Happy 100th, CNE.
Well, that’s cheating a bit. You’re technically 133. But it was in 1912 that Toronto, attention-hungry and self-important as always, rebranded you the Canadian National Exhibition.
But how you’ve grown. You started out, like many local exhibitions, as an “early form of mass media, where people would go to discover what was new and exciting,” as historian James MacNevin, who’s chronicled you for six years, puts it.
Once called the Toronto Industrial Fair (among other names), you initially stood for innovation – a stage for the latest in agricultural tools and technological advances (dessicated rolled wheat!). Gradually, these glimpses of the future made room for the lowbrow and the sensational: freak shows and showcases of “exotic” cultures from around the world. In fact, until the 1960s, you even flashed your naughty side – strip shows weren’t uncommon. (They were largely tame, Mr. MacNevin notes, though perhaps “not by the standards of Toronto the Good.”)
And then, as material historian Michael Prokopow notes, amusement became the draw – loop de loops and gravity drops – as fairs endeavoured to become a destination for all people.
So now, 100 years later, we have blue-ribbon cows alongside SuperDogs, the Flowrider Splash Zone alongside butter sculptures. True, we crave ever-more thrilling rides and Krispy Kreme-ier burgers (this year’s heart-attack special: a 2,000-calorie bacon funnel cake). And you’ve come down from the heady days when attendance would be higher than the city’s actual population, with people travelling from across Ontario, Canada and even the U.S. to visit you.
Still, with an annual attendance of around one million, you remain one of Toronto’s last bastions of shared, in-person experiences and, as these readers’ anecdotes attest, a staple of summer memories.
To paraphrase Mr. MacNevin, it’s hard to imagine Toronto without you.
Back in the late 1950s, my girlfriends and I always headed to the Food Building where, unlike now, free samples and 5 cent chocolate bars were the norm. If you printed your name and address on a label, the Wrigley Gum Company later mailed you three free sticks of gum – Juicy Fruit, Doublemint and probably Spearmint. Well, we went to town filling in those labels on multiple trips to the Food Building and to the Ex. Day after day, those sticks of gum came sailing through our mailbox, enough to last most of the following school term.
My favourite memory of the CNE would have to be the moment when I was told I was finally tall enough to ride the Loop de Loop roller coaster in the midway. I was saddened that I could no longer ride the infamous dragon roller coaster on the kiddie midway, but all was forgiven once they strapped me into the seat and I watched the world fall away as we chugged up that steep incline.
Each year, hypnotist Mike Mandel puts on what I heard was a fantastic show so I stopped by the stage at the time of his performance and when asked for volunteers, my friends egged me on to go up on stage. Little did I know, once the hypnotism began, I soon became the star of the show. I fell asleep immediately and I did everything he said to do... When it came time to look into the audience and spot a celebrity, my Hockey-Night-In-Canada-obsessed self freaked out over spotting Don Cherry in a fabulous suit! I ran up to him, gave him a hug, jumped up and down, and told him I loved his outfit. I found out at the end of the show that the Don Cherry I had spotted had actually been a seven-year-old girl – she was confused to say the least.
In 1984, my then-three-year old brother Jordan was rescued from certain death at the feet of a team of Clydesdale horses ...
My mom screamed as she saw my brother toddling straight into the path of the hard-charging, giant-hoofed animals! A cool (in a Don Johnson/Miami Vice sort of way), sunglasses-clad guy who was about the same age I am now heard my mom, saw my brother and jumped into action. In what seemed like a single motion, he ran out, swiftly scooped Jordan out of harm's way and returned him to my grateful mother without saying a word!