From ON Magazine
By Sarah Jensen
Preserving a Slice of Canada's Cultural Life
Each year, 1.3 million people converge at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) to attend horse and garden shows, vie for first place in the Rising Star Youth Talent competition, and view the entire spectacle from the top of the CNE Ferris wheel. Home movie cameras in hand, they've documented rock concerts, refrigerator exhibitions, and stops at the BeaverTail booth for samples of the traditional Canadian fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. The CNE Archives is now engaged in the ambitious project of cataloging and digitizing much of the footage taken over the last 80 years in order to preserve and share the rich history of the CNE.
The picture of progress
The CNE, the fourth largest fair in North America, grew out of the late summer agricultural fairs of the 19th century. Held in a different Ontario city each year, the fairs were a Mecca for Canadian farmers eager to compare notes on new farming techniques and compete for prizes for the most valuable agricultural innovations. In 1879, the first permanent fair was held at Toronto's Exhibition Place, where it has been a Canadian institution ever since.
"The Canadian National Exhibition has always reflected what's going on in the larger society," says Linda Cobon, CNE's manager of records and archives. From the beginning, visitors queued up in the exhibition halls to view the newest home decorating styles, washing machines, automobiles, and progressive inventions. In 1938, years before televisions were fixtures in every home, an interview with boxer Jack Dempsey—complete with visuals and sound—was broadcast from the CNE's Horticulture Building to the Automotive Building. And in 1952, CBC tested the new technology when it aired the CNE opening in one of Canada's first TV broadcasts.
Then as now, the public was fascinated by demonstrations of such cutting-edge technologies and brought along their Kodak Cine Specials and Bell & Howell Filmos to capture their day at the CNE. They recorded 1920s dog swims at the waterfront, bobby-soxed teenagers strolling down the midway, and fast-talking barkers enticing customers into shadowy tents to view exotic dancers and such marvelous curiosities as The Human Snake and The Wrestling Rabbit.
Over the years, many of the amateur movie makers donated their 16mm films to the CNE Archives, where Cobon discovered them in disarray in a storage room alongside behind-the-scenes footage shot by CNE employees and unedited reels taken by film crews contracted to create TV commercials. "Even when stored properly, cellulose acetate films are highly unstable and deteriorate over time," she explains. "But these films hadn't been stored well at all. The metal cans had gone rusty, some were open, and everything was in pretty rough shape."
Rescuing the 227 reels of film fell to CNE's Sound and Moving Image Archivist, Christina Stewart. She painstakingly ran each film through an inspection bench—a device outfitted with two rewinds at either side of a light box—to determine the physical condition of each film. "Much of it exhibits shrinkage, so it's very hard to show it without damaging it," she says. She also discovered much of the film exhibited "vinegar syndrome," vinegar-smelling gasses created when cellulose acetate film begins to break down. "The fumes spread through the collection and cause relatively stable films to begin self-destructing," Stewart explains. "The sooner we rescue these films the better, because once they go, it's too late."
Stewart has so far rewound the most important films onto polypropylene cores and re-housed them in archival, ventilated cans. She's also catalogued their content in preparation for the next step: digitization, which will not only preserve the images for future researchers, but remedy the color shift caused over time by the unstable dyes used in early color film.
A cellulose time capsule
Stewart's frame-by-frame examination also revealed a valuable historical record, documenting not only the CNE itself but the changing Canadian culture from the 1920s to the present.
The popular entertainment scene is chronicled in films of early grandstand shows, elaborate spectacles featuring entertainers from Bob Hope, Duke Ellington, and the high-kicking Canadettes—Canada's answer to New York's Radio City Rockettes—to concert performances by Pearl Jam and Lawrence Welk, complete with bubble machine.
The films serve as an architectural record as well, preserving the images of structures later lost to fire or demolition, such as the original Horse and Cattle Pavilion replaced by the 1931 Art Deco Horse Palace and the Manufacturers Building replaced by the Better Living Centre in 1962. In the films, the colorful Alpine Way cable cars still circle the grounds, and brave 1950s riders experience the wooden Mighty Flyer roller coaster.
"There is footage of an early ride called the Wurlitzer," says Stewart. "It would shoot you around and around on a track and then whip you through a set of doors and then whip you back out. Heavily unsafe, but what a great time!"
Accessing the archives
The CNE Archives also contain textual collections, historic CNE programs and annual reports, artifacts including CNE medallions and midway souvenirs, audio recordings, and half a million photographs including a collection of still photos by Lieutenant Gilbert Milne, a Royal Canadian Navy photographer. "We have something like a 17-year backlog of material, much of which could be digitized," says Cobon.
Once the materials are digitized, researchers and the public will be able to view the most important among them in the Archive's reading room, in an "Open Film Vault" section on the Archive's website, and during the CNE when the Archives will screen select videos in its exhibit area.
A treasure trove for students and researchers, the collection will serve as a virtual ethnography of Canadian culture.
"There's some fantastic footage in this collection, and now people will be able to access it themselves," says Stewart. "That was the CNE mission from the beginning, to teach younger generations about our origins and to see where we've progressed."