Saturday, August 18, 2012
5 long-gone acts from the CNE of old
It's that time of year once again. The CNE will be thrilling, terrifying, wowing, and amazing thousands of guests for the 134th time this summer with new rides, performances, shows, exhibitions and, of course, deep fried everything.
Over its thirteen decades, the flavour of The Ex has slowly changed as successive organizers each strive to produce a cleaner, more modern event. In 2009, CNE director of operations Virginia Ludy told blogTO that "times [had] changed" once again. Gone are the freak shows and other sleazy acts - by today's standards anyway - that once made the CNE unmissible to its devoted fans.
"The public has raised the bar - we see cleaner, newer, more attractive midways than years ago," Ludy told writer Rick McGinnis.
In contrast, a visitor to the CNE in the early part of last century could expect to find divers consumed by flames plunging into pools of water, daredevil horseback performers, and sideshow performers of every conceivable size and shape to stare and poke fun at. Here are a few of the acts that have been lost to time, for better or worse.
The High Dive
As if clambering up to a perch high above the ground wasn't terrifying enough, high divers would leap, perform a trick - a couple of flips maybe - and splash into sometimes dangerously shallow pools for a shot at applause.
To up the ante, some divers at the CNE set themselves on fire before taking the jump. The falling, burning man made for some spectacular photography as well as a stunning performance.
And without flame.
The Freak Show
Believe it or not, freak shows of various kinds ran at the CNE until the early 70s. Under the stewardship of Conklin, the Ex had a distinctly seedy element that, like it or not, is long gone today.
Now considered completely gauche, the touring attractions often featured people who were extremely overweight or underweight, suffering from serious disabilities, or unable to find work in any other field because of their condition. As a photo below shows, these attractions often served as a distraction from worries elsewhere.
The Horseback Performers
If it's worth doing, it's worth doing on horseback. Animals - especially horses - were, naturally for the time, a big part of the Ex for many years. Cars were still a relative rarity on Toronto's streets, though they were a hugely popular exhibit at the Crystal Palace, when these pictures were taken, and horses were still common working animals as well as a viable mode of transportation.
At the Ex, performers wowed spectators with daredevil tricks and perfectly synchronized dance routines all from the back of well-trained horses. Equines are still an important part of the CNE, and this year's event includes a dressage and other activities at the Horse Palace and Ricoh Coliseum.
The Performing Elephants
For decades, performing elephants were a staple at circuses and fairs across North America, and the CNE was no exception. One particular 500-pound, big-eared visitor to the Ex was apparently able to waterski, or at least withstand being pulled behind a boat.
When they weren't wrestling with water craft, the elephants were used in circus acts, parades and countless other highly dubious roles. Off duty, the animals were also available for a bit of old-fashioned gawping.
Auto Polo and Other Stunts
Sadly, bike stunts like these are no longer part of the Ex, though if you ask me they really should be. Auto polo, shown above, was exactly what it sounds like. A game of polo - complete with mallet and ball - with stripped-down, two-man cars instead of horses. Competitors would swerve, crash, flip and burst into flames all while trying to score points in front of capacity crowds at the grandstand, later Exhibition Stadium.
The picture below show a team of acrobatic cyclists putting on an extremely skilled performance inside the same arena a few summers later. Though its doubtful bikes drew as much attention as the roaring autos - cars would later get an entire building at the CNE - I think we can all appreciate the skill involved here.