toronto cne history

Freak shows and other long-gone acts from the CNE

It's that time of year once again. The CNE will be thrilling, terrifying, wowing, and amazing thousands of guests this month with rides, performances, a lantern festival, an Asian night market and, of course, deep fried everything.

Over its many decades, the flavour of The Ex has slowly changed as successive organizers each strive to produce a cleaner, more modern event.

Gone are the freak shows and other sleazy acts - by today's standards anyway - that once made the CNE unmissable to its devoted fans.

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 Diver

toronto CNE

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.

toronto CNE

And without flame.

toronto CNE

The Freak Show

toronto CNE

Believe it or not, freak shows of various kinds ran at the CNE until the early 70s. Yes, 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.

toronto CNEtoronto CNE performers european war

The Horeseback Performers

toronto CNE

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.

toronto CNE

The Performing Elephants

toronto CNE performers circus 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

toronto CNE

Bike stunts like these are no longer part of the Ex. 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 it's 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.

toronto cne

Lead photo by

Toronto Archives. With files from Chris Bateman.


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