Monday, August 19, 2013

The fair

Well, it's that time again --- the "Ex" is on, signalling the onset of fall, and giving rise to nostalgic reflections by oldtimers like me.

As documented before, here and here, there have been few years in which I failed to attend the Canadian National Exhibition over the past six decades.

In the old days, there was so much to see that fairgoers would often return two or three times over the duration of the annual, two-week, event. Sadly, the great fair has declined dramatically from its heyday, becoming more flea market than exposition.

But old habits die hard, and this habit goes back to my 1950's one-room schoolhouse.

On the last day of school before each summer break, our teacher would stroll the aisles between the desks, presenting every student with a free pass to the CNE. That card was treasured as if it were the key to a magic kingdom which, in that innocent time, it was.

Back then, it was the place where you saw things, exciting things, new things, strange things. Now we have the internet for that.

The Horticulture Building was home to a huge variety of agricultural, horticultural and floricultural displays, while the Horse Palace and the Coliseum hosted livestock judging and magnificent horse shows.

There were competitions for every taste and interest --- fruits, vegetables, grains, floral arrangements, needlework, woodcarving, horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, cakes, pies, jams, jellies, pickles, babies, and so on, all the way up to the selection of the Dairy Princess and Miss Toronto.

Dominated by the old wooden rollercoaster and the ferris wheel, the midway wasn't all cotton candy and thrill rides. The bearded lady, the monkey boy, the world's thinnest man, the levitating woman, and various acts featuring scantily clad ladies, were all available in the sleazy little sideshows for a few quarters. You could soar above it all on the Alpine Way cable car.

The Aquarama show ruled the waterfront, with amazing high diving, water skiing, and powerboat displays.

The Bandshell featured concerts by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Tony Martin, and other top level entertainers of the day. Music competitions were held in the Music Building.

Youngsters might not know that Exhibition Place was the original site of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Track and field competitions, dog and cat shows, art exhibits, and baseball tournaments were all part of the mix.

They even held a tugboat race in 1962!

The afternoon grandstand shows had circus acts, cowboys, slapstick comedy acts (The Three Stooges), dirt track car races, motorcycle stunt riders, and the tire-shredding shenanigans of the Helldrivers.

After dark, things got a bit more adult. The evening variety shows featured a live orchestra, dance troupes, trained animals, Hollywood celebrities, international recording stars and comedians (Bob Hope, the Smothers Brothers, Danny Kaye), and spectacular fireworks climaxes.

Of course, the Canadian International Air Show has been a permanent feature of the CNE since the 1950's. Most people saw their first jet planes at the Air Show.

1954 may have marked the peak for the fair. Officially opened by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, the theme was Canada On The March.

It was the year that Canadian 16-year-old Marilyn Bell became the first person ever to swim the thirty-two-miles (52 km) across Lake Ontario. She encountered 15-foot waves and lamprey eels. Her American competitor, Florence Chadwick, had been unable to finish. 100,000 people were at the CNE to welcome her.

It was the first year for the new Food Building, perennially the most-visited of all buildings on the grounds. Water cascaded down the glass walls surrounding the entrances, and you could make a lunch out of all the free samples.

Or, if you had actual money, you could have a Shopsy's corned beef sandwich and a Honeydew.

It was also the year that Roy Rogers brought his show to the grandstand, complete with wife Dale Evans, horse Trigger, sidekick Pat Brady, and jeep Nellybelle. This was a major event for thousands of kids who had grown up with the singing cowboy's comic books, movies, lunch boxes, and cowboy gear. Some could even watch him on that miraculous new invention --- television.

But for me, age 11 in 1954, the big draw was always the Automotive Building. In those days, the car companies launched their new models in the fall, and the CNE was the place to see the latest offerings from Detroit.

Chevrolet's new Corvette caused a big stir in 1954. I had never seen anything like its low slung, sporty lines, a futuristic leap from the tall, boxy, sedan my dad was driving. I would have sold my soul for one if General Motors had been open to such deals.

None of this will be on offer at the 2013 version of the Ex, but I will go anyway. In my mind's eye, it will be 1954 again.


  1. I miss the competition side of fairs. When I was a kid, I used to enter drawings in my age group's category and also in the "penmanship" category -- how archaic is that now, eh? One year a friend and I made a model racetrack entirely out of toothpicks and entered that in the Crafts category. Oh, to have that kind of time on my hands again, LOL!

    1. Yes, of course, Debra! I forgot those children's competitions. They were always part of the CNE back in the day. I think something important has been lost.

  2. Oh Doug, I forgot the free tickets to the Ex that the teachers would hand out. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane!

  3. These are such great memories. Things have certainly changed over time.