Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stampede is many things, but 'cool' is not one of them

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CALGARY -- You can use a lot of adjectives to describe the Calgary Stampede, but the one most likely to draw guffaws is "cool."

The Stampede is about as cool as Grandma's Corolla, as hip as a trip to Walmart, and as trendy as the Grand Ole Opry.

As Calgarians reassemble to celebrate the Wild West that never was, the city has once again turned into hayseed central -- with drunken "fauxboys" of indistinct socio-economic status weaving their way along downtown sidewalks day or night. Oilpatch engineer? Or box store stocking boy? It's almost impossible to tell when they're all dressed up in sweaty cowboy shirts, Shady Brady hats and Ian Tysons (the nickname I've attached to their oversized Wrangler ginkgo jeans).

A few of the ladies have distinguished themselves with their Daisy Dukes and tank tops exposing too much cellulite and not enough humility.

There's a healthy dose of corn pone sprinkled on your defiantly unhealthy corn dogs, mini-doughnuts, deep-fried Jello and cotton candy. It's everywhere, from the LED-gilded cowboy hats to ubiquitous hubcap-sized belt buckles brandishing some corporate sponsor's name.

Then there's the main event. The rodeo is fascinating in its violence, but the hosts sound like they arrived via time machine from Alabama in the '50s. Where do they get these guys who crack jokes as old as yer six-shooter?

Calgarians react in curious ways to this annual orgy of bad taste. Some embrace the silliness, put on our white Smithbilts (the cheap ones are made in Mexico) and jump in with posture-destroying pointy-toed cowboy boots. Then, there are those who consider a visit to the Stampede grounds about as attractive as getting your tooth drilled while listening to Kenny Chesney.

In fact, it's cool with a certain set to ridicule the self-proclaimed Greatest Show on Earth. Organizers know this and are trying to broaden the demographic, if only just a bit. In preparation for its centennial year, organizers boosted the advertising budget by 20 per cent and contracted with the Karo Group creative agency to put together a campaign to tweak the Stampede's image. The ads are brilliant in their campiness, contrasting old movie footage of two-steppers with images of modern Calgary, overlaid with a rockabilly tune.

The good news for Calgary is all those Stampede haters are having about as much luck curbing this event as Bob Barker has had in his quest to end calf-roping.

A total of 184,483 believers attended the Stampede grounds on Sunday, the largest one-day attendance in the 100 years since vaudevillian Guy Weadick shuffled up from the U.S. and convinced four local investors a paean to cowboys would sell. Barring disaster, the centennial is on track to blow the doors off the 1992 record of 1.2 million visitors over the 10-day event.

As any former high school math nerd can tell you, being uncool sometimes just means you get the last laugh. Who cares about being hip when being the opposite lands an estimated $300 million annually for the local economy?

I, too, laugh at the Stampede, but I do not head for the hills. Instead, I head to the closet, sort through my collection of cowboy hats, pull out my favourite shirt, belt buckle, Ian Tysons and boots -- and head for beer tents.

As corny as the Stampede is, it still somehow manages to generate a sense of magic that rivals some of the world's great annual festivals. Left or right, white, black or Asian, academic or truck driver -- for 10 days each year all the differentiators become invisible in this overgrown costume party. We know the code -- we say "Yahoo!" not "Yeehaw" and never, ever admit to being as gassed as we look.

Time to go. I hear they're serving vodka and OJ with your flapjacks and sausage this morning. Now, that's the Stampede spirit.

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief of Troy Media.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 12, 2012 A11

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