“Sour grapes”: The Banff Winter Carnival Queen Scandal of 1955

Written by: Michael Gourlie, Government Records Archivist, Provincial Archives of Alberta

One of the stereotypes of beauty pageants is the behind-the-scenes rivalry among contestants. Typically, these are just plot devices in film or TV designed to create degrees of drama, comedy or controversy. But apparently there is beauty pageant drama in real life, and one of the rare times when these battles spilled out into the public is the controversy surrounding the Banff Winter Carnival Queen competition of 1955.

The idea for a winter carnival in Banff originated with Norman Luxton, the man known as “Mr. Banff.” A strong booster of the community, he was a prominent local entrepreneur who owned, among other ventures, the Crag and Canyon newspaper, the King Edward Hotel (Banff’s first all-season hotel), the Lux Theatre, the King Edward Horse and Auto Livery and the Sign of the Goat Curio Shop.  According to a 1939 Calgary Herald article, the idea came up during a brainstorming session between Luxton and his friend B. W. Collison in December 1916 regarding the best way to attract more tourists to Banff during the winter season, which was not a consistently busy time in the town. Given Luxton’s extensive local business investments, having the town bustling with tourists year-round was definitely in his interest.

Ice Palace built for Banff Winter Carnival, featuring Brewster’s Hall in the background, 1917. PAA Photo A4837.

A local committee led by Luxton persuaded the town to host a festival that would run from February 5-17, 1917.  The list of events featured at the first carnival was impressive – it included a curling bonspiel, tobogganing, snowshoe races, men’s and ladies’ hockey matches, speed skating, “art skating,” trap shooting, pony ski races and swimming competitions in the hot springs. A large ice castle maze, built by internees and reputedly the first such castle built in Western Canada, was the centrepiece of the celebrations, especially during the fireworks on two evenings of the carnival.  Brewster Hall hosted a grand ball on February 9 and a fancy dress ball on February 15, and this second event featured a crown awarded, “to the most popular lady attending the carnival.” The Carnival was such a success that it became an annual community event.

The fancy dress ball in 1917 was likely the origin of the Banff Winter Queen competition, which began more formally in 1919. The first Queen to receive notable press attention was Pearl Brewster Moore, daughter of local tourism industry pioneer John Brewster. In the coming decades, the title passed down to young Banff women viewed as the best representative for the carnival based on their athleticism or good looks. The carnival and its pageant struggled but continued through the Great Depression, pausing only from 1942 to 1946 in light of the Second World War.

The post-war period reinvigorated the tourist industry in Banff as well as its winter carnival. The competitors for the title of Winter Queen began to hail from all across Western Canada as well as the bordering American states. By this time, the Banff Winter Queen pageant served as a regional competition whose winner would go on to larger, national competitions such as the Miss Canada pageant established in 1945. The competition would continue without a blemish until February 1955, when that year’s carnival would choose the Queen for the 1956 carnival.

Banff Winter Carnival Opening, 1957. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta, PA270/8.

On the surface, nothing appeared unusual about the competition.  The contestants in 1955 included Miss Camrose Nancy Knaut,  Miss New Westminster Mary Basso, Miss Penticton Geraldine Rowe, Miss Calgary Elizabeth Le Gras, Miss Crowsnest Pass Marina Lynch-Staunton, Miss Lethbridge Josephine Taborski, Miss Edmonton Donagh Webber, Miss Yukon Dalyce Smith, Miss Medicine Hat Elaine Swanson and Miss Jasper Prim Heckley. In a February 12 interview with the Lethbridge Herald, Josephine Taborski noted that she was involved in a whirlwind of social activities and outdoor programs as part of the pageant judging process, which assessed charm, personality and beauty. At the end of the pageant, Dalyce Smith emerged as the winner who would preside over the 1956 carnival. But the start of her reign would prove to be the stormiest ever of any Winter Queen.

Under the headline, “Banff Queen Contest Unfair Says Lethbridge Candidate,” the Lethbridge Herald ran a front-page story on February 16 claiming, “controversy over the Banff Winter Queen contest [had] snowballed into a series of explanations, denials and complaints.” Josephine Taborski alleged that Dalyce Smith had been the focus of such a concerted publicity campaign on the part of the pageant organizers that the outcome was never in doubt. The organizers flatly denied Taborski’s allegations, claiming that Smith was “beautifully dressed” and Taborski’s comments “reeked of sour grapes” from a poor loser. However, Marina Lynch-Staunton and Elizabeth Le Gras both supported Taborski’s comments that Smith had been singled out so that her win was practically inevitable.  Le Gras noted, “Miss Jasper was a lovely girl in both looks and manners, but she didn’t get mentioned very often.” The Lethbridge Junior Chamber of Commerce also supported Taborski’s remarks, denying that they were sour grapes and suggesting they were a form of constructive criticism to the pageant organizers.

Ultimately, the pageant organizers stuck to the original results of the competition, and the controversy quickly faded away. However, when Dalyce Smith was later crowned Miss Canada in July 1955, the organizers were not content to leave it be. As a last word on the subject, the Carnival Committee saw fit to write a letter to the editor of the Calgary Herald crowing, “the selection of Miss Dalyce Smith as Miss Canada confirms the wisdom of the Banff Winter Carnival judges and must refute any allegations of unfairness in their selection of lovely Dalyce as our own Banff Winter Carnival Queen.”

As for the Banff Winter Carnival itself, it survived but four more years. In 1959, a climate of rowdiness and drunken behaviour at that year’s carnival led the town to postpone the Carnival for a year. That pause became permanent, and, in spite of recent attempts at a revival, the Banff Winter Carnival and its Queen now live on only in newspaper clippings and photographs.

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