Today, April 1, 2011 marks the beginning of my 35th year working part-time for the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE)and I always have a good laugh about my starting date because after all isn’t April Fool’s day a great anniversary. I think would be an appropriate time to write about how these 170 or so acres have intertwined with my life.
Growing up in East Vancouver in a area historically know as Hastings Townsite, the PNE site was always part of my life. The park area was basically our playground as we grew up. We would ride our bikes all over the grounds, explore all the nooks and crannies of the facilities and basically being a nuisance to the security staff. (How ironic!)
All our pickup games of baseball, football, soccer and hockey were played on a small patch of green adjoining Callister Park, or on the BC Lions practice field in the northeast corner of the grounds. The home rink for my brief hockey career was played at the PNE Forum home of the Western Hockey League Vancouver Canucks where I scored an amazing total of two goals in my best year thus the reason for my “brief career”. My peewee football team was sponsored by Playland the company that operated the amusement park on the grounds. Although my athletic abilities could at best be described a somewhat suspect, I take pride in the fact that during these organized and not so organized games I had the honour of playing with and against several local, national and international sports heroes.
In addition to my youthful athletic adventures, the sports connection continued into my adulthood, the Nightowls Softball Club that I played on, coached, managed and babysat for twenty-five years was originally formed as departmental team challenging other PNE departments.
As teenagers, the PNE became an even more important part of our lives. We would attend sporting events both amateur and professional (Vancouver Canucks and BC Lions) and most importantly rock concerts at the Pacific Coliseum. My first concert was Led Zeppelin in 1970 but the most outstanding was the 1972 Rolling Stones show that cost a whopping $6.00 per ticket. I was also very lucky to be dating Version 1.0 during Grade 12 and college and her mother was the switchboard operator at the PNE so we managed to get a lot of free concert tickets. (More about Version 1.0 later)
The memories of the PNE during my early life are so vast. One of the most vivid was sitting on the front porch of the mansion on Dundas Street listening to the screaming coming from Empire Stadium while the Beatles played their 22 minute set. (The concert itself was broadcast live on the radio.)
I also remember watching two major fires from the fourth floor of our old rooming house. The most spectacular was when the main hill of the wooden roller burned down. The sadder one was when the stables at the race track caught fire and several horses perished. Years later, while working on the grounds during one fair another fire broke out on the docks of a nearby grain elevator and blanketed the park in noxious smoke. The area had to be evacuated of all guests and we were held on site on standby because the overnight shift could not get near the park. The horrible part of this ordeal is my beer garden security staff got stuck in one of the bars with nothing to amuse us but a pool table, two televisions and an open beer tap.
The PNE has always been a source of employment for youth and others living in East Vancouver and North Vancouver. Most people I grew up with worked on the grounds at one time or the other either directly for the PNE or one of the many exhibitors. My grandfather, dad, mom, brother, sister and nephew all worked on the grounds at one time or another. When The Crown Prince signed on to work in the parking department in 2005, he became the fourth generation of Donnelly’s to work on site. My first paying job was during the annual fair was in the Food Building for Principe’s Roma Café run by one of Vancouver’s more colourful characters, barber, boxing promoter and restauranteur, Al Principe. After two weeks of straining soup bones out of Al’s secret family recipe spaghetti sauce your skin was so saturated the orange glow it didn’t fade until October. The skin tone it produced made John Boehner and the clowns from “The Jersey Shore” look pasty faced. (Side note: Thankfully, Al’s secret family recipe went with him to the grave; the taste was reminiscent of tomato flavoured dish soap.)
My marriage to Version 1.0 ties in closely to the PNE. Our wedding reception was held on site at the PNE Board Room, now known as the Hastings Room. After we got married and while I was still seeking a full time career my mother-in-law arranged for me to be hired as a part-time usher. So if any of my co-workers or managers are looking for someone to blame, there you go. (Co-incidentally the last time I ran into Version 1.0 was a few years ago at the fair while I was heading for lunch at the Hastings Room.)
For me to go into the many work related stories of my time at the PNE would take forever. However the most vivid memory was in August of 1984 when I was recruited to be one of the VIP drivers in the annual PNE Parade through downtown Vancouver. The guests of honour that year were medal winners from the Los Angeles Olympics. I was lucky enough to draw the lead vehicle with Lori Fung, gold medalist in Rhythmic Gymnastics and Hugh Fisher, gold medalist in Canoeing. It was then that I got to hold an Olympic gold medal in my hands. The funniest part of event was stopping the entire parade so Lori could buy a balloon. The TV people just about had a fit! I got to repeat the driving performance the following year when we saluted the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Navy; my passenger was a World War 1 veteran who shared some salty tales of downtown Vancouver as we passed through.