In 1980 Calgary Exhibition and Stampede President, Donald Cross and General Manager Don Jacques sent Don Welden, Stampede Entertainment Manager, to Memphis Tennessee to observe and report on their local talent contest and the subsequent International Youth Talent Contest that was held in conjunction with the Memphis State Fair. Don returned to Calgary enthused, and saw the potential for such a contest in Calgary.
Thus, the Youth Talent committee was born with a committee of 6, including Don, the Stampede liaison responsible, and representatives from the two corporate sponsors, the Calgary Herald and then, CFCN Radio (now CTV).
July 1981 saw the first Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Youth Talent Contest on the marquee of the Boyce Theatre, where it has been held ever since. The committee had gathered 50 inaugural participants from twelve preliminary competitions that were held in southern Alberta schools and community centres during the winter months leading up to the 1981 Stampede.
The format of the competition involved four judges reviewing the performances of 50 contestants over three semi-final nights. The best 25 performers were invited to perform again on the fourth and final night before a new panel of four judges. An overall and inaugural winner (Gordon Gietz) and three runner-up acts were selected. The grand prize then was $1,000 plus a trip to Memphis to represent the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede at the International Youth Talent Contest. CFCN Television televised the final night and aired in Calgary as a half hour special later that year.
In 1990 the committee undertook an in-depth evaluation that resulted in a name change to The Youth Talent Showdown along with a dramatic change in format. The competition expanded to an 11-day event: seven nights with 20 competitors each in preliminary competition. 40 competitors progressed to two nights of semi-finals, and 20 finalists performed on the tenth night finals. The eleventh night held a showcase involving performances by the year’s prize winners plus finalists and winners from prior years. To accommodate the steadily increasing seating demands of audiences, the 1990 nightly contests were split into a two show per night format.
During the first few years of competition, potential competitors were recruited by encouraging schools, community groups and organizations throughout southern Alberta to hold “preliminary competitions”. At least one committee member attended each contest and invited both the winner and “appropriate” other acts to perform in The Youth Talent Contest during Stampede week.
Young performers began phoning to the Youth Talent office looking for performance opportunities that could make them eligible for the Stampede competition. In 1989 the committee responded by holding a series of “open contests” in shopping malls and colleges in Red Deer and Calgary, at Calaway Park and in the Archie Boyce Pavilion at the Stampede grounds. In order to promote the Showdown throughout southern Alberta, the committee attended six rural contests and invited the winner from each to the Stampede competition. By 1990 committee members attended more than 25 events as The Youth Talent Showdown audition opportunities.
Starting in 1988, the Don We/den Award has been given annually to the Most Promising Performer. Chosen by the committee, the cash scholarship has been an honor for performers to help further develop their skills.
The band, led by Al Muirhead, has always been a fortunate feature of Calgary’s competition. These experienced musicians, indeed some of Canada’s best, work tirelessly with the young performers augmenting their performances.
The committee, the band, the sound and light technicians and the MC have always had the additional task of fostering the show as an amateur talent contest into a high-quality entertainment package.
The show was MC’d for many of the early years by CFCN’s Don Wood. CFCN’s Ron Barge (Buckshot!) also hosted for a couple of years. The last two decades have been in the enthusiastic and capable hands of Beesley.
Now called the Stampede Talent Search, the goal of discovering and developing talented young southern Alberta performing artists continues to this day - due to the dedication of committee members, the support of sponsors and the Calgary Stampede.
Aspiring artists from across Canada ages 13 to 21, of all performing disciplines, were invited to spring auditions online or LIVE in Calgary to show their best performance. 70 contestants were then selected to perform during the Calgary Stampede. Each evening featured junior performers ages 6 to 12. They were invited to participate in exactly the same manner as the older performers, but in a non-competitive nature (they are not scored), in order to further showcase and develop southern Alberta’s youth talent.
The competition has had the privilege of engaging some of Alberta’s finest artists to judge. Among them, recording artists, touring dancers, and leading talent agents have kindly donated their time and expertise through the years, providing the competition with integrity and professional evaluation.
Due to the uncertain economic times, on March 25, 2020 the Calgary Stampede Board had to make the very difficult decision to cut back on the number of existing committees and the Stampede Talent Search committee and competition was retired.
In the final year of operation, Calgary Stampede Talent Search’s prizing was over $38,000 in combined cash and prizes!
Many hundreds of young performers have been showcased since 1981, and quite often, the Stampede Talent Search has been their first substantial public spotlight.
The chart-topping Paul Brandt, world-renowned opera singer Gordon Gietz, international touring actor Shawn Kinley, voice of the Calgary Flames Heather Natividad, member of the Nylons, Gavin Hope, and on and on… the accomplishments of Stampede Talent Search winners, and many other past participants, are a storied testament to the valuable spotlight and experience young amateur Alberta artists receive annually at the Calgary Stampede.
This legacy has built long friendship amongst competitors, and amongst committee members. Gratefully, there are many devoted and supportive audience members that have long made the Stampede Talent Search a valued and mandatory part of their annual Calgary Stampede!