Historicist: Johnny at the Fair
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Historicist: Johnny at the Fair

Before he was a fine artist, Charles Pachter wandered the Canadian National Exhibition as a four-year-old for the NFB in 1947.

Source: Toronto Star, August 21, 1947  Note misspelling of Charles Pachter's last name

Source: Toronto Star, August 21, 1947. Note misspelling of Charles Pachter’s last name.

Out of 100 or so boys who auditioned for the title role in the National Film Board’s celebration of the 1947 Canadian National Exhibition, Johnny at the Fair, Charles “Sonny” Pachter stood out. Or, at least, stood on his head and performed somersaults during a three-minute interview. Unlike the other hopefuls, who Pachter later recalled “all seemed to be in velvet suits and bow-ties,” the four-year-old Lytton Park resident came in “shorts and dirty knees.” Long after the official deadline for auditions passed, director Jack Olsen was inundated with phone calls from hopefuls tipping him off about the next great child star, even if the little darlings were too old for the part or girls who’d won elocution contests.

Pachter was the “impressionable extrovert” the production team desired. The NFB’s method of letting him know he’d won the role surprised his mother Sara, who related the story to Charles in the 2003 documentary Charlie at the Fair:

I got scared when I saw all the cars and cameras in front of our house. They were taking pictures of me and you. I said “how do you know he won? Nobody told me.” They said ‘he won.’ I went in the house and I phoned the National Film Board and I said “Are you still taking interviews?” They said, “No, we’ve already selected somebody. It will be in the papers tonight.”

When the Star asked Pachter if he was excited about starring in a movie, he murmured “Mmmm.” He noted the rides he wanted to go on, and promised his mother that the money he earned would go straight into his penny bank. Sara and her husband Harry later auditioned successfully to play Johnny’s parents.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, August 21, 1947

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, August 21, 1947.

1947 was an appropriate year to film a child wandering awestruck throughout the CNE grounds. More than most years, it was the first taste of the Ex for thousands of children, thanks to a six year hiatus after the site became a military training area following the 1941 fair. Decommissioning the grounds took over a year, as wartime partitions were removed from buildings, fresh sod was laid where troops had marched, and a fresh coat of paint was applied. One attraction fairgoers had to wait longer to enjoy was the Grandstand; destroyed by a fire in April 1946, reconstruction proceeded slowly due to labour and material shortages. The forerunner of Exhibition Stadium had housed two major restaurants, which led to the construction of a pair of 400-seat temporary eateries and more refreshment stands.

The official program for the 1947 CNE promised a fair showcasing “in new beauty, colour, and vigor, the embodiment of the spirit of a world facing a challenging future with clear eyes and a stout heart.” The public embraced its return, with 103,500 people setting a new opening day record on August 22, 1947. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King told onlookers attending his opening speech at the Bandshell that the fair exemplified Canada’s potential as a world power in the postwar era. “Granted that there are dark clouds on the horizon,” King reflected, “that there are difficulties to be met and obstacles to be overcome, may Canada’s progress in the redirection of our efforts to peacetime pursuits, not be, at this of all moments, a beacon light, to cheer and to guide nations less fortunate than our own?”

Front page photo, Toronto Star, August 23, 1947

Front page photo, Toronto Star, August 23, 1947.

Pachter and the film crew were present for King’s speech. According to the Telegram, the boy couldn’t figure out what was going on, other than members of the production team prodded him to “go up the steps to the stage and shake the fat man’s hand.” Canada’s longest-serving leader failed to impress the boy, who wanted to drive a car instead. “I remember I was chewing bubble gum,” Pachter later recalled. “There were all these old guys in suits. Luckily I was fearless.”

King was involved in a minor mishap later that afternoon, when he was on hand to watch champion skater Barbara Ann Scott christen a Seabee plane with a bottle of champagne. Scott failed in her first two attempts to smash the bottle, prompting the PM to cry “hit harder.” No luck. Scott’s mother urged her to “hit the bottle on the bottom.” After eight unsuccessful tries, the champagne cooperated.

Scott and the PM proceeded to the Automotive Building, where, with Maple Leafs star Syl Apps, they opened the “Teen Town” venue. The film crew caught up with them, staging a scene where Scott planted a kiss on Pachter’s cheek. At least two takes were required, due to combination of the boy’s shyness and the classic childhood reaction to getting cooties from a girl. He blushed, hung his head and, as can clearly be seen in the movie, wiped his face.

At last, Barbara Ann Scott and Mackenzie King smash the bottle! Toronto Star, August 23, 1947

At last, Barbara Ann Scott and Mackenzie King smash the bottle! Toronto Star, August 23, 1947.

Over the next two weeks, Pachter was filmed wandering the grounds, as his character enjoyed many adventures after fleeing the boring stuff his parents wanted to see. Some of the attractions could pass for a Simpsons parody, such as the miracles of modern technology displayed at CIL’s “Chemical Wonderland.” He ran into celebrities like World Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who brought his “Punchers” softball team to the CNE to play local squads. Louis preferred spending his time in Toronto on the links at Scarboro Golf Club. Most of the champ’s summer had been spent golfing instead of training for future bouts and, as he told the Star, “It has been wonderful.” Pachter also ran into comedians Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, whose “Screamlined Revue” topped the entertainment attractions.

By the end of the film, Pachter finds himself at the lost children booth. Papers published photos of the first child to end up there, four-year-old Gail Lewis, who was quickly reunited with her mother. The strangest tale of wayward youth on opening day involved Ron Dunlop, who rode his bicycle to the CNE without telling his parents where he was going. When he failed to return home that night, his parents called the police. The only lead they had was a friend who indicated that the boy might be working at the fair. Dunlop was found at 4 a.m. sleeping on a cot provided by animal exhibitor Joe LaFlamme.

Cartoon by Jack Boothe, the Globe and Mail, August 22, 1947

Cartoon by Jack Boothe, the Globe and Mail, August 22, 1947.

LaFlamme was filmed for Johnny at the Fair, but his scenes with Pachter were left on the cutting room floor. Yet that sequence may have had the greatest impact on the star, thanks to one of LaFlamme’s menagerie. Seeing and touching a live moose stayed with Pachter, as he later credited the experience for being an inspiration for his controversial series of moose paintings during the early 1970s.

The finished film, narrated by Lorne Greene, was part of the transition of the NFB’s long-running Canada Carries On series from wartime topics to civilian concerns. It premiered locally at Shea’s Theatre on Bay Street (on a site now part of Nathan Phillips Square) in October 1947 as part of a bill with the Lizabeth Scott-Burt Lancaster film noir Desert Fury. Star movie critic Jack Karr praised the film for its light, humorous tone. “While this 10-minute short will, we imagine, be of prime interest to Torontonians,” Karr observed, “it will give other sections of the country a view of our big exposition as it might be seen through the eyes of a child.”

Johnny at the Fair marked the beginning and the end of Pachter’s acting career. “I can tell 500 jokes in an evening at a party but I couldn’t memorize a line to save my life,” he told the Star in 2003. “Luckily I didn’t have to say anything in the movie.” He continued to visit the CNE annually—one fond memory involved going as a teen with Margaret Atwood and watching the future author be mesmerized by a vegetable chopper demonstration (“her eyes got like saucers”). Pachter pursued a career in fine art, his works gracing the walls of galleries and public locations such as his Hockey Knights in Canada murals on the platforms of College subway station. On his overall experience with the film, he noted “at an early age, I got the illusory impression that Canadian meant glamorous.”

The film has led an interesting afterlife. Well into the 1960s, it was shown at local libraries. A documentary, Charlie at the Fair, was produced in 2003 as a tie-in to the CNE’s 125th anniversary. During its preparation, a letter from producer Bob Pomerantz was published by the Star, asking for information on the whereabouts of several key figures still believed to be alive (among those who weren’t was series producer Sydney Newman). Director Jack Olsen was traced to a town outside Rome, where Pachter reunited with him.

But Johnny at the Fair gained much of its notoriety from its appearance on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in 1992. The version used was recut, presumably for the American market, and produced by Sterling Films. Lorne Greene’s narration was replaced by a less authoritative voiceover, and all specific references to the 1947 fair were deleted. Based on the depiction of Mackenzie King as a still-living former prime minister, this version was released between fall 1948 and summer 1950. This cut provides plenty of fuel for the show’s standard riffing—try to resist saying “ATTICA! ATTICA!” after watching it.

The film’s greatest legacy is as a time capsule of the CNE as it was during the late 1940s. The fair began to show what an idealized postwar world would look like, rich in innovations like mass-produced chemical products, the latest automobiles, and other comforts for a population whose readjustment to civilian life would soon embrace the suburban dream. It also captures, in Mackenzie King, a figure soon to pass from public view after dominating Canadian politics for decades. The introduction of special exhibits for the newly established nations of India and Pakistan foreshadows Toronto’s multicultural future. All of these changes capture through the perspective of child running free through the grounds, barely aware that a new era is unfolding before his eyes.

Additional material from Stanley Barracks: Toronto’s Military History by Aldona Sendzikas (Toronto: Dundurn, 2011); the August 23, 1946, August 23, 1947, and August 25, 1947 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 15, 1947 and July 1, 1994 editions of Maclean’s; the August 21, 1947, August 23, 1947, September 4, 1947, October 18, 1947, and August 6, 2003 editions of the Toronto Star; and the August 23, 1947 edition of the Telegram.

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