Vancouver has a number of long, strange histories in our city. We’ve always had a large number of riots, we have since the first Europeans began their no-so-subtle nudging of the First Nations out and gripes about how the neighbourhood was being overrun with people from Asia, and it was ruining the place. It created this perverse desire to gawk at people who deviated from the norm. Nowhere was this ever more true than in East Vancouver where Happyland once lived and Playland and the PNE now stand.
East Vancouver, where I call home, has always been home to the working class and the low brow. The PNE, originally called “Happyland” was an amusement park that catered to the thrill seeker whether they come from East 1st and Victoria or Arbutus and 41st. Set in beautiful Hastings-Sunrise area, it would often be a place where the well-heeled and the down-at-heel could gather and take in the sights, ride the rides, eat some sugary or fried foods and get in a little legal gambling on the ponies. Carnies and hustlers spoke their gospel here, and the crowds came and paid worship at the church of bizarre. While the rides have always had their share of grim history to the death on the Giant Dipper in the 30s (he was trying to do a handstand on the car and was bucked clean), to the use of the wooden rollercoaster featured in the opening of Final Destination 3, it is the freak show that entices me the most.
The Freaks drew in a great crowd, and during the hey-day of the Freak shows everything from the ‘Nudist Camp’ to the exhibits of amazing stunts that defied logic and reason, it caused the people to gather. Isy Walters, the brainchild behind the The Cave Nightclub and Isy’s knew the value of striptease and the allure they had along with the other acts that flew in the face of wholesome family values. And yet, the ladies in their hats and gloves, and the men pushing their hats back off of their foreheads saying, “Well, I’ll be…” were the bread and butter for not just the performers, but the lifeblood for the PNE then as it does today.
While the freakshow at the PNE these days is mostly limited to Fright Nights during the Halloween season, (and provided by the bizarre and wonderfully talented Monsters of Schlock), the vibe of Vancovuer’s freak and contemporary circus scene thrives. I’m more than proud to be a part of it. Vivian Oblivion of my own collective, The Caravan Of Creeps as well as local stunt performer Neil E. Dee will be participating in International Sword Swallowing Day to help put Vancouver on the map with imbibers of blades worldwide. Burns the Dragon stands on a rolla-bolla longboard of nails, putting a contemporary spin on a classic act. Circus and burlesque schools abound teaching the aerial and sensual arts and are popping up faster than yoga studios and pot shops.
While in it’s early life Happyland and the PNE thrived because the local population came to gawk. Seeing the freaks somehow gave them a reinforced comfort knowing that no matter what secrets lay behind their white picket fences that they were the norm. Now, we have settled into our oddity and wear our west coast weirdness over our shoulder proudly like a magnificent cloak. I take comfort in this such mantle that Vancouver is truly a lotus land for the weirdo, and the odds are in the oddball’s favour here.
Happy freak and a proud weirdo, always.
Little Miss Risk