Cowboys in Canada? Mounties, yes. But Cowboys?!!
I have to admit I knew very little about Canada when I was young. And what little I did know came from being a hockey fan. Having had parents who possessed season tickets to the Boston Bruins, at a time when the team was one of the greatest ever, it was impossible not to be a fan. I remember seeing my first live game at the tender age of six, watching the likes of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and John Bucyk, and had memorized the words to Oh, Canada! at about the same time I learned the Star-Spangled Banner.
Canada to me meant arch-rivals Montréal Canadians and to a lesser extent Toronto Maple Leafs. The Vancouver Canucks were in one of the western divisions of the NHL and hardly ever played the Bruins. Hockey, moose, maple leaves—the syrup came from Vermont—and Dudley Do-Right comprised my knowledge of our neighbors to the north.
It’s shameful, really, seeing as I am part Canadian on my mother’s side. I still have cousins in Halifax, Nova Scotia, though I’ve never met them (shameful, remember?).
I hadn’t even heard of Calgary until the NHL hockey franchise in Atlanta, Georgia—the Atlanta Flames—relocated there in 1980. That relatively minor event merely introduced me to the fact that such a city as Calgary existed in Canada. Even the city’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in 1988 did nothing to elucidate me to the history and finer points of the town. I’m sure whatever network was carrying the games provided comprehensive coverage of the site, as they are wont to do, but I was only two years removed from Boston at the time. And as a struggling actor, auditioning and waiting tables, I had little time to enjoy the intercontinental quadrennial contest of all things hibernal.
Two years later I found myself in Calgary as part of a cross-country press junket to promote the release of the first of what would prove to be a series of comics sponsored by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) as a way of getting pro-social messages to children and teens. I was a key selling point in getting the CACP to sponsor the program since the idea of using Spider-Man and comics to reach youths was proposed at a national convention for the CACP in St. John’s less than a year earlier (see “Chill St. John’s, Part I” & “Part II”).
My visit was brief—less than 24 hours—consisting of flying in the eve prior from Winnipeg, sleeping, then participating in a media event held at an ungodly hour the following morning at a local restaurant. The program was announced, a short period ensued of Spidey meeting with local children—brought in for the event—whilst answering questions from the press, and then I was out the door and into an awaiting car to drive me to the airport for my flight to the next city on the tour.
Though my time was limited when I arrived, I found time to take a walk after dinner to clear some of the jet-lag from my weary bones. I got no sense of the city’s rich western history—it’s not like Calgary is done up like Frontierland at Disney World—but I did get solicited by a prostitute. Despite that—or maybe subconsciously because of it (ahem)—I liked Calgary. The architecture was actually modern and it had a hip vibe. Even the hooker seemed coolly understated, not the skanky, overly made-up, big hair, gum-snapping types, with the fresh stitches in their heads and needle marks lining their arms that I was used to on 42nd Street… not that I noticed…
I would have liked to have visited longer, and expressed that sentiment the next morning in answer to media questions regarding my return someday.
“Maybe you could come back for The Stampede,” I recall one member of the press stating.
“I would love to… Sounds like fun,” I replied, though I hadn’t a clue what the enquirer was referring to.
I had learned from the lambasting I received in Edmonton concerning my ignorance of their wondrous shopping mecca years before (see “Survival of the Fittest, Part I” & “Part II”) that when it comes to those signature, beloved aspects of a given city, its citizens want to feel that it is an aspect known and envied the world over. Ignorance, no matter how innocent, is oft times interpreted as a slight, occasionally even an insult. This “stampede” intrigued me. It sounded like the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona: not necessarily something I’d want to take part in, but certainly an event I wouldn’t mind witnessing.
Another two years later and I was back, this time for a publicity photo shoot to promote the fourth volume in the CACP comic series. As with the previous volumes in the series, this issue would take place in another of Canada’s cities, i.e. Calgary. “Chaos in Calgary” sported a beautiful Jim Craig cover of Spidey riding a bull in bronco-busting fashion, complete with cowboy hat held aloft in the hand not grasped tightly around the webline tied around the bucking creature. Though a peculiar and very un-Spidery cover that wouldn’t have gotten past the preliminary planning stages of any of the Web-Swinger’s regular series, it was a fun cover nonetheless that spotlighted Calgary’s history as one of the world’s finest cattle countries.
I’m unclear of the specifics of the storyline save for our intrepid hero’s alter-ego and Daily Bugle photographer Peter Parker being on assignment in Calgary for the city’s aforementioned annual western Bacchanal. The Stampede, which bills itself as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth,” is a mammoth festival, which features the world’s largest outdoor rodeo. Other highlights include a carnival, midway, First Nations exhibitions, concerts, agriculture competitions and chuckwagon races. It was only fitting that the location of my shoot center around the event’s venue, i.e. the Olympic Saddledome and it’s environs.
The Saddledome is an awesome structure. I felt incredibly small, not merely from the arena’s capaciousness, but rather from feelings of unworthiness. Olympians competed here. My most prestigious competitive claim was a first place trophy in checkers in my teens (Okay, I was on the roster of a championship basketball team when I was twelve, but the water boy saw more action off the bench than I did).
Despite the place being virtually empty, save for me, Calgary Stampede Food Manager Alf Saunders—my guide—the photographer and usual facility employees, there was an electricity in the air. Saunders was a loveable bear of a man with a thick brownish mustache touched with red and matching hair. He sported a cowboy hat, shearling-lined, suede coat and dungarees. He resembled Pat McCormack with more hair and less weight. He showed considerable patience with my persistent questions on Calgary and The Stampede, and made certain I had access to even the most treacherous areas, so the photographer could get the coolest shots.
Believe it or not, there wasn’t a whole lot of photo opportunities. “Smaller” photos, like the one of me perched in a section of the stadium seating, lent nothing to the scope and majesty of the Saddledome. That picture could have been taken in any baseball park in America. We needed a cool Spidey shot that also captured the structure’s breathtaking immensity. Otherwise, what was the point of my being there? As we toured the grounds in frustration, I spied a possible solution.
“How about if I got up there?” I offered.
From the side of the arena, a circular protrusion sprouted, perhaps housing a stairwell to the upper tiers of seating inside. Though not reaching as high as the stadium roof, it rose a lofty five stories nonetheless. One would think that the intense angle I had to crane my neck to point out the spot to my colleagues, might suggest it being a less than safe place to pose for pictures. But it wasn’t the first daring stunt I’d pulled while in costume and it wasn’t to be my last… even that day. In my defense, nothing I did as the character was ever out of character.
Alf lead me back inside whilst leaving the photographer in the lot. Five minutes later an access door was opened and I found myself at the spot I’d indicated only moments before and wondering, What the f*** was I thinking?!! There was nary a lip, never mind a wall skirting the edge of the wing’s circumference. A six-inch band of metal flashing, smoothly folded over the rim, seemed only to increase the risk of slipping to my death.
I am normally not affected by heights. Hell, I jumped out of a plane the summer before moving to the Big Apple. But even though my depth perception was severely curtailed by the eye screens of the suit, I could tell that they’d need a ice scraper to peel me off the tarmac if I were to fall. Still, I wasn’t about to signal defeat, so I trepidatiously made my way out as far as I could. All I needed was a pirate prodding me from behind with a cutlass while his motley crew cheered me on.
Gone were my usual Spider-Man–esque contortions; no crouching, no weird angles. My sole focus was on the position of my feet along the flashing. At the distant call of the photographer, I froze and raised my head in his direction. That’s the photo you see. I didn’t stick around to “work the camera.” It’s a shame, the actual shot conveys little of the precipitous drop of the setting. I guess I should be thankful it doesn’t expose the stain on the seat of my costume.
And yet, apparently I didn’t feel I’d done enough to show how far up my ass my head was. Spanning the main road to the Saddledome, arching twenty feet at its peak, stood a die-cut sign reading, CALGARY STAMPEDE. As Alf, the photographer and I approached the arch on our way back to Calgary proper, I said, “You should get a picture of me on top of the sign.”
I should have known by then that Alf was resourceful. Give him an idea and consider it done. He was not one to procrastinate; he didn’t need approvals; there was no vote by committee to be taken. So let it be said (to Alf); so let it be done (by Alf). One quick walkie-talkie conversation and ten minutes later, a cherry picker was pulling up to the signage. I, still clad in my red-and-blues, leapt onto the vehicle and was soon clambering over its railing, maneuvering carefully onto the “S” of the display’s peak.
The sign was mere inches wide and constructed like a sandwich: lengths of two-by-fours formed the meat squeezed between thin pressed-wood bread. The front mirrored the back, so the display either welcomed visitors to The Stampede or bid them adieu. The decision was made to shoot me with the Calgary skyline—in which the Calgary Tower stood front and center—looming in the background.
Finding my balance without my foot falling into the gaps of the sign was the least of my problems. The sign swayed in the breeze! Though not discernable from street level, it was a characteristic of the display abundantly noticeable to one perching upon it. I anchored myself as best I could in a squat with my left calf hugging the “S” for support before dismissing the cherry picker.
Oddly, I was not nervous, though I had worse footing than that of the Saddledome stairwell housing roof and my new perch rocked in the wind. I guess the twenty-foot drop of the Stampede display seemed like a typical Manhattan pothole in comparison to the fifty-foot one I had experienced mere moments before. I even maneuvered into a variety of poses, “making love to the camera,” as it were, before I signaled for the cherry picker to retrieve me.
These final shots proved to be the best. A magnificent panoramic view of Calgary serving as the backdrop to a sign announcing the city’s premiere yearly event topped by America’s iconic superhero ambassador in perfect pose.