Wednesday, September 30, 2015

# 62 ~ "Play by the Bay", Part IV - The Exhibition

This is the fourth and final article that is taken from a presentation that I gave during the week of September 21st, 2015.  Given that we have reached the official end of summer, I presented a look back at some of Toronto's favourite summertime recreational spots - particularly, those located around the Toronto harbour.

This final entry in the subject of waterfront recreation discusses the Canadian National Exhibition.  Just like my preceding articles on Sunnyside Amusement Park, the Toronto Islands and Ontario Place, this article is by no means exhaustive.  I've picked a few highlights but could easily have written several entries on any one of these recreational parks.

The CNE grew out of an early provincial fair that was held near King and Simcoe streets in September of 1846.  The fair promoted agriculture, manufactured goods and decorative arts.  The fair was a success and it was held in different cities around Ontario each year, including Hamilton, Kingston, Niagara and Brockville.  Over the 31 years between 1847 and 1878, the fair was only held in Toronto three times – 1852, 1858, and 1878. 

After the 1878 fair in Toronto, City Council looked to have the fair permanently located in Toronto.  The new “Toronto Industrial Exhibition” opened on September 3, 1879, and lasted for three weeks.  It drew 100,000 visitors and showcased 8,234 exhibits.  1879 was also the first time the fair was held at today’s Exhibition Place.  Back in 1879, Exhibition Place only covered about 50 acres, but now it covers almost 200 acres. 

The Toronto Industrial Fair evolved into today's Canadian National Exhibition, and the name changed in the early 1900s.  At left, we can see a poster from 1892, promoting the Industrial Exhibition.  At right, a poster from 1906 advertises the Canadian National Exhibition.

The early “Ex” promoted agriculture and technology in Canada.  The Ex was always meant as a place to publicly display whatever was new and innovative in terms of agriculture, technology, transportation or communication.  So, the Ex has definitely evolved and changed over the past 136 years, since 1879.  People often comment on “how much the Ex has changed”, but this has always been the case.  In the early 1900s, one reviewer penned an article claiming that the Exhibition wasn't the same fair that he remembered attending back in in the closing years of the nineteenth century.


Many different buildings have come and gone across the Exhibition grounds over the years.  An exhaustive history of the buildings, past and present, at the CNE would be a massive undertaking.  Here's a short list of a few buildings that can be found on the grounds today.

Perhaps the most iconic structure at the Ex is the Princes’ Gates, which serve as a grand entrance through the east side of the grounds.  The great central Roman Arch of the gates is surmounted by a victorious winged figure.  This arch is flanked on either side by nine Doric columns.  Each of these nine columns represents one of the provinces in Canada in 1927, when the gates were unveiled.  The missing province is Newfoundland, which didn’t enter Confederation until 1949.

The CNE promoted its 1927 fair with the banner slogan “Confederation Year”.  Prior to the gates opening in 1927, they were to be named the “Diamond Jubilee of Confederation Gates”, which was a bit of mouthful.  1927 was of course the sixtieth anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 1867.

At the last minute, though, Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Prince George, the Duke of Kent announced that the Ex would be a stop on their 1927 Canadian Royal Visit, and so the gates became the Princes’ Gates. 

At left is a promotional poster for the CNE from 1927, with the banner advertisement of "Confederation Year".  At right, the Duke of Kent and the Prince of Wales visit the fair in 1927.

Many people now incorrectly refer to this iconic entrance as the “Princess Gates”, though they were named for the two princes who were uncles of the present queen.  

Sixty years after the famed gates were open, Lorne Greene was the host of a special show for the Centenary of Canadian Confederation in 1967.  Here is a publicity video for that show that he appeared in.


The Enercare Centre was constructed in the 1990s and is actually just about the most contemporary building on the grounds.  It’s one that many people may be familiar with, as it’s the largest convention and exhibition centre in Canada.  If you recognize the building, but don’t remember it ever being called the Enercare Centre, don’t worry.  Up until the past year, it was known as the Direct Energy Centre, and before that, it was called the National Trade Centre. 


The Enercare Centre stands on a plot of land that was once occupied by the Electrical and Engineering Building.  This building showcased a lot of innovations in – you guessed it – electricity and engineering.  The Electrical and Engineering building was demolished in 1972.


By the 1920s, the popularity of the CNE meant that grand new buildings and exhibit halls were needed.  In addition to the Princes’ Gates and the Electrical Engineering period, a number of notable buildings were constructed on the grounds in the 1920s and early 1930s. 

The Coliseum Arena went up in 1922, and at the time it had the largest single structure roof in North America.  Almost immediately, it became home to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, which drew even more crowds down to the grounds.  Today it is popular as the home of the Toronto Marlies hockey team.

The Automotive Building was built in 1929.  For nearly half a century, it showcased each year’s new car releases, which became one of the biggest annual events at the CNE.  Eventually, car manufacturers changed the time of year that new models were released, and the Automotive Building was converted into a convention pavilion known as the Allstream Centre. 

The Horse Palace opened in 1931, and as the name suggests, it is home to a number of equestrian events on the grounds, including the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.  It also serves as the headquarters to the Mounted Division of the Toronto Police Service.  The Horse Palace is a striking example of Art Deco design in Toronto.

Many visitors to the modern day CNE lament that some buildings that were once open to the public can no longer be visited while the Exhibition runs.  These include the Horticultural Building, built in 1907.  It’s now a privately run dance club.

The former Arts, Crafts and Hobbies Building, opened in 1912, is now home to the dinner and theatre experience known as Medieval Times. 


One memorable building that’s disappeared from the grounds is the Grandstand.  Also known as Exhibition Stadium, it was the fourth stadium to be built on the same spot since 1879.  The covered area on the north side of the Grandstand was built in 1948, with bleaches added on the south in 1959.  Some additional seating was also added in the mid-1970s.

The Grandstand was the home of the Toronto Blue Jays from 1977 until 1989, and of the Toronto Argonauts from 1959 until 1988.  Twelve Grey Cup games were hosted in the Grandstand over twenty-four years.

Seating at the Grandstand was often criticized, with some outfield seats over 800 feet from home plate, the furthest distance of any major league stadium.  Over 10,000 seats in centre field and down the right-field line didn’t even directly face the baseball diamond, and were so far from the playing that the Blue Jays didn’t even offer them for sale during the regular season.

With Lake Ontario so close, the Grandstand was often cold at the start and end of each baseball season.  The very first game that the Blue Jays ever played – against the Chicago White Sox on April 7, 1977 – was the only major league game ever played with the field covered entirely by snow.  The Blue Jays had to borrow the Zamboni from Maple Leaf Gardens to clear the field.  Fog and wind played havoc with the stadium too, with pitchers being blown off the mound and players unable to find their way to the home base.

Toronto Blue Jays versus Chicago White Sox, Grandstand, April 7, 1977.

By the early 1980s, there were plans to replace the Grandstand.  The SkyDome – now called the Roger Centre – was completed in 1989 and became the new home to the Blue Jays.  Except for a few concerts and wrestling matches, the old Grandstand lay abandoned and was eventually demolished in 1999.  For a few years the site served as a parking lot until BMO Field opened in 2007. 

Despite all the problems with the seating, and the Grandstand’s exposure to cold air and the elements, and even in spite of the fact that it had earned the nickname “the Mistake by the Lake”, many people hold fond memories of the Grandstand.  For many, it was the first place they ever saw a concert without being accompanied by their parents.  A number of well-known acts have appeared at the Grandstand over the years. 

Along with a lot of happy memories at the Grandstand, at least one riot started within its bleachers.  The infamous shock rocker, Alice Cooper, was due to play a concert there on August 19, 1980.  Fans waited, and waited, and waited, and finally, one luckless roadie was pushed out on to the stage to announce that Alice Cooper was sick, and wouldn’t be performing.  The concert was cancelled.  

You can watch the mayhem that ensued after the concert was cancelled for yourself, in this video clip of local news coverage.


Now, I’d like to share some historical images from the Ex.  Many of these may bring back memories, while others will highlight just how things have changed.   The first series of photographs introduces just a few of the many famous visitors to the Ex over the years.

His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent returned to the Ex in 1941, and opened that year's fair.  He would be tragically killed about a year later, in August of 1942, in a plane crash in Scotland.  He was 39 years old.

Another Royal Visitor was Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, who is shown here on a visit to the Ex in 1958.  She was there to open the Princess Margaret Fountain, also shown, and apparently kept her regal bearing when she touched a button that sent of a series of rather startling rocket explosions.

Legendary entertainer Danny Kaye served as a guest conductor for the United States Air Force band on a visit to the CNE Bandshell in 1950.

The Jackson Five played at the Ex in 1971.

The Osmonds were also a hit at the Ex in 1971.

Sonny and Cher played the Ex in 1972, and Sammy Davis, Jr. appeared there a few years later.

Bob Hope appeared at the Ex on several occasions.  He would also produce one of the promotional videos for his Grandstand show, similar to the one from Lorne Greene, above.


Some of the simplest, most enjoyable things at the Ex have transcended decades and generations.  However, some of the styles of entertainment that the Ex has showcased over the years may have raised the eyebrows of more reserved parents.  The Striporama show that appeared on the midway, seen here in 1954, may have been kept for the eyes of more mature audiences.

This was the sort of tableau that was yours to enjoy, if you were willing to spend the money for a ticket to the midway's Striporama.

Over the years, certain shows that once graced the CNE have disappeared from the roster.  A few articles back, in my write-up of Sunnyside Amusement Park, I mentioned the Miss Toronto Beauty Pageant, which began at Sunnyside and then moved to the Ex.  It was eventually cancelled over considerations that it was politically insensitive.  

Carnival sideshows, or “freak shows” were traditionally a part of any fair, and the Ex was no exception.  This photograph from 1912 shows an act featuring exotically dressed women, playing with serpents, on the midway. 

This photograph from 1914 shows the fascination with sideshow performers who were either enormous or small.

An exhibit called the "World's Smallest Home" appeared at the Ex in 1930.  This was built as a showcase for those who were, in the language of the time, "midgets".

Of course, quite apart from these sorts of attractions, the midway is probably most strongly associated with the rides that are run up over a couple of days each year before the Ex opens.  Even for those of us who haven’t ridden on one of these amusements in years, the garish and clattering noises and the bright flashing lights of the midway’s rides often define a late summer’s evening spent down at the Ex.

The Round Up Ride first appeared at the Ex by the 1960s and was a feature through the 1980s.

The Polar Express, seen here in the 1980s, was another staple at the Ex.  The operator's cry of "Do you want to go faster?", belted out over the blaring of whatever song was at the top of the charts that summer, could be heard across the midway.

Built in 1953, the Flyer was billed as the “fastest Flyer in the world”, and travelled at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour.  The roller coater was 2,612 feet long, and stood to a maximum height of 62 feet.  On a good day, it would carry 26,000 screaming people, and in its 39 years of operation, well over 9 million passengers rode the flyer.  Eventually, newer and faster rides at the Ex became more popular, and the Flyer’s aging wooden frame was demolished in June of 1992.

Slide # 190 – The Alpine Way opened in 1966.  Its two aerial lines of cable cars ran for half a mile, high above the exhibition grounds, and actually predated the widespread use of gondolas on ski hills.  The Alpine Way lasted for just shy of 30 years before it was torn down in 1994, to allow for the construction of the National Trade Centre (which became the Direct Energy Centre and is now the Enercare Centre).

I'll close my article on the Ex with a television commercial from 1982.  You'll most likely remember the catchy jingle, "Let's Go to the Ex".


For plenty more great insights into the history of the Canadian National Exhibition, be sure to visit their new archival website, at

Visit the Canadian National Exhibition's Heritage Site here.


My "blog" on Toronto, Then & Now has developed out of the thousands of historical photographs of Toronto that I have collected over the years, in the course of giving illustrated talks and presentations.

If you have an interest in booking an illustrated talk, please get in touch.  I have many different subjects put together.  Just a few of these include :

- Toronto in the Georgian Era (1793 to 1834)
- Victorian Toronto (1837 to 1901)
- Demolished Toronto
- A History of Old Homes & Estates in Toronto
- A History of Cinema & Entertainment in Toronto
- Toronto During the First World War
- At least two different presentations on True Crime in Toronto
- Ghost Stories of Toronto

Presentations can be tailored to run anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the needs of your group.  I come with all my own equipment - laptop, speaker, and digital projector.  Researching the history of Toronto and going on a detective hunt for old photographs is a passion of mine.

If you don't see a subject that you're interested in listed above, just ask!

You can reach me at :

telephone : 416 487 9017

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