As the gates of the 2013 Red River Exhibition, celebrating its 61st year, close tonight, thousands of teenagers will have passed through over the 10-day run. Teens have always been a mainstay for the Ex.
Back in 1965 when the popular annual summer fair was held around the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football stadium behind Polo Park, Ex organizers created what was heralded as Canada's first ever Teen Fair. Situated in the east parking lot of the Arena, Teen Fair was the brainchild of Barney Shane and Al Blanc, two enterprising young local entrepreneurs who sought to tap into the burgeoning youth market at the height of Beatlemania and catch the excitement local live bands generated. They planned to take the concept national following its Winnipeg debut.
In a fenced-in circular area, some forty booths were set up offering various teen-oriented activities and promotions. Opening each day at noon, the real attractions were the three stages boasting non-stop live bands from 6 p.m. to midnight. Sponsored by radio station CKRC, IGA Foods, and Monarch Wear, whose locally-produced Tee Jay jeans were the hippest threads in town, the entertainment featured some of the city's top bands, including The Quid, Crescendos (shortly to leave Winnipeg for Liverpool), Shondels, Vaqueros, Pallbearers, and D.G.N. and the Unchained.
"It was a real thrill for us to be playing at the Ex," notes Ron Simenik of the Vaqueros. "As kids, we had all gone to the Ex." The format fostered a bit of competition between the groups. "It was a strange situation because they had bands facing each other and it felt like a battle of the bands," laughs Crescendos drummer Vance Masters. "It was fast-paced because while one band was playing, the other would be setting up. There were lots of kids and everyone was having fun." A dance area was designated in front of each stage as teens boogalooed to the beat. "We played all the wild tunes right away," recalls Simenik. "Kids were dancing all over the place."
"It was a huge boost to the local talent to have that exposure," says Crescendos singer Glenn MacRae. "Not only for people from the city but for all the rural people who came in for the Ex and didn't otherwise get a chance to see all these local bands. It really helped the 'star appeal' of the local groups."
"Everyone went to see the bands," remembers Gloria Benoit. "We went every night and would all stand in front and watch them." Ex organizers estimated some 20,000 teens took in the Teen Fair from June 18 to 26, despite the occasional downpour.
Besides the music, the Teen Fair included a tomato throw (five tosses for a quarter), a slot car racing track operated by Cross Country Raceways, and the ever-popular car bash, where teens armed with sledgehammers took out their frustrations on three dilapidated jalopies. But it wasn't all mindless thrills. Various businesses and educational institutions like the Manitoba Commercial College and Junior Achievement manned information booths.
A nightly draw of a transistor radio was offered as well as the grand prize, a Ducati motorcycle. CKRC radio personalities such as Doc Steen, Boyd Kozak and Harry Taylor served as rotating hosts each evening, giving away dozens of 45s. The station also ran a contest. The coveted prize up for grabs: the four Beatles' autographs, which were procured during the Fab Four's brief refueling stop in Winnipeg the previous summer. Seventeen-year-old Benoit was the elated winner.
"I probably put my name in the drum about a hundred times," she chuckles. "They made the draw the next day on the radio and Boyd Kozak showed up at my house that morning with the autographs."
On the final day, popular CJAY television show Teen Dance Party broadcast live from the site. There was even a beauty pageant, culminating in the crowning of Miss Teen Fair.
Teen Fair returned the following year, though on a slightly smaller scale with three bands -- The Orfans with their dyed blond hair and white guitars, The Shondels, and Toronto band The Secrets -- on one stage and fewer booths and displays. Somewhere I have a photo of me star-struck in my fur vest standing beside Orfans' Danny Holmes and Boots Loreque. Monarch Wear used the event to promote its new line of Tee Kay jeans ("J is out, K is in!") with the opportunity to meet Miss Tee Kay, diminutive singer Lucille Emond, in person. Miss Community Club was crowned on the final night.
Renamed Shindig-A-Go-Go in 1967, the magic was nonetheless gone. Although the Ex continued to feature local bands in various locations over the next few years they never recaptured the excitement of Teen Fair. "It was a very unique event and very well attended," reflects Glenn MacRae.
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