I started working at the Pacific National Exhibition when I was 12. It was a wild ride.

“It anchors the east side of the city and reminds me of all that has come before, both good and bad”

A crowd of people walk towards the midway at the PNE in 1950. In the background, there are fairway signs and rides.

A crowd on the Gayway, which is what the midway at the PNE was called, in 1950. (Photograph courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives 180-5075.)

In 1980, when I was 12 years old, I got my first job working at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition, or PNE. My dad drove me to the fairgrounds, where I was hired without an interview. I copied down my social insurance number, had my picture taken and was told to come back in a week. The PNE was the largest employer of young people in the province, hiring a thousand or so teens for two weeks of the fair. They didn’t have much time to vet the candidates.

I was hired to work in the tic-tac-toe balloon game on the midway. On my first day, I mastered my job in a few minutes—blow up balloons, replace the ones that got popped, dodge the darts. That was it. But it was never boring. There was so much going on around me: the games, the rides, the teenage girls. As someone who spent a good deal of my free time looking at my older brother’s yearbook and dreaming about the world of teens, I had arrived in the promised land. And I only got hit by a dart once; my 16-year-old boss threw it at me on purpose after I cracked a joke about her having a crush on the “spaced-out dimwit” who sold helium balloons. I quickly learned to not tease her about guys, and, in exchange, she learned to not use my body as a dart board.

An employee pass for Nick Marino. His photo is in the top left corner. In the bottom is the mountain symbol of the company that employed him at the PNE.

The author’s 1984 employee pass. (Photograph courtesy of Nick Marino.)

At 12 years old, I had no idea about the long history of the fair that stretched behind me: in fact, the PNE officially opened on the day my grandma was born in 1910. It was once the cultural hub of the city—where my mom watched Elvis Presley play his last concert outside of the United States and where the Beatles performed to the largest crowd of their North American tour. Three professional sports teams once called the PNE grounds their home.

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It was the fair itself that kept me coming back as a kid. On our yearly family trips to the PNE, my brother, sister and I would fly down the impossibly tall “Giant Slide.” We’d cheer and shout during the demolition derby, as drivers deliberately crashed giant cars into each other, stopping only when a single vehicle was left running or everyone was too concussed to continue. We watched in awe as the lumberjacks in the timber show scaled what seemed like thousand-foot poles and carved tiny chairs with chainsaws. If our mom let us, we filled up on traditional fair food—slabs of fudge, bags of mini-doughnuts and buttery scones.

Two cars smash into each other on dirt field, watched by a large crowd.

The demolition derby was the highlight of the fair for Nick Marino. (Photograph courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives 180-3857.)

The PNE has been thrilling audiences for 113 years. But it has also reflected the times in occasionally grotesque and offensive ways. In the 1950s there were segregated shows, where Black and white performers occupied separate stages. Freak shows, featuring such acts as the man with alligator skin, a girl without arms and a parade of little people, ran until the early 1970s. On the monkey speedway, rhesus macaques were chained to tiny cars that they drove around an oval. One year, there was a freckle-face contest where kids got their freckles publicly counted in hopes of winning a bike. There was also a ladies’ nail driving competition where housewives raced against each other to hammer a nail into a board, and even something called “Celebrity Milking”—which could mean a few different things, I guess.

Three middle aged women hammer nails into a long wooden beam.

Like the freckle-face championship and the freak show, the ladies’ nail-driving contest is no longer part of the fair. (Photograph courtesy of Ray Allen/City of Vancouver Archives 180-6102.)

None of that concerned me as I blew up balloons and dodged darts though. I quickly learned that teens throughout the park were trading everything they could with each other: rides for games, parking for beer, prizes for pinball. There was a whole underground economy going on that ensured most of us were making more than minimum wage for those two weeks. I was drawn into it when a kid from a nearby hamburger stand suggested that if I gave him some records, which were the prizes from our dart game, he’d give me free food. When he wanted more records, he would also give me a wad of bills to go with my cheeseburger and onion rings.

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This all happened in the shadow of the massive wooden roller coaster that was built in 1958 and is somehow still scaring a new generation of riders. The Coaster, as it is simply called, promises to be the most stressful 90 seconds of the fair as riders travel at almost 80 kilometres per hour through twists, turns, and camel hops. The only restraint is a bar slapped across your waist by a teenage employee. The Coaster is the third wooden roller coaster to be built on the PNE grounds. One of its predecessors, the Giant Dipper, threw riders around with such ferocity that it was rumoured to be a cure for unwanted pregnancies.

The Giant Dipper pictured in a postcard from the 1920s. (Photograph courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives AM1052 P-2151.)

If it ever rained, Pat, the teenaged carny who worked at the nearly impossible milk jug softball game next to our tent, would close his booth and rush over to the Coaster, convinced that the cars would slip on the track, giving an even more terrifying ride. I liked Pat, but even at twelve years old, I knew there was something I couldn’t trust about him. One time, a co-worker and I were hanging around with some actual teenage girls after our shift and we ended up at Pat’s game, where I somehow was able to get a ball into one of the jugs. It was the best moment of my summer as I proudly waited for the girls to pick the giant stuffed animal of their choice. Unfortunately, Pat laughed and reminded me that I hadn’t actually paid before throwing the ball, so it didn’t count. No amount of pleading could change the young con man’s mind and I left the fair with a taste of the highs and lows of (almost) being a teen.

I worked at the fair for six summers. After my first year blowing up balloons, I spent the rest of my time working in a bingo tent, which had a much different clientele than a dart game that gave out records. I spent my days handing out bingo cards to overheated seniors while the teenage girls just glided right past our tent. The year I turned 19, I finally broke free and got a job at a restaurant directly across the street from the fair. I learned that the PNE’s influence went much further than the boundaries on a map as our restaurant’s success was completely dependent on the crowds coming from the fair, the hockey games and the concerts on the other side of the street.

A woman sits on an armchair. Four legs come out of her plaid skirt.

The four-legged woman at the Freak Auditorium in 1941. (Photograph courtesy of the City of Vancouver Archives 180-1034.)

Once my wife and I had kids of our own, we experienced the thrill of the fair all over again through their eyes. Our daughters beamed as they won their first stuffed animals, laughed and cheered during the dog show, and asked for more food than we were willing to buy. What they couldn’t see were the changes that had taken place in the last 40 years. Vancouver’s Expo 86 started the exodus of sports and entertainment from the PNE grounds. The Canucks, Whitecaps and Lions moved to newer facilities on the west side of the city. Major concerts also take place at Rogers Arena and BC Place Stadium. (In 2002, Guns N’ Roses fans were forced to riot at an arena six kilometres away from the PNE grounds, where Vancouverites had traditionally rioted in the past.)

And here we are again—about to start the two weeks of the fair before students and teachers have to drag themselves back to class. As a teacher who still lives and works in East Vancouver, a seven-minute drive from the fairgrounds, I’m glad that it’s still here. It anchors the east side of the city and reminds me of all that has come before, both good and bad. Unlike parts of the ancient cities of Europe where you walk on top of history, the characters of the PNE past are more ethereal, memories that we walk through on the way to another ride or a second bag of doughnuts.

A young man on the left shares one foot-long hot dog with a young woman wearing a striped shirt.

A young couple eating a foot-long hot dog, Lady and the Tramp style. (Photograph courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives 180-2219.)

Sure, it might not be the cultural hub that it once was, but it’s proven that more than a century later, it isn’t going anywhere. I hope that those 105 acres of land are always home to the young players and dreamers of the east side of the city. The 12-year-old me would have wanted nothing less.

Nick Marino is the author of East Side Story, a memoir of growing up at the PNE.

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