Don Jaques and Jack Betherlsons, or any of the others that manned the day-to-day operations had any idea how the events of the next twenty-four hours would unfold to a magnitude that still holds precedence to this day.
Back in November of 1976 at the International Fairs and Exhibitions annual conference in Las Vegas, then marketing director for the Stampede, Dave Poulsen, and president of the Conklin Shows, Alfie Phillips had scheduled a meeting to discuss the marketing strategy for the upcoming Stampede. Poulsen discussed an endeavor to offer Midnight Madness that would start at the crack of midnight on Saturday and end at 8:00am the following morning. This program would offer customers unlimited Midway riding during the promotion hours for only $5. Also, the plan called for very little of other Stampede attractions or services to be open, this really was going to be a Midway only promotion.
After a couple of months of planning at both the Stampede and Conklin camps, the program was set a foot and ready for the upcoming Stampede. The Stampede did very little promotion of the Pay One Price, with the exception of the daily program guide and some promotion from the local youth platform radio CKXL.
Back at the 1977 Stampede, the management at Conklin thought that we could get a reasonable crowd for the first ever Midnight Madness, although the talk about the Midway more than anything thing was the employees were grumbling and focused on having to stay up all night.
Around 7 p.m. the Conklin team got their first warning that the promotion might be a success.
The Midway went from normal to very busy and by 9 p.m. the crowds were amassing in droves. At 11 p.m. Friday night when the midway first started to sell the Bracelets for the Midnight Madness the lines at the ticket windows were so long it was very hard in most instances to conclude where those lines ended.
Ticket sellers would almost instantly run out of bracelets within minutes of when they were delivered, which added to the bedlam. Behind the scenes the core of administrative Midway staff were scrambling to recruit more ticket sellers from within the ranks of the organization, finding more wrist bracelets to inventory and get out to the booths and try to keep some odd sort of a semblance to the confusion.
As for me, I began my work day Friday, around 11:00am in the ticket office for Conklin Shows and I was assigned to assist in sorting out an office that had arrived from the previous fair, the Winnipeg Red River Exhibition, that had yet to been set up and ready for operation at the Stampede.
After that job was completed I went out to sell tickets in a Midway ticket booth. Around 8 p.m. as the crowd grew, I was removed from my booth and asked to assist in the delivery of tickets and help with cash collections from those same ticket booths. I aided a traveling employee that had been with the company for a few years named Dan Gerbec. Dan and I would deliver tickets and make cash collections, when possible and as the evening progressed we would literally run between the ticket office and the sellers to marginally keep up with the demand.
At the stroke of Midnight the aptly named promotion “Midnight Madness” began and the entire fiasco reminded me of huge pools of fish swarming as they were being fed. Now not only did the ticket boxes have unimaginable lines now, so did the rides.
I happened to be at the Sky Ride North location around 1:30 a.m. and I can remember the throngs of people coming in through the Stampede main entrance, the late hour did not deter Calgarians in the least. It was close to this time I returned to the ticket office and one of the supervisors had me sign for a $100 float and told me that I was going to take care of the two Monster ride ticket booths on my own. Soon I was running out bracelets to the sellers and collecting thousands of dollars a booth every time I returned. Around 3 a.m. things had gotten out of control by my best estimates. Crowds were still pouring in the gates and the pace had not slowed any, often when I returned to my Monster Ride ticket booth, the booth was not in the same location as my previous visits as there were so many people the booths that were on wheels would roll down the midway with the masses. The grounds were littered with paper, dead and lost stuffed animals, liquor and beer bottles of every description were scattered in every direction, it was apparent that the clean up team did not have the forces to keep abreast of the mess or had given up all together, I would guess the latter. The huge crowds packed every Midway ride and it was almost impossible to move in any direction and due to the size of the crowds. The ride fences were being pushed closer and closer to the operating rides, and some had to be closed in the course of safety. The few washrooms that were open were stretched well beyond capacity and people used the sides of buildings, parks and green areas instead of proper facilities. The police, much like the clean team, had all but given up and the fairly well behaved masses were left to their own devices.
Around 4:30am the ticket booths started to calm down and got to a manageable state, the constant stream of people at the gates had also died down and the midway was left with 20 or 30 thousand people that wanted to ride.
As the sun started to come up, in my estimation only maybe 5 or 10% of the people had left, the hard core riders were in for the long haul. It truly was amazing to see all those people at 6 a.m. in the morning, riding like crazy, playing Whac-A-Mole and eating Pizza – incredible really.
Around 7 a.m. the people started to disperse and by 8 a.m. when we closed, we were down to a hand full of guests. One of the great memories I will take away was the look on the faces of the Stampede customers that do arrive early for the Stampede to check out the barns or whatever they do, to find garbage everywhere, overflowing bins and bottles of scattered throughout the park. The Midway looked like it had been in the middle of a war zone, I guess we had been.
We closed at 8 a.m. and reopened a short, short two hours later at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning to a Stampede staff scrambling to clean up the mess and return the grounds back to normal.
Saturday morning was overcast with some brief showers that cleared by noon and soon the midway was back at full throttle. We worked all day Saturday and at the conclusion of that days’ operation we, at the ticket office, had stacks of paper and money and sellers balance sheets that needed to be processed, the fun was not over yet. We worked until around 4:30 in the morning and called it quits after about a 40-hour shift. Returning Sunday at 9 a.m. to opening for 10 a.m. was almost unbearable to see all the unfinished work that need to be completed and face another day of operations.
In the end, the Stampede reported 177,207 people came through the gates, which at that juncture was the highest attendance fair day in North America, and that record stood for many years to follow. Daily Stampede Attendance reports still to this day state that the 177,207 is a Stampede record for the day and any day of the Stampede.
During all of this I did not really understand the magnitude of a day of this scale, the Midway and Stampede staff was pretty calm and really seemed to have most areas under control, we indeed got backed up at the ticket booths, but I thought maybe this happens all the time. I thought that crowds this big were of the normal course of business and the Stampede and Conklin team just got caught off-guard for they did not know that the promotion was going to be that successful.
As for me becoming a supervisor and collection agent for the tickets sellers, again I thought that maybe they do this as part of their routine and inside I thought someone was keeping an eye on me. I guess at the time I did not really understand any of this – for it was my first day of work with Conklin Shows, which was 35 years ago. I still work for these fine folks today, which is now known as North American Midway Entertainment. Pretty good first day.
North American Midway
Vice President – Client Services