Part One: A Thousand Things to See for Everyone
Originally published on Torontoist on August 14, 2007.
Sources: National Home Monthly, August 1937 (left), August 1939 (right).
The Canadian National Exhibition opens this week, bringing with it nearly 130 years of tradition, from its beginnings as an industrial showcase to its current role as a signal that summer is drawing to a close. Today’s pair of ads provide a glimpse of what the Ex was like on the cusp of World War II, before it was closed for wartime activities.
The “new amusement area” touted in 1937 proved significant, as it marked the beginning of the CNE’s long relationship with James “Patty” Conklin and the Conklin organization (now folded into the North American Midway Entertainment following several mergers in the carny world). The first year of the contract was not lucrative for Conklin or the CNE due to a polio epidemic that struck the city. Parents were urged to keep their children away from the fair to lower the risk of transmission. The effect was short-lived, as attendance bounced back by the turn of the decade.
That Toronto was still firmly tied to the British Empire is evident in both ads. George VI’s coronation in 1937 is duly noted, with that year’s nightly fireworks show dedicated to the onward march of Britannia. For 1939, note the placement of the pictures of the British exhibits and the promise of “two famous English bands.” No comment for the 48 groups from elsewhere.
The swing era was in full bloom by 1939, with a highly impressive slate of big bands that year. American saxophonist Glen Gray’s group earned its name, the Casa Loma Orchestra, after a residency at the Toronto landmark during its brief phase as a hotel in the late 1920s.
Several of these bands were signed to RCA Victor records, whose corporate parent showcased the future with its television display even though Toronto was 13 years away from its first station. Another RCA division, NBC, launched its TV broadcasting service in April at the continent’s largest exhibition of the year, the New York World’s Fair.
After the 1941 edition of the CNE, the grounds were turned over to the military for training purposes, with the fair put on hiatus until 1947.
Part Two: Welcome Back CNE
Originally published on Torontoist on August 21, 2007.
Source: National Home Monthly, July 1947.
As mentioned in last week’s ad, the Canadian National Exhibition took a break during World War II. Once the war was over, the existing buildings were modernized to prepare for the Ex’s return. “From acting as a depot through which passed thousands of young Canadians to the theatres of war,” noted a Toronto Telegram editorial, “it now reverts to its role as the window through which the world may glimpse the peacetime strength and wealth of the country in all its amazing variety.”
The CNE was officially opened, after a concert by the United States Navy Band, by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King on August 22. King emphasized that Canada’s postwar stability was linked to the recovery of Great Britain’s economy, which saw a series of austerity measures introduced the following week. As recounted that evening in the Telegram, King noted that “the Exhibition affords a vivid illustration of our Canadian way of life. More may be seen here in a day than might be learned from books in a month.” Over 103,000 people passed through the gates that day, the first a pair of children from Springhurst—the first adult, according to the Telegram—”was an annoyed CNE worker who had forgotten his pass.”
The next day saw 273,000 visitors, many on hand for “Warrior’s Day,” a salute to veterans.
The Globe and Mail pondered what would bring people to the fair in an editorial on opening day eve:
What actually drives the people to the Exhibition? Undoubtedly the advance notices on such things as rides, sideshows, marathon swims, speedboat races, baby contests, fireworks displays and so on are the primary eye-catchers. But we will wager that more people will want to see the new automobile with three front headlights than will rush over to the sword swallower’s tent. More will want to see in action the television set they would like for their own living room than the careening speedboat which they never will be able to afford.
One lasting memento of this edition was a short produced by the National Film Board, Johnny at the Fair. The film follows the adventures of “Johnny,” a four-year-old who wanders away from his parents and explores the grounds, meeting all of the celebrities on hand that year. Among those he encounters: Prime Minister King, boxing great Joe Louis, skater Barbara Ann Scott, and comedians Olsen and Johnson (best known for their anarchic revue Hellzapoppin’). “Johnny” was chosen from hundreds of children who auditioned. In a Globe and Mail interview, his mother believed that he won “because he was born with a pleasing personality…or maybe it’s because his father is a kibitzer—a prankster, I mean.”
Johnny at the Fair gained new life in the 1990s, when it was lovingly mocked by the crew of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. As for “Johnny,” he fared well in adulthood, growing up to be artist Charles Pachter. The film is being shown at this year’s CNE, along with a documentary reuniting Pachter and director Jack Olsen.
Additional material from the August 21, 1947 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the August 21, 1947 and August 22, 1947 editions of the Telegram.