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The Man Behind the Clean Show (Part 1)

A look back at the formative years of departing Clean Show organizer John Riddle

ATLANTA — President John Riddle and his staff at longtime Clean Show management firm Riddle & Associates are experiencing many “lasts” in the days leading up to Clean 2019 in New Orleans.

You see, Germany-based trade fair organizer Messe Frankfurt recently purchased Clean from the five associations that have sponsored the show for decades. The New Orleans show in June will be the last managed by Riddle & Associates, which has overseen the every-other-year event under contract since 1992.

John Riddle’s personal involvement in assisting with Clean dates back to 1981. 

We visited Riddle, 78, in his Atlanta offices in late March to talk about the upcoming show, but also took the opportunity to quiz him on his storied past and to find out what he’s planning in semi-retirement.

“We had a great show in ’17 in Las Vegas, and New Orleans is right there with it right now,” he says. “Based on what I know and the years I’ve done this, I’m going to say that we can look for a good show, and, as always, you can come and actually see equipment work.”

Riddle says that aspect of the show is unique, due to the costs of shipping, setting up, and operating laundry and drycleaning equipment in a convention setting.

“We have … our package plan for exhibitor services (and) is such that it has enabled the exhibitor to actually come and operate his equipment in a cost-effective manner so that the attendee gets the advantage of that,” he adds.

Among the trade media that publicize and cover the Clean Show, Riddle is well-known for shedding a tear or two in appreciation during the press reception that is a fixture as soon as the exhibit floor closes on the opening day.

So, if he’s already prone to becoming emotional in that setting, how will he react knowing that it will be the last time he’ll greet the media at Clean 2019?

“It is an emotional thing for me to acknowledge the fact that this will be the last show that I do,” Riddle says. “I hope it won’t be the last I attend but this will be the last one in which I am in charge of it. I’ve been blessed to have been involved in this great industry since 1981.”

Riddle’s age and his desire to spend more time with family played significant factors in deciding that it was time to step aside and enjoy his golden years in a trout stream or on a golf course instead of on a show floor at 5:30 in the morning.

“We all have to say, ‘It’s time,’” he shares. “I think it’s time for me particularly to do that. It’s been an honor for me and for everybody in our organization to be associated with such great people.”

CIRCLING THE BASES

Organizing a trade show requires relationship-building and teamwork, both of which have been at the heart of Riddle’s personal and professional growth.

He grew up in the cotton mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., the youngest son of a police officer and a 1st grade school teacher. You “made your own fun” in those days, he recalls, and he was drawn to team sports, especially baseball. In fact, he dreamed of playing professionally someday.

After graduating high school, he left home to attend Mars Hill Junior College and later Campbell College. At Mars Hill, he was an All-Conference and All-American first baseman in 1956 and 1957 (he was named to the College’s Hall of Fame in 1988).

At a time when there were only 16 teams in Major League Baseball, Riddle was signed by the Baltimore Orioles as a center fielder in 1962. After four years, he was traded to the Chicago White Sox organization.

“I had the chance to play for (managers) Earl Weaver, Billy Hunter, Cal Ripken Sr.,” Riddle recalls. “I played with Lou Pinella, Jim Palmer, Mark Belanger, Davey Johnson, a number of people that some will know and some won’t know.”

As a 21-year-old rookie playing for Bluefield, he slugged 16 home runs and drove in 61 runs in just 66 games, earning him Appalachian League All-Star honors. Working his way up, he also earned All-Star nods in the Class A California and Class AA Eastern leagues.

“If you ever saw (the movie) Bull Durham, you saw what minor league baseball was like,” he says. “Even when I got into Triple-A ball, we got out of yellowback school buses and old Greyhound buses, riding all over the Dakotas, Midwest, the Upper Midwest in white Edsel station wagons. 

“There’s no time you can imagine, being with a group of guys at 2 o’clock in the morning, riding in a bus on a highway somewhere, dark, not a care in the world, and you’re going to go play a baseball game. That’s strong.”

But with so few MLB roster spots available, an Achilles injury that occurred on the base paths, and other circumstances, he never made it to the “Show” … as a player.

FRONT OFFICE FOUNDATION

Riddle had done some offseason work for the Atlanta Braves, which had relocated there from Milwaukee in 1966. 

“I was part of a team of ballplayers that were in the area who helped sell season tickets, did some PR for them,” he shares.

With a wife and a young son at home, he decided to leave his playing days behind and pursue a career of some sort. One day, he visited some friends at the stadium and left there as the Braves director of operations.

“I told the gentleman who hired me, a good friend of mine, ‘I don’t know anything at all about operations of a stadium,’” Riddle says. “We laughed, we cut up, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll teach you.’”

From there, he was promoted to director of advertising sales, plus he was promotions director for the newly formed Atlanta Chiefs soccer club owned by the Braves. He left there in 1975 to become the general manager of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“I had the No. 2 position there,” Riddle says. “My job was to run the Convention Bureau on a daily basis. It’s a big promotion, in multiple ways, of a municipality.”

He left the CVB after about two years to enter into business for himself, owning several retail stores, including one that became famous for its link to a line of special dolls.

“I had a retail store in downtown Atlanta in Peachtree Center. It was called Terminus Gift Shop,” Riddle recalls. “It was the first store in Atlanta in which the local Georgia artisans had an outlet.”

At a regional art festival, Riddle met Xavier Roberts, who was creating soft sculpture dolls he called “The Little People,” dressing them in used children’s clothing and offering them up for “adoption.” Riddle asked if his gift shop could become an “adoption center.” 

“I was No. 1,” he points out. “People went absolutely nuts over this. … That put Terminus Gift Shop, really, on the map.”

Soon thereafter, Coleco licensed the doll line as the Cabbage Patch Kids that caused shopper riots in the early ’80s and have delighted children and collectors for years.

Another unique endeavor for Riddle was rodeo promotion. With a friend he’d met through Terminus, he became interested in roping cattle. 

“I was 42, got on my first horse in a long time, and the bug bit me,” he says.

Riddle was at an Atlanta restaurant one day when a friend, Spurgeon Richardson, then the president of Six Flags Over Texas, spotted him in his Western garb. The two got to talking and Richardson asked Riddle if he could produce a rodeo for the amusement park. Despite having no such experience, he said yes.

“Then, the journey began to find a stock contractor,” Riddle says. “And we did, Preston Folks. We produced rodeos for Six Flags for nine years. Sometime, if you really want to have some fun, we’ll talk about the day we were putting bulls in the arena to feed them for the performance the next day and they got out.”

In the years since, Riddle has learned that it’s much easier to rope attendees than steers.

Check back Thursday for the conclusion.