Historicist: Weird and Wacky Attractions at the CNE
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Historicist: Weird and Wacky Attractions at the CNE

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

High diver, CNE Aquarama, between 1940 and 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1057, Item 5721.

It’s often been suggested that the Canadian National Exhibition—since its founding in 1879 as an instructional exhibition to promote the development of agriculture, industry, and the arts—has reflected the social development of an ever-changing country. As the CNE website notes [pdf]: “Developments brought on by new technology, changing values, and even Canada’s role in international affairs, have been well represented at the CNE.” Its populist entertainments have similarly evolved. In its first twenty-five years, according to historian Keith Walden in Becoming Modern in Toronto (UTP, 1997), there was competitive tension between the instructional agricultural and industrial demonstrations and the more popular entertainments of the midway—which, in less enlightened times, included carnival sideshows with freaks, fake levitators, and exotica aimed at a more adult audience. In the years that followed, there continued to be no shortage of eclectic attractions—although with a greater emphasis on family entertainment.
In addition to the fireworks displays and musical acts that remain staples of the Ex today, there’ve been Freckled-Face Kids Competitions, International Yo-Yo Championships, and even a five hundred–pound, water-skiing elephant. Sports demonstrations at the fair included both the expected, like automobile racing and marathon swims, and oddball creations, like the annual Dog Derby and bathtub races. On the waterfront, high divers, water-skiers and jumping motorboats combined for the annual aquatic spectacle that ran from the late 1940s to 1984—and was widely distributed as a Columbia Pictures film, The Greatest Show on Water, in 1960. Some of these eclectic attractions endured to become annual staples of the Ex for decades. Others were mere populist fads that faded into obscurity soon after a single appearance.

Automobile polo at CNE Stadium, between 1913 and 1919. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 212.

From the CNE’s earliest years (as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition from 1879 to 1903), it has featured the latest in technological innovations. An electric railway was demonstrated there in 1883, as were Edison’s phonograph in 1888, radio in 1922, and television in 1939. The most visible and enduring technology display was the automobile, which was introduced as an annual exhibit in 1897. By 1903, there was so much interest in transportation technologies that the entire Crystal Palace, the original main building, was filled with motor cars, carriages, street cars, and railway exhibits. The exhibits were so popular, according to the CNE website [pdf], that after it outgrew its first specially built venue, Transportation Building (1909), the more spacious Automotive Building had to be constructed in 1929.
Grandstand demonstrations helped fuel the growing popularity of the automobile. Among the earliest of these demonstrations was a match of automobile polo staged to show off the motor car’s breathtaking capabilities before a capacity crowd of 16,400 at the grandstand in 1913. “For this game,” Bill Leveridge recalls in Fair Sport (Canadian National Exhibition, 1978), “the cars were stripped to the chassis, leaving two seats over the gasoline tank, one for the driver, and the other for the mallet man.” Drivers sped and swerved the bare bones vehicles—often flipping, rolling, and crashing into each other—trying “to get close enough to the ball, for the mallet man, standing on the running board, to hit it toward the opponent’s goal.” In subsequent years, the excitement of automobile polo would be matched by auto races, daredevil drivers like Lucky Teter and his Hell Drivers, and military vehicles running obstacle courses by the outset of the Second World War.

Competitive swimmers prepping with grease at the CNE, circa 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1028A.

After seventeen-year-old Torontonian George Young won a marathon swim from Los Angeles to Santa Catalina Island in the winter of 1927, the CNE hosted its own marathon swim that summer. Young was the star attraction among 174 entrants drawn from around the world. With a purse of fifty thousand dollars in prizes, abundant newspaper attention, and Foster Hewitt covering it with a radio broadcast, the Ex’s first Marathon Swim captured the public imagination—reflecting the post-war rise of spectator sports as mass entertainment.
The swimmers coated themselves in a thick coat of grease as insulation from Lake Ontario’s frigid waters. At the starter’s gun, officials realized that no one had screened entrants—lured by the generous prize money—for swimming ability when one entrant had to be immediately rescued from near drowning. Shadowed by a small boat carrying a swimmer’s trainer and a CNE observer, each swimmer was to make three circuits around the seven-mile, triangular course. It was not a swim race as much as it was an endurance contest. The vast majority of competitors dropped out of the race, including local hero Young. Only three finished, led by Ernest Vierkoetter of Germany, who completed the circuit in 11 hours and 45 minutes.
The intense popularity of the event with the public, which helped the CNE break attendance records that season, ensured that the marathon swim became an annual event. Over the years the rules evolved and the distance of the course was shortened but, as Leveridge recalled, “the excitement and drama of the events, the hopes and disappointments of the contestants, were always present.” The ability of marathon swims to fire public enthusiasm culminated with Marilyn Bell‘s crossing of Lake Ontario as part of the CNE festivities in September 1954.

Dog Swim, circa 1975. CNE Archives, Alexandra Studio Collection.

Seeking a novel twist to the swimming event, Lou Marsh, sports editor of the Toronto Star, came up with the idea of staging the CNE’s first Dog Derby in 1934. In each of four classes, based on a dog’s weight, children could win a championship trophy and twenty-five dollars cash if their dog won the quarter-mile aquatic race. Rules stipulated that each canine had to have two human companions: one at the start and the other in a boat coaxing the dog with whistling or words of encouragement. In the first year, several entrants broke the rules. In enticing their pooches along “by holding out steaks and cats,” Leveridge writes, they caused confusion when these enticements attracted numerous dogs. In another example of the humourous hijinks the annual derby became known for, a dog wandering the shoreline one year saw the excitement and jumped into the water to join the race. After restoring order, the police kept the late entrant confined overnight until they could locate its owner. The Dog Derby (later known as the Dog Swim and open to dog owners of all ages) remained an annual feature at the fair until 1988. Along with Dr. Ballard’s Mutt Show—where, between 1949 and 1960, kids were awarded prizes if their dog had the longest or shortest tail, the longest ears, or the best costume—it was a precursor to the present-day Superdogs and other animal shows.

Reopening after the interruption of the war, the CNE attracted a record-breaking three million visitors in 1947. There were still plenty of agricultural, sports, and musical events—as a young Charles Pachter discovered when he wandered off from his parents at the fair in a 1947 NFB short—but some observers bemoaned the rising spectre of commercialism. Writing in The Ex: A Picture History of the Canadian National Exhibition (James Lewis & Samuel, 1973), James Lorimer complained about the new buildings erected on the exhibition grounds in the 1950s and 1960s, including the Queen Elizabeth Building and the Better Living Centre. He said these classic modernist structures were “flat, square, unimaginative boxes, overgrown supermarkets, constructions to enclose the largest possible unencumbered spaces in which big commercial exhibitors could ‘sell the public.'” Rather than the technological demonstrations of the past, Lorimer’s argument continued, exhibitors were merely trying to sell products. The auto show, for example, had grown from vehicle displays to elaborate productions showing off the newest models.

The Canadettes, circa 1961. CNE Archives, Alexandra Studio Collection.

Furthermore, following the common argument of that era, Lorimer claimed the commercialism was emblematic of the fair’s Americanization, which undercut its British and Canadian roots. Despite Lorimer’s mournful over-statement, there was indeed evidence of creeping American influence. According to the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, after the war, the Ex’s always elaborate stage productions “reflected the growing influence of US pop culture upon Canada.” The shows, often called Canadiana, continued to include Canadian acts and themes—audio excerpts of many of these shows can be found in the CNE Archives. And after the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes made three successful appearances, the CNE created their own high-kicking dance troupe. The Canadettes, Maggie Mortimer describes in a National Post article (August 30, 2000), made annual appearances from 1951 until 1967. On the whole, however, the CNE stage presentations relied on big-name American headliners like Danny Kaye, Jimmy Durante, Tony Martin, Victor Borge, Ed Sullivan, Jerry Lewis, and even Lassie. In Lorimer’s interpretation, the increasing American influence in Canadian affairs and in global politics (at the expense of the British connection) was being reflected on the CNE stage.

Unidentified competitors in the Mayor’s Bathtub Race, 1983. CNE Archives, Alexandra Studio Collection.

One of the more odd attractions since the late 1960s was the annual bathtub race. Invented in Nanaimo, B.C., the sport was introduced at the CNE in 1969. Outfitted with a six-horsepower outboard motor, the modified tubs raced at upwards of twenty miles per hour making fifteen one-mile laps of the course. A twist was added in 1971 when Mayor William Dennison and other municipal politicians from across southeastern Ontario manned bathtubs. Scarborough Controller Joyce Mitchell won the annual race several years in a row, and both North York Mayor Mel Lastman and Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey were among the many enthusiastic participants over the years. It wasn’t uncommon for the unsteady vessels to capsize and dunk their embarrassed skipper in the drink, an outcome that surely pleased the crowds of constituents who filled the stands until the annual event was discontinued in 1986.
There’s much at the present-day Ex, opening this Friday, that reflects continuity with the fair’s past. Livestock shows, the display of technological innovations, midway rides, and daily concerts have all been enduring attractions—although their nature has evolved. Other oddball amusements, once keenly popular but shorter lived, were a time capsule of their day—revealing the changing values of changing times.