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History 20th Century

Carnie King

The Story of Patty Conklin and Conklin Shows

by (author) John Thurston

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jul 2024
20th Century, Entertainment & Performing Arts, Circus
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jul 2024
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  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2024
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The story of the audacious showman who built the greatest carnival dynasty in North America.

Enter the realm of the carnie king, Patty Conklin, the flamboyant founder of what would become the world’s largest carnival company. Patty started on the mean streets of New York selling peanuts before becoming a a small-time operator. Willing to try anything to promote his show, he established himself as a carnie celebrity. Winning the midway contract for the Canadian National Exhibition in 1937, he made it his personal world’s fair. It became the foundation for his son and grandson to expand Conklin Shows until they were playing the biggest fairs and exhibitions throughout North America.

Carnie King begins with the birth of Joseph Renker to German immigrant parents, tells of his personal transformation into Patty Conklin, and follows his incredible life through to his death in 1970. It covers his company's history after Jim Conklin took over, expanded it beyond recognition, then handed it on to his own son.

Not only a history of Conklin Shows, Carnie King explores how midways work and their commercial and popular presence in North America The story it tells is based on dozens of interviews with carnies and access to the Conklin archives. It includes anecdotes about a range of characters and insights about life on the midway. Carnie King is at once a revealing look at a unique part of twentieth-century culture and a vivid account of three generations of showmen and their dominance of midways across the continent.

About the author

John Thurston is a one-time carnie who went on to become a writer and editor. With Carnie King, he brings together personal experience with his interest in popular culture. He lives in Ottawa.

John Thurston's profile page

Excerpt: Carnie King: The Story of Patty Conklin and Conklin Shows (by (author) John Thurston)

Chapter One: The Apprenticeship of Joe Renker

Joe was not there for his mother’s funeral or his sister’s wedding. By this time, he had joined the carnival and was wandering further afield. Billboard magazine, the omnibus weekly for entertainment news during the first half of the twentieth century, had carried advice for circus and carnival folk without plans for the winter to open nickelodeons, which had become the new entertainment sensation. Joe might have heard about the travelling carnivals through hanging around nickelodeons or at Coney Island.

By 1912 Joe had begun working with a carnival playing the oil boomtowns of Texas and Oklahoma. He was a partner with W.H. “Bill” Rice and Roy Marr, running gambling games on midways. The partners catered to oilmen flush with cash they were eager to spend. The games were uniformly dishonest, giving the players ample opportunity to part with their money and then retaliate by attacking the carnies. Men went to the midway expecting fights, which would have given them as much excitement as they could hope for on a night out in a Texas oil town.

The western route through the oil towns was rough, even by the standards of the early carnival. The partners, along with Rice’s wife, their bookkeeper, travelled in railway baggage cars between spots. They slept with a gun, as there was nowhere else to store the take and they could not leave it unguarded. This was but one of the survival tactics the group learned, each day facing crowds of rowdy men, taking their money without the restraints or protections of any established legal authority. During these years, the state, distracted by the troubles in Europe, ignored the need for law and order in the territories.

Joe might have made his first trip to Canada during these years. He said he booked games on his first Canadian route when he was 19, which would have been in 1911. He often reported that he had had a game at the first Calgary Stampede in 1912. Carnival companies travelling into Canada were required to deposit $2,000 with Canadian immigration authorities as a guarantee that all of their employees would return to the United States when the fairs were over. In the fall of 1914, a company called the Rice and Dore Carnival complained to Billboard that Canadian immigration authorities were unfairly holding their bond. The authorities said that the company had left some of its American staff behind. If this was the company with which Joe visited Canada, he was not among those who stayed behind.

The partners made a good deal of money before the outbreak of the Great War. Joe and Bill Rice saved much of theirs, while Roy Marr drank his away. After three or four years on the road, Joe returned to New York City, intent on finding a wife. The Rices stayed in Texas for another year, then returned to their home state of Arizona. Joe was unsuccessful at finding a wife upon his return to New York. But he did have a substantial kitty and a wealth of experience in the field where he would build his own empire.

The First Conklin Shows

James Conklin, an old man in a window booth, nurses a bourbon. He is not relaxed in the plush leather seat, but leans over the table, shoulders hunched, looking out at New Orleans’s rue Royale, gazing absently at the thin trickle of people flowing through the Quarter in the dim, late afternoon light. He slips a hip flask from the folds of his waistcoat and tops up his drink, the ice almost gone.

His wife joins him, and he looks up as she sits down, rubbing her brow. Their eyes do not meet.

“I don’t know why we had to come down here to winter. We can hardly afford to stay in this place — you think it gives you something to brag about to the help.” She sighs and wipes her forehead with a handkerchief, takes off her glasses, and rubs her eyes. “This heat and damp is terrible for my nerves.”

A waiter comes and she asks for water and ice. The man across from her strokes his moustache and looks at her with passive, hooded eyes, then turns back to the view out the window. The setting sun casts a yellow glow over the city.

“Go back to New York anytime you want,” he says.

The March 16, 1915, issue of Billboard, the carnie bible, had the following announcement:

"An aggregation new to carnivaldom, known as Clark & Conklin’s All Feature Shows, will tour the Eastern territory the coming season. This aggregation is under the personal supervision and direction of James W. Conklin, a veteran circus showman. While Mr. Conklin is not very well known to carnival folks, he has a wide acquaintance in the circus world."

James Wesley Conklin, born in 1861, the same year as Joe Renker’s father, had at one time owned the Family Theater in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He had worked in a management capacity with both the Ringling Brothers and the Barnum & Bailey circuses. He had been the assistant manager to J. Harry Six on his carnival in 1914. A portly, avuncular man with a bushy grey moustache, he sometimes took the show owner’s honorific of “colonel.” Between 1915 and 1920, Joe Renker joined Clark & Conklin Shows, adopted his surrogate father and began his transformation into J.W. “Patty” Conklin. The character who would transform the North American carnival industry would appear just as the industry was ready for him.

Editorial Reviews

As the book unfolds, the reader is immersed in a bygone era of carnivals, fairs, and the rough and tumble world of midways.... A must-read!

Scooter Korek, Vice-President, North American Midway Entertainment

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