Book review: East Side Story: Growing Up at the PNE

For anyone who has grown up, raised kids, or is a kid at heart in BC, there is a good chance you would have visited the Pacific National Exhibition, or as it is better known, the PNE. Beginning in 1910, the PNE showcased British Columbia to the rest of Canada, its innovation in technology and agriculture.

For author, Nick Marino, along with many other “East Van kids, the PNE was home” and the grounds provided year-round adventure and sometimes, the opportunity for trouble. In East Side Story, he reveals the colouful, gritty, funny, and sometimes tragic history of the PNE though memories of the concerts, sporting events and his own working experience at the annual fair. Marino’s family has lived in East Van for over one hundred years and so the author’s knowledge of local families, and associations with the PNE, run deep.

Every year, when kids and teens are dreading the end of summer, the annual two weeks at the PNE offers a welcome distraction, with amusement park rides, Superdogs, mini doughnuts, and concerts. Many young fairgoers save their money for the sideshows, carnival games and impatiently wait to be the right height to ride the Wooden Rollercoaster. For teens working the Fair, it provides much needed spending money and for them, and visiting teens alike, a chance to flirt. For adults, the dream of winning the prize home, peruse the dismay of farming exhibits, attend the horse events, and stay for the concerts and fireworks, is a draw. Marino’s East Side Story: Growing Up at The PNE explores the history of the fair through personal memories and interviews.

There is a tragic legacy as well. In the spring and late summer of 1942, the government erected a chain link fence between the Hastings Park Racecourse and the PNE. It marked the separation the PNE’s entertainment zone with signage Happyland Holds Dances as Usual, and the racecourse’s horse stalls, used to ‘house’ Japanese, many born in Canada here, who were interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Marino’s induction into the petty theft, that was ubiquitous for the Fair’s teen employees, began in his second summer of working the Fair.

I was initiated by a blond girl a couple of years older than me. She casually leaned down and said, “Take forty dollars out. I’ll leave it off this sheet. Meet me by the roller coaster after work. Twenty for you, twenty for me.” She delivered all this while looking straight ahead, as if she were passing on the most trivial information and not pulling me back into the paranoia of stealing from work. I nodded and thought about a couple of records I might like to buy with the money. Then I put my hand in my apron and started folding a twenty-dollar bill into a little square with one hand while trying to look casual. When I mentioned this story to my sister, she said she had “learned to do origami” folding bills in her apron when she worked at the fair. I soon learned that every single worker in that bingo tent was in on it. Just a bunch of East Side kids making the most of an opportunity, I guess.

The PNE and Playland are in the 62-hectare area of Hastings Park. Within these grounds was the old Empire Stadium, and Marino cheered on BC Lions Lui Passaglia, and local lad Bob Lenarduzzi, whose playing was the highlight of soccer games. Both sports heroes remember parking cars in their driveways for fairgoers or trying to sneak in for free. With the building of the Pacific Colosseum, which saw ice shows, boxing, basketball, hockey, concerts, and circuses, Marino and ‘scores of East Side kids started working on schemes to get into the brand-new arena without paying.’

Nick Marino is a writer and teacher with deep roots in East Vancouver. He has performed at Just for Laughs Northwest, curated a series of comedy and music shows called Bite of the Underground, and taught comedy classes at Arts Umbrella.

Marino appears at the Literary Cabaret on  Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. at the Maury Young Arts Centre. Tickets are on sale now.

Book review is by Libby McKeever. She is a retired Youth Librarian, avid reader, and writer of both fiction and creative non-fiction. As a person who immigrated to BC in 1982, this memoir provided an entertaining narrative patchwork to her PNE experiences.

Book cover of East Side Story with a nature background