City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1253 – photo taken Aug. 9, 1928
The grandstand in the above picture was constructed in 1901 to replace the original structure built in 1894. The 1901 grandstand was destroyed by fire in 1946. The quote below is from the book “There Never Was a Better Time.” It is the tale of an immigrant family, with seven mischievous sons and a rascal of a grandfather, arriving in Toronto in the 1920s, from an isolated village located on the rocky coast of Newfoundland in the days prior to confederation. Toronto, with its bright lights and array of sinful burlesque houses and vaudeville stages, delighted them and horrified their mother. It is an amusing tale of a family struggling to survive in “the big city,” while enjoying the attractions of the diverse life that Toronto offered.
The first time they visited the CNE is chronicled in the book, but the passage below tells about one of the sons, Jack, taking his girlfriend Mary to the Ex and attending a spectacular show in the grandstand pictured above.
From the book “There Never Was a Better Time”
The Grandstand show of 1922 was called “The Prince of Wales’ Durbar.” It was a royal spectacle of pomp and majesty portraying scenes from exotic India, jewel of the Empire. Mary was surprised when they joined the line, as she was well aware of the price of the tickets—fifty cents each. Jack smiled with a touch of pride. He was pleased to have the funds.
While they waited in line, Mary explained to Jack that a “durbar” was a tradition that had originated among the Mogul emperors of India, and was a ceremonial council or court levee. The events eventually developed into gala festivals presented by ruling princes to entertain royal guests. Lord Lyton had held a durbar in 1877 to proclaim Queen Victoria Empress of India. The Delhi Durbar of 1911 celebrated the ascension of King George V and Queen Mary, and was perhaps the most famous durbar of all time. Jack smiled when Mary completed her lecture. It was then that she realized that she had slipped into her role as a teacher. They both laughed, and Jack politely said, “Thank you, Miss Gillard.”
For the citizens of Toronto, the very word durbar conjured visions of imperial splendour and eastern wealth. Each night, the Grandstand at the CNE attracted huge crowds, and newspaper reviews had hailed the show as the best in over ten years.
Jack and Mary were among the twenty-five thousand spectators who gasped in wonder as the larger-than-life scenes unfolded on the gigantic stage. A cast of fifteen hundred was required to populate the extravaganza. Arcs of colour swept the stage, and flashes of light induced magical moods that seized the imagination of the audience, stimulating heights of emotion that most of the audience had rarely experienced. Regiments of soldiers strutted and paraded with exacting precision across the gigantic stage. Richly attired eastern potentates perched regally on the swaying backs of majestic elephants. Even the supposedly intimate scenes were massive in scope when compared to those on normal-sized stages.
The grand finale almost catapulted Jack from his seat. “The Charge of the Dragoons” was a musical ride featuring soldiers displaying scarlet-red tunics trimmed with silver and gold. They galloped their noble steeds in a dramatic cavalry charge, their glistening swords brandished high in the air. Lances fluttered with pennants, adding to the epic battle scene. The martial music engulfed the stadium to create a spine-tingling experience that caused the hairs on the back of Jack’s neck to stand on end.
At the climax of the cavalry charge, the deep-throated shouts of the mounted warriors drowned out the music of the orchestra as the men raised their voices in a unified cry of victory. Cannons exploded, rifle shots cracked in the night air, and the clash of steel on steel echoed across the stadium, conjuring a panorama of militaristic pomp and knightly battle. The audience knew that it was witnessing the very essence of the conquest of the Empire.
When the din of conflict had ended, silence reigned for a long moment. It was as if the viewers were in shock. When the spell was broken, waves of thunderous applause reverberated across the stadium, the acclamation lasting two or three minutes. People jumped to their feet and cheered enthusiastically. When all was again quiet, the orchestra struck the opening notes of “God Save the King.” Everyone remained standing and, with throats tight with emotion, sang the great anthem. Some people in the crowd were familiar with a particularly meaningful line in one verse of the song, words that the composer had penned especially for Canada: “Our loved Dominion bless, with peace and happiness, from shore to shore.”
Within seconds of the final note, fireworks exploded across the pitch-black sky, illuminating the entire grandstand. The faces of the crowd were as visible as if it were daytime. People rushed out of the other exhibition buildings as they heard the bursts echo like crackling thunder across the wide expanse of the CNE grounds. The splashes of light reflected from the turrets and domes of the ornate buildings, making them appear as if they were the spires of magnificent palaces of faraway India. The celestial display electrified the crowd, creating a magical illusion that no one there ever forgot. For Jack and Mary, the memory of a lifetime had been enshrined within their souls.