In Pasadena, R.G. Canning Is Sunday's Hero: He Operates the Rose Bowl Flea Market

updated 09/15/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On the second Sunday of each month in Pasadena, Calif. scatbacks and screaming fans are replaced by suburban matrons plowing through piles of antique quilts and teenage boys trying on World War II gas masks. It's all part of the Rose Bowl Flea Market, where more than 1,500 vendors and some 50,000 shoppers gather to haggle over merchandise ranging from antimacassars and brass spittoons to old campaign buttons and discount designer jeans.

"You can see anything and anybody coming through those gates," says R.G. Canning, the 40-year-old impresario who regularly transforms the perimeter and parking lot of the celebrated stadium into one of the largest flea markets in the world. Paul Newman buys early American folk art there. Steve McQueen shows up looking for country French antiques and Shelley Hack drops by to check out the handmade quilts. "I saw Lucille Ball all dressed up in sunglasses like she was trying to disguise herself," recalls Canning, "but then her limousine came and picked her up."

Flea markets are booming all over the U.S. of late, but in the City of Roses they have run year-round since 1968. "It was amazing to me that people would come to buy all that junk," admits Canning. He pays 25 percent of his gross revenues to the city (which owns the Rose Bowl) and charges a $2.50 general admission fee. Vendors pay from $30 to $100 as well, depending on location.

The community's response has not been altogether consistent. When the city fathers first saw how lucrative the flea market was, they insisted that Canning and general manager Bill Thunell expand it to a weekly event. "We told them it would flop," R.G. remembers. "The Rose Bowl was in the red until we put them in the black, then the city got greedy." Just as he warned, weekly markets didn't increase the ultimate net, and they returned to a monthly schedule. Then last year the city considered ousting the market after residents of the neighborhood surrounding the Bowl complained about all the hubbub. Pressure eased when Canning agreed to pay a higher rent.

As a pro, R.G. offers tips for shopping a flea market: Arrive early. Make a fast reconnaissance run, snatching up only obvious bargains. Then go back and work the booths at a leisurely pace. For those who plan a swap meet or garage sale of their own: Advertise heavily in the press and paper the neighborhood with handbills.

Richard Gary Canning first entered the world of commerce at age 7, peddling mud pies to his friends and later selling odds and ends he recycled from local trash cans in his hometown of Maywood, Calif., five miles southeast of L.A. When R.G. was 15 he started a club for car fanciers and then, at 17, founded the Tridents, which in the late '50s and early '60s became, he says, one of the biggest car clubs in Southern California. While still a student he began organizing car shows and took over the books of his father's feed and hardware business. R.G. got but never used a degree in electrical engineering from East Los Angeles College.

Canning's passion for promoting led him to set up other shows—for custom cars, boats, motorcycles and, more recently, antiques and antique cars. A C&W music aficionado, Canning also books concerts with stars like Tammy Wynette, the Oak Ridge Boys and Marty Robbins. Altogether he runs some 140 events a year. With sidelines in the trophy, printing and wholesale supply businesses, Canning reckons that he's "a millionaire many times over."

"The Wizard of Oddities," as he likes to call himself, R.G. is single and lives in a lavish neo-Grecian home he built between his parents' and his brother's houses in Downey, Calif. Filled with statuary, Casa Canning reveals a surprising affection for ancient Greek and Roman culture—if not unerring good taste.

Although Canning doesn't consider himself a very religious man, he tithes 10 percent of his yearly income to the Mormon church. "I used to give five percent," he says, "but since I started giving 10 percent, I'm more successful." Most of the employees of his events are members of local teen organizations, and each summer he sponsors a Boys' Club awards program, taking the winners on trips abroad. "I've been to every flea market in the world by now," boasts R.G. "You know that market in Paris they all rave about? It's nothing compared to what we do at the Rose Bowl."

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