Music at the Canadian National Exhibition | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Music at the Canadian National Exhibition

From the early 1920s until the CNE Music Dept was established, the Canadian Bureau for the Advancement of Music helped to organize CNE music events, which were of three main kinds: 1/entertainment, 2/exhibition, and 3/competition.
Grandstand, Canadian National Exhibition
Crowds gathering for a performance at the CNE Grandstand, circa 1950s (courtesy Canadian National Exhibition Archives).
Chorus, Canadian National Exhibition
The Canadian National Exhibition Chorus, performing at the Grandstand in 1927 (courtesy Canadian National Exhibition Archives).
Bandshell, Canadian National Exhibition
CNE Bandshell, present day (courtesy Canadian National Exhibition Archives).
Bandshell, Canadian National Exhibition
The CNE Bandshell, circa 1930s (courtesy Canadian National Exhibition Archives).
CNE Music Building, Present Day
(courtesy Canadian National Exhibition Archives)\r\n
Music Day, Canadian National Exhibition
A girls' dance troupe performs at the Canadian National Exhibition's Music day in 1959 (courtesy Canadian National Exhibition Archives).
Midway, CNE
The world's largest annual fair is held late summer (Corel Professional Photos).

Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). World's largest annual exposition, held mid-August to Labour Day (first Monday in September) in the 140-hectare permanent grounds on Toronto's waterfront; in 1976 an attendance record of 3.85 million was established. The CNE was opened 5 Sep 1879 under the auspices of the city council and local trade and arts associations. At first it was called the Industrial Exhibition of Toronto, but the name was changed to CNE in 1904.

From the early 1920s until the CNE Music Dept was established, the Canadian Bureau for the Advancement of Music helped to organize CNE music events, which were of three main kinds: 1/entertainment, 2/exhibition, and 3/competition. The music department evolved gradually in co-ordination with the bureau and remained linked to it in the person of a common managing director, Clifford Hunt, who assumed that position with the department in 1968 and the bureau in 1969.


The CNE's annual Music Day, organized by the bureau and traditionally attended by large audiences, was a feature of the fair 1921-85. As music programming began to be spread throughout the weeks of the fair, the specific designation of a Music (or Arts and Music) Day was dropped in 1985. Military bands were the main musical attraction until the mid-1920s and retained their popularity throughout most of the 20th century. Canadian bands (eg, Anglo-Canadian Leather Co Band, Canadian Grenadier Guards Band) and celebrated international ensembles played at a number of bandstands on the site; in 1928, for example, 19 bands played 108 two-hour concerts on the two bandstands then in use. In 1936 the open-air Bandshell was built to house band and variety-show presentations and the official opening and closing ceremonies. Other venues for music have been the 23,500-seat open-air Grandstand, the 1300-seat Queen Elizabeth Theatre, auditoriums in other buildings, bandstands, a small Music Building, and the large arena in the Coliseum, designed for horse shows and livestock judging but used as the concert hall for the Canadian National Exhibition Chorus for some years from 1922 onwards. The Ontario Government Building (alternately called the Carlsberg Pavilion or the Carling O'Keefe Pavilion depending on the sponsor) was also used for recitals and competitions in the 1980's.

The original 5000-seat Grandstand, built in 1879, was replaced in 1906 by a 16,400-seat structure; and that in turn was supplanted in 1948 (with some additions later) by a building combining enclosed display space with steeply raked bleachers seating 23,500. For about 50 years the Grandstand presented vast spectacles with hundreds of participants in tableaux with music; typical were Ivanhoe (1906), Cleopatra (1923), Arabia - An Oriental Spectacle (1926), Montezuma (1933), and celebrations of Canadian and British history (1921, 1927, 1938) or stirring patriotic sentiment (during World War I). The pageants were combined with vaudeville and variety entertainment and community singing and were climaxed by dazzling fireworks displays; they were presented on a huge stage with scenery 210 metres long and 15 metres high and with casts as large as 1500 supplemented by horses and chariots, floats, motorcars, and even helicopters.

When the CNE reopened in 1947 after the six-year hiatus caused by World War II, the Grandstand show reflected the growing influence of US pop culture upon Canada. Jingoistic pageants gave way to variety shows featuring US film and radio stars such as Olsen and Johnson, Danny Kaye, Jimmy Durante, and Victor Borge. In 1952 Jack Arthur, a Canadian impresario of long experience, took over as producer of the shows, with Howard Cable as music director and Alan Lund and Midge Arthur as choreographers. While still featuring US stars, the shows thenceforth presented more Canadian performers in supporting roles. Arthur continued as producer until 1967, to be succeeded by Cable in 1968. Cable was followed in 1969 by Clifford Hunt, who instituted a policy, continued throughout the 1970s, of presenting one- or two-night appearances by pop stars, rock bands, country-western groups, comedians, and other entertainers. Most of these were from the USA, but Canadian performers have included Paul Anka, Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO), Burton Cummings, Patsy Gallant, the Guess Who, Hagood Hardy, the Irish Rovers, Catherine McKinnon, Anne Murray, René Simard, Triumph, April Wine, and Neil Young. A partial return to large-scale spectacle came in the form of the Scottish World Festival Tattoo 1972-81. A four-day feature, it presented massed pipe and military bands, highland dancers, and variety entertainment with a total cast of about 1300.

In the 1930s, when swing music was at the height of its popularity, the Automotive Building for two years (1934-5) contained the Ballroom, where the dance bands of Duke Ellington, Rudy Vallee, Guy Lombardo, and others played to overflow crowds. Later in the 1930s a large marquee with a dance floor was erected to house the bands and their audiences. Dance bands have continued to appear at the Bandshell and other locations. In the 1960s, the Automotive Building again became a site of musical activity, mainly of youth-oriented rock concerts; in 1977 it served as the Canadian Recording Industry Pavilion to mark the centenary of recorded sound. This was appropriate, since one of the world's oldest surviving speech recordings (11 Sep 1888, of Governor-General Lord Stanley) was made in connection with the CNE (see Roll Back the Years, p 11). In 1975 the Bandshell was the location of a reunion performance of the Happy Gang.

To mark the CNE centennial in 1978, an octagonal Bandstand was recreated on its former site, using archival photographs of the original 1913 structure. The park area around it was outfitted in turn-of-the-century style and was used for concerts and singalongs. By 1990 a new outdoor stage area, better suited to choreography, was the preferred site for these concerts but the Bandstand was still in use.

The small Music Building, built as the Railways Building in 1907, housed recitals, chamber-music concerts and the CNE Music Festival. Declared unsafe in 1985, the building was gutted by fire in 1987 but a major restoration was undertaken and the building was scheduled to reopen in the early 1990's. Recitals by outstanding pupils of the RCMT and of ORMTA teachers were given for many years in an auditorium in the Grandstand and in other locations. Other musical events have been held in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which opened in 1957. Music also has been used in connection with product displays and on the games, rides, and sideshows of the Midway. In 1974 the Carlsberg brewery installed a 50-bell carillon in the Carlsberg Bell Tower.

Many concerts have been presented by groups of players and singers in the open air. In the 1920s and 1930s these 'troubadours' were clad in national costumes and presented many varieties of ethnic music on Music Day; in 1923 one act of Flotow's Martha was a part of the free entertainment. Strolling performers have included The Little Singers from Tokyo, the Royal Hawaiian Band, barbershop quartets, and a bizarre one-man band named Werner Hirzel.


The CNE has been the site of displays by piano, organ, phonograph, and musical-instrument manufacturers and distributors. Heintzman &Co began exhibiting as early as 1879. The Disk Talking Machine Co and several piano manufacturers exhibited in 1903 in the newly opened Manufacturers' Building. The Canadian Piano and Organ Manufacturers' Association negotiated the conditions under which their members would exhibit in 1906 and leased space soon afterwards. A building for musical instrument display existed in 1905 and a Phonograph Building was in operation in 1922. For the most part, however, musical displays were mounted in the Manufacturers' Building until it burned down in 1961. Thereafter they were set up in the Better Living Building. In earlier years exhibitors emphasized prestige and presented impressive or informative displays about their industries; after World War II the emphasis shifted towards selling products to CNE visitors.


In 1919, as an adjunct to its product displays, the phonographic division of the music industry in Canada arranged singing competitions which proved popular with the public. In 1921 the Canadian Piano and Organ Manufacturers' Association presented a one-day festival of piano recitals, each pianist sponsored by an exhibitor in 'Piano Row' of the Manufacturers' Building. That same year, through the initiative of A.L. Robertson, the first band competition was held. The success of these undertakings convinced the CNE directors that music activities and programs increased attendance. Also begun in 1921, the CNE Music (competition) Festival and the Annual Music Day (on which the piano exhibitors again presented continuous concerts) both had their official inaugurations in 1922. By 1924 the Ontario Amateur Bands Association (and later the CBDA) assumed the organization and administration of the band competitions, which drew entries from across Canada, first for military bands, then for all categories of bands including brass and silver. In 1954 the Canadian Bureau for the Advancement of Music began to administer the band competition. The CNE Music Festival has attracted competitors ranging in age from six to adult, in solo and group instrumental and vocal categories. It has scheduled classes not only for piano, strings, woodwinds, brass, and accordion but also for harmonica bands, bagpipes, old-time fiddlers, and drum-and-bugle corps. Adjudicators have been appointed from across Canada, and for prizes the CNE has awarded medals and, beginning in 1940, scholarships. In 1990 the competition was suspended pending the completion of adequate facilities in the remodelled Music Building. The National Competitive Festival of Music (CIBC National Music Festival) was held during the CNE at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from its inception in 1972 until 1980.

Popular music competitions have also taken place at the CNE. In 1987 the Rising Star Youth Talent Contest was instituted for aspiring rock and popular music performers and in 1988 the third annual Ontario Open Country Singing Contest was held at the fair, becoming a regular feature in subsequent years.

The CNE has inspired several compositions. Richard Hayward composed the Golden Jubilee Marching Song for the exhibition's 50th anniversary in 1928. The US bandmaster Edwin Franko Goldman wrote the Canadian National Exhibition March to mark the first appearance at the CNE of his famed Goldman Band in 1929. J.-J. Gagnier wrote Ca-Na-Ex for band. Léo Roy's Hail to the Exhibition was performed in 1930.

In the 49 weeks each year when the CNE is not operating, the grounds are open to the public as parkland, and some of the buildings are leased from time to time by entrepreneurs for the presentation of concerts and other activities.

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