On the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the Calgary Kidettes, Stampede Historian Christine Leppard and raconteur Margot Gooder McDermott provide a look at the origins and history of the group and where we are today.

Canadian Classic is the name of this year’s TransAlta Grandstand Show. It promises to be a spectacle celebration of Canada from sea-to-sea-to-sea. It’s a fitting name for a show that stars the Young Canadians School of Performing Arts, who are themselves a Canadian classic. The Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede evolved from the Calgary Kidettes, who were featured in the second locally produced Grandstand Show in 1965.

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Early rehearsal at the Stampede Grandstand

Travelling variety shows were a common feature at State Fairs held across the United States and exhibitions held across Canada. By the early 1960s, the Calgary Stampede was just another stop on the circuit. Although the travelling variety shows provided an entertaining cap to the chuckwagon races, many people—including critics and Stampede management, alike—felt that the shows that came to the Stampede were missing two critical elements: local flavour and all-star talent. The travelling shows just couldn’t get the talent that, for example, Ed Sullivan was bringing to people’s living rooms every week.[1]

In 1964, the Stampede decided to do something about it: they would stage their own show. They hired the visionary Randy Avery to create a locally-produced Grandstand show. Avery worked for the Barnes-Carruthers Theatrical Agency in Chicago, and had put on many of the variety shows for Canadian fairs and exhibitions.[2]

There was a lot of hype around Avery’s show that year. Charmingly, though, when the candidates for Stampede Queen were asked to name the feature performer at the show, they were all stumped![3] In fact, the show had an all-start lineup featuring Canadian singer and TV host Juliette, known fondly as “Our Pet.” She was accompanied by the Rockettes from New York and vaudeville performers. A local chorus under the direction of Lloyd Erickson was the first local talent to appear in the Grandstand Show.

The 1964 show was a success and Avery was hired on as the permanent director of the Grandstand show. In the winter of 1965, Avery suggested to then Grandstand chairman, Peter Lougheed, that young Calgary dancers be auditioned to form a “tiny tots” kick-line to appear with the New York Manhattan Rockettes. Local dance teacher Margot Gooder McDermott was, in her words, “conscripted to audition, train and rehearse the children.” Twenty-one little girls aged 8 – 10 were chosen from the 200 dancers who auditioned. They became the Calgary Kidettes.

The Kidettes stole the show in 1965, instantly charming the audiences and becoming the “sweethearts” of the city. A Herald reporter writing a couple of years later perhaps said it best, “The Kidettes especially are dangerous to any performer on stage. When those high-stepping kids hit the boards, Cary Grant could stand on his head & spit mothballs and be ignored!!”[4]

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Evening performance at the Stampede Grandstand

With Avery’s vision and McDermott’s Kidettes the Grandstand Show was an unqualified success. Avery and McDermott were a formidable team. Moreover, the talent, hard work and dedication of the young dancers proved to the Stampede, as well as to the city, that young, local talent could successfully perform alongside professional acts from around the world. These dancers laid the foundation for a legacy that has lived for half a century.

In 1968, 24 Young Canadian singers were added to the Grandstand show. In 1973, the Young Canadian School of Performing Arts was founded. The school was provided with space in the Agricultural Building on Stampede Park for all of their training. Still, today, all of the Young Canadians enter the studio through the iconic “Little Brown Door Beside Barn #9.”

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A performance by The Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede

 

[1] James H. Gray, A Brand of Its Own: The 100 Year History of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985), 156.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jennifer Hamblin, Calgary’s Stampede Queens (Toronto: Rocky Mountain Books, 2014), 134.

[4] Bill Musslewhite, The Calgary Herald, 1968.