The CNE ~ Canadian National Exhibition

Black Monday Swarm - Tales From The Ex

Tales From The ExThroughout the 125th Canadian National Exhibition I've shared stories from my three years working there as a game booth attendant. Below is my final tale for 2004. I have many others, so we'll pick this up again next August.

Today is Labour Day and the final day of the twenty day CNE. I don't know how things are today, but in the late 80s we called this day Black Monday. I wrote a little about Black Monday last week.

There's one Black Monday I'll never forget. Rumours were circulating throughout the afternoon that a large collection of wannabee-thug teens were planning to swarm the midway on a looting spree. We were on high-alert for such activity and when night fell and sunlight dissapated we got word that this swarming had begun. Apparently it had started around the Dufferin Gates and was working it's way towards the Princes Gates. We didn't have more than a minute or two before they'd be at our booth.

The game booth I was working was a trailer that opened and closed on each side. We jumped in and I hit the button for the hydraulics to close the doors. In complete darkness we held the doors closed and in seconds all we heard was a continuous thunderous pounding. This swarm of people was banging on the walls as they advanced. It lasted less than a minute but it was surreal. When we opened the doors to take a peak outside there was no sign of trouble. The swarm had advanced and we were no worse for wear.

The worst part of Black Monday was the fact I'd be back at Michael Power High School the next day for another semester of boredom. One day I'm taking out petty thugs and locking myself in a trailer to avoid an angry mob and the next day I'm in home room. It was never an easy transition.

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Observing the Conklin Carnies - Tales From The Ex

Tales From The ExDuring the 125th Canadian National Exhibition, I'm sharing stories from my three years working there as a game booth attendant. Below is one of many.

The CNE's midway, full of rides and game booths, is mainly operated by Conklin and has been for decades. I didn't work for Conklin. As mentioned in previous tales, I worked for a smaller operation run by a man named Ardo. I did, however, have a unique opportunity to observe the lifestyle of the Conklin carnies.

Most of those I worked with, including myself, went to school the day after the Ex closed. Most of those working the many Conklin rides and games tore down and moved on to the next carnival. They were your stereotypical carnies and this was their year-round, full-time occupation. Today, Conklin's website actually hosts their employee handbook. Along with projecting a positive attitude and maintaining a professional attitude, there's no eating, drinking, or smoking while working. Fifteen years ago when I was observing the Conklin carnies on a daily basis, there was no such handbook.

These guys amazed me with their ability to work so consistently on so little sleep. They were up at dawn and partying hard well into the wee hours of the night. They slept in trailers on the site and you could always find them enjoying life outside the trailer with a smoke in one hand and a beer in the other. I think this was their official uniform at the time. We were always envious of their innate ability to have a great time at any hour of the day. They partied hard, but they worked hard too. As I previously wrote, they were there when I needed them and they've got my respect...even if they don't have all their teeth.

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Bands at the Grandstand - Tales From The Ex

Tales From The ExDuring the 125th Canadian National Exhibition, I'm sharing stories from my three years working there as a game booth attendant. Below is one of many.

Working at the CNE you could always expect a concert crowd before and after that night's show at Exhibition Stadium. The concert ticket got you into the Ex for free so concert goers would often arrive early to play games on the midway and would do the same on their way out.

These concerts produced much of the clientele for the evening. The sort of crowd we got depended upon the style of music being performed that night. When Motorhead and other metal acts played, it was a typical head banger crowd with lots of leather and those classic rock tee shirts with the white sleeves and black chest. When the Cure played it was a sea of black. A band like YES (or Emerson, Lake and Palmer as the case may be) brought out the middle aged crowd. For the record, the big spenders were the Rolling Stones fans there to catch the Steel Wheels tour. There were many, they were a variety of ages and they seemed to always have a lot of cash.

There was a spot I would visit when acts I liked were performing where I could comfortably chill and hear the concert. I couldn't see the stage, but I was close enough that it sounded great. I have fond memories of taking a couple of hours off on a busy night to hear the entire Alice Cooper set. I wasn't quite eighteen but I liked it.

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Risking My Life On Black Monday - Tales From The Ex

Tales From The ExDuring the 125th Canadian National Exhibition, I'm sharing stories from my three years working there as a game booth attendant. Below is one of many.

We called it Black Monday. Labour Day Monday was always the last and busiest day of the CNE. It was also well known as a day when crowds of youth would come to the midway and cause mischief.

In order to attract people to our game booth, the largest stuffed animals were hung around the booth as bait. They were hung from the rafters with S-hooks and string. That's it. On Black Monday, the game booth manager could expect the attempted theivery of a prize or two or three. In 1991, I was the game booth manager.

I can't remember what the wholesale cost of the jumbo prizes was but I think they were about $45 each. For whatever reason, we managers believed we had to protect these things with our lives. On Black Monday, the volume of business was staggering but I was obsessed with keeping my eyes on the prizes. No punk kid was going to snatch one of my giant pandas or pink elephants...not on my watch.

I remember one especially manic sequence in particular. One group of teens ripped down a prize on one end of the booth while another group grabbed a stuffed animal on the other end. Both parties began walking away in an attempt to blend into the thick crowd. I had to be a cowboy. I didn't even hesitate to think about whether these petty thugs were carrying knives or worse, I just knew they had property that I was to protect. I jumped into the crowd and snatched back the first prize, threw it in the booth and made a bee line to the second. Again, I think I startled the guy making off with the loot because I came upon him out of no where and ripped the animal out of his hands. With both prizes back in the booth and with my blood curdling with adrenaline, I jumped back in and prepared for retribution. None came and I had saved Ardo about $100 cash. More importantly, I protected my territory and won another battle for the good guys.

Today I wouldn't risk a beating or my life for the sake of a couple of prizes, but teenagers seldom use such logic to their advantage. I was young, dumb and in charge that Black Monday. I haven't felt as powerful since.

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The Legend of Ardo - Tales From The Ex

Tales From The ExDuring the 125th Canadian National Exhibition, I'm sharing stories from my three years working there as a game booth attendant. Below is one of many.

We called him Ardo and we feared him. Ardo was the boss and his persona was thug-like, a tough dude you didn't want to mess with. He did his best never to let you catch him smiling. With every snarl and command his legend grew.

The typical game booth attendant working one of his several games was either a teenager or in his or her very early 20s. To keep us working hard and in line, Ardo decided very early on that presenting himself in such an intimidating fashion was his best bet. He was right. Your biggest fear was getting an earful from Ardo or having someone escalate an issue or incident to him. People told tales of what Ardo once did to this guy or that guy. Fear was his motivational tool of choice.

This worked the first year I worked for Ardo, but at some point during my second year Ardo let his guard down. I was permitted to see him in a more relaxed state and he even began laughing in my presence. For Ardo, it was all about trust. Until he trusted you, he played the tough guy as well as any cast member on The Sopranos. Once you earned his trust, you could clearly see he was indeed a softy underneath it all. Ardo's bark, in all it's tenacity, was far worse than his bite. I haven't been to the Ex in several years, but I'm pretty darn certain he's there right now glaring at his new game booth attendants while his legend permeates the midway.

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What a Wonderful World - Tales From The Ex

Tales From The ExDuring the 125th Canadian National Exhibition, I'm sharing stories from my three years working there as a game booth attendant. Below is one of many.

I typically closed up the booth at the end of the night. The park would close, I'd wait for the midway to empty and then begin bringing down the flash. The money would go to the office, the giant stuffed toys would come down from all around the booth and I'd lock up the game.

The game I worked and eventually managed was very close to the Polar Express. Every single night without failure the Polar Express' killer sound system would play Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" at the very end of the night. Every single night while I locked up the booth I'd find myself alone in the summer's night with Louis Armstrong wafting though my ears. It was the ideal song to penetrate the silence in the wee hours of the night after another long day of hustling and bustling. It brought a wonderful blend of calmness and hope to an otherwise chaotic arena.

To this day I can't hear a note of that song without instantly returning to the summers of '89, '90 and '91. It remains a personal favourite.

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Conklin Carnies Save My Life - Tales From The Ex

Tales From The ExDuring the 125th Canadian National Exhibition, I'm sharing stories from my three years working there as a game booth attendant. Below is one of many.

During the height of Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour in 1990, I was working a game with a Madonna-wannabee. She copied that complete look, including that fake-blonde pony tail. At this time, Ms. Blonde Ambition was also my manager and in charge of managing our shifts.

This particular game had a microphone and one of us was to be on the mic at all times creating excitement and attracting the next sucker. I was on when I saw a couple of people decked out in 680 CFTR gear handing out swag. In a shameless effort to score some free goods, I hollered "CFTR Rules!" into the mic and got their attention. It worked because they came right over and handed me two tickets to see the Jays at SkyDome that night and attend a Pizza Pizza party beforehand.

Ms. Blonde Ambition had to rearrange the schedule so I could get my free pizza and check out the Jays but she had a condition. She wanted the second ticket. I agreed and that night I gorged on pizza and witnessed the first bug delay in Blue Jays history. The game is rather infamous for the 35-minute bug delay and I'm proud to have been a part of it.

Here's where this tale from the Ex kicks into high gear. The next night I was closing up the game booth after midnight when I saw Ms. Blonde Ambition's boyfriend walking towards me. He was clearly drunk and was slurring something to the effect that I should stay away from his girl and he heard I asked her out. There was no point reasoning with this guy. He was there to kick my ass.

I was sixteen and not the biggest dude around. This guy was older, bigger and full of booze. It was after midnight at the CNE and I needed back-up. Where was I to turn?

A Conklin carny was closing up his booth and I quickly approached him and in as few words as possible told him Ms. Blonde Ambition's boyfriend's was there to pummel me and I needed a little help. Even though I wasn't working for Conklin, there was a code amongst us carnies. We looked out for eachother. I'll never forget what this 100 pound, 40-something year old, mullet-headed carny said and did next. He picked up a pipe, pounded it into his hand and called back behind the trailer to a collection of carnies enjoying an end-of-day brew, "You guys ready for a fight?".

This collection of Conklin carnies came through for me that night when I needed them most. I worked for a rival company, but we were all in the same gang. They saw I was in trouble and they took up the cause. To this day I'm unsure how that night ended for Ms. Blonde Ambition's boyfriend, but he didn't bother me again for the remainder of the CNE. I'm guessing he learned his lesson...carny style.

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The CNEThe 125th Canadian National Exhibition opened last week. It's the world's largest annual exposition and a great annual tradition here in Toronto.

I probably won't go to the Ex again until James is old enough to really enjoy it. You see, as a teenager, I seriously overdosed on the place. From 1989 through 1991 I worked at the CNE and walked the midway all 60 days it was open during that span. I've got a tonne of Ex memories, as you can imagine, and I'll try to share a few here over the next couple of weeks.

Stay tuned for the true tales of a game booth attendant! There's an intimidating presence named Ardo, carney heroics and lives risked for the sake of a giant stuffed bear.

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