JAIMIE VERNON – LET’S GO TO THE EX

There are two things that mark the end of summer every year – one is the mopey faced kids who’ve realized that 8 weeks of vacation just isn’t long enough. My daughter moved into University residence this weekend as she starts both her personal independence and a long path toward becoming a Forensic Psychologist. My son, meanwhile, starts high school in a scaled down fast-lane critical thinking school (GASP!) for students who want to be community and business leaders. Summer has ended for them as an abrupt slap in the back with adult responsibilities.

The other sign that summer is over is, of course, the advent of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto which runs, annually, from approximately the second week of August through the Labour Day weekend. For the last few years my family has gone on the final day to catch the Air Show and officially mark the end of summer. I missed last year (for the first time in 45 years) because I was deep in the editing of my Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia. We’ve decided to go the day before Labour Day this year as there’s a good chance that the remnants of Hurricane Isaac is going to beat down on us with Apocalyptic rain.

While I was growing up I had the advantage of both being the only male grandchild on my Dad’s side of the family and I lived in a tightly nit community of friends and neighbours. What this meant was that I usually ended up at ‘The Ex’ more than once every season. I’d go with my parents as usual where my sister and I would enjoy the sights and sounds of the barkers (“Doggie, Doggie! Buffalo, Buffalo”), the rides such as the CHUM Wild Cat, the tenuously standing wooden rollercoaster ‘The Flyer’ and the bed-spin inducing toboggan simulation The Arctic Blizzard (“Do you wanna go FASTER?!”); and there was the Food Building which offered up samples of the latest deli meats from Shopsy’s and every manifestation of candy from the chocolate of Neilson’s to tooth rotting Dubble Bubble Gum – which came in crates of 100 pieces for $2.50!  And we can’t forget The Helldrivers who crashed and flew stunt cars all over the infield of CNE Stadium. Then I’d get to do it again days later with either some of my friends’ families or my aunts and uncles. I recall a time when I was very young when my Dad’s sisters Judy and Jackie insisted on taking me and battling over who was going to spoil me more. I had stuffed animals piled high in my bedroom closet for years. Watch home movie footage of me at the CNE circa 1969/1970 here: http://youtu.be/vl38RHVMaKA

Then my Dad’s brother and his wife took my cousin Janine and I down for a similar evening of endless games and rides…of which one haunted me for years: The Devil’s Hole (or the modern equivalent – Gravitron). This ride was no doubt created for either NASA Astronauts or Russian Cosmonauts. It was a giant 3 storey tower that worked like a clothes dryer tipped on its end. You and 24 other hapless victims stood at the bottom of what resembled a ICBM silo, against walls…then it started to spin….and spin….and spin until suddenly you were pinned, crazy glue-like against the walls from the centrifugal force while you tried desperately not to puke on yourself or anyone downstream. I always imagined that anyone that had done this would have seen it hang in the air, Wile E. Coyotesque, before it met up with its unfortunate recipient beside you, or across from you, in real-time. Of course, THIS was not the worst part of the “ride”. Oh, no. Once the whirling dervish of death had you clinging to the wall at speeds approaching Mach IV, they would drop the bottom out from under your feet – thus the name Devil’s HOLE. That was only the beginning of the terror because on this particular occasion I happened to be wearing a nylon jacket that was a little too large for me (believe it or not I used to be thin and short for my age). As the ride began its final cycle and the floor came rising back up, the speed at which we were spinning also began to slow down. In those few seconds, which seemed like hours, I FELL OFF THE WALL. There I am, only10 or 11 years old, face down on this corrugated metal floor as it’s lifting me up to meet the spinning silo with flickering colours and peoples’ faces distorted by G-force. I wasn’t hurt but I was freaked out. And I could hear yelling from above – where bystanders waiting in line to get on the ride could look down at us. Everyone wanted to know how I was. The ride came to a stop and two carnies burst through the door to see if I was okay. My uncle scooped me up with one arm and put me back on my feet. My aunt brushed me off and we went on our way.  I think they gave us a book of tickets for free rides as compensation but I was done. I think my cousin and my uncle enjoyed the tickets while my aunt watched me puke for 20 minutes. Good times!

The Hockey Hall of Fame used to be at The Ex – the building’s still there and acts as an ad hoc museum during the Honda Indy Formula 1 race each year.  My Dad would always leave my Mom and my sister waiting at the Food Building while he and I drooled over the memorabilia from some of Canada’s greatest hockey legends. Orr. Howe. Hull. Richard. Beliveau. Back then the REAL Stanley Cup was on display (as opposed to the duplicate that now sits on display at the current HHoF). The first time I saw it I was 8 years old. It was like seeing the Holy Grail in captivity.

There’s also a rather laughable Marine Museum at The Ex – one of the few remaining buildings/displays from my childhood. A massive steam locomotive sits majestically on one side of the building and an old 1930’s Fire Department tug boat The Ned Hanlan on the other. To this day I can’t recall what’s actually inside the building except washrooms. My Dad once shot 11 minutes of Super8 film footage from the 2nd floor window inside the bathroom of the annual Air Show because it was a better vantage point than sitting in the bleachers with thousands of people who frequently would stand up everytime someone parachuted into Lake Ontario from a passing Hercules helicopter.

In our teens it was no longer cool to go to The Ex with Mom & Dad. Ogling girls who wore halter tops, cut off Daisy Duke jeans and Farrah Fawcett hairdos would be met with resounding tittering from the ladies if you were being dragged around by your mother! At 13 and 14 we were taking public transit from the suburbs of Scarborough (by ourselves!) and spending entire days there using our free school passes that got us admission into The Ex and Ontario Place (R.I.P.). Sandwiched between the Ex and Ontario Place grounds off the south side of Lakeshore Blvd. was the WWII Canadian Forces sea cruiser HMS Haida. Our gang of street kids would set up a 96 acre game of ‘Capture the flag’ with the Haida as home base.

Ontario Place had few attractions in those days – the Cinesphere, the Atlantis restaurant and a water playground (which was much different than the water slide attraction that was there when it closed last year). But, the Atlantis was located in a tri-level ‘pod’ that was Y-shaped. It looked like a space arc on water. You could get at it from either the massive eastern or western hallways. Everything converged at the Cinesphere where we’d always plan our game around the schedule of the IMAX films playing – “North of Superior” was one of the best they had to offer where you got a bush-pilot’s view of the Canadian hinterland on a SIX STOREY screen! The Atlantis restaurant also shared space with an art gallery of some kind. One year they set up a funhouse maze of bio-luminescent wall panels where your shadow was cast against it with the aide of a very bright magnesium flash. It was eerily like the shadows cast by the people killed by atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki…which may have been the whole point of the exhibit. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xseoz6_ontario-place-1970s_travel

Eventually, we’d make our way back to the Haida and play a round of hide ‘n’ seek. On one occasion I misjudged a hall doorway opening which, on ships, do not go flush to the floor but sit precariously four inches above it; they’re oval shaped with a metal lip running around the entire edge so that a bulk head breach could be sealed off by closing the door’s hatch air tight. I hit the edge of one of these metal door frames with the top of my foot as I ran through it. Down I went face first on latticed grid-iron. I sat on the floor nursing it with a Peter Griffin over-exaggerated “Fffffff. Ffffff.” After my buddies stopped laughing at me they helped me up to find that I couldn’t walk. I knew I’d bruised the crap out of it and was afraid that if I took my shoe off it would swell up like the Goodyear Blimp. I limped it off until we were able to catch a streetcar home some six hours later. Turns out I’d fractured a bone…oh, and sliced a rather sizeable gash into the top of my foot. It was black and blue for weeks. Good times! http://youtu.be/k5reDsSIiAk

Of course, as years went by and we began taking girlfriends to The Ex the ogling at other women was decidedly frowned upon by our better halves. The actual point of taking them there was to scare the crap out them by pushing and shaking them on all the rides including the long-gone Alpine Way if they wouldn’t make out with you on the 10 minute trip across the CNE grounds, and to win them a stuffed animal. I believe I expended an entire summer job’s worth of pocket money on one girl trying to win her a stuffed Scooby-Doo. I failed. There was no making out on the Alpine Way for me that day. Her next boyfriend, however, got more than tongue on the Alpine Way the following summer.

And speaking of summer jobs…

Before taking on the world with dreams of being a rock star, my school friends and I caught wind of a job opportunity at The Ex in the summer of 1980. We had to go down to the facility in July and apply in person (now you can do it online). All five of us were hired. I jumped from summer school right into work. Most of my buddies ended up on day shift so we never saw much of each other. I, somehow, lost the job lottery and ended up pulling 2PM to 10PM shift, meaning a long, tiring streetcar/subway/bus ride back to Scarborough late every night.

I was grounds keeper along with a team of 30 other guys scraping breakfast, lunch and dinner pizza, popcorn and puke off the pavement around the Food Building, the Better Living Centre, The Queen Elizabeth Theatre, CNE head office and the Press building with an occasional foray over to the Hockey Hall of Fame and the gates of CNE Stadium if it got excessively busy (usually on the weekend). Once the Food Building was cleaned, the remainder of the shift was off the beaten path and was pretty easy to keep tidy. By mid day a few of us would hide in a shaded spot under the Gardiner Expressway behind the Horse Palace to shoot the shit, eat lunch, get sunburned and hit on the Conklin Rides carnie girls.

Our boss looked like future film maker Michael Moore and was as big a shit disturber. He was pretty easy going but was adamant that the management of the janitorial company we worked for were screwing us teenagers over for barely-minimum wage – I was pulling in a dazzling $2.85 an hour! This would come to a head when he and another manager decided that the final week of the CNE would have us in a state of ‘work-to-rule’. I ended up losing a lot of money and my first dislike for unions over this job action.

But I did get the opportunity to sneak into a number of great concerts when I was hauled in to help CNE Stadium’s work crews with clean-up: Chicago, Queen, The Cars, The Who and Alice Cooper. Well, I almost saw Alice Cooper except he never showed up minutes before his scheduled time to hit the stage, leaving opening act Zon to buffer the unrest beginning to take over the impatient crowd. As the audience began booing and showing their discontent, my team of janitors was told to get out of the building and back to our regular positions on the CNE grounds. And then all hell broke loose. One of my band mates in the band Swindles, Ivan Judd and his very pregnant girlfriend, Sharon, were in the audience. Ivan witnessed chairs flying and other objects (who in the hell brings vegetables and fruits to a music concert?) and the crowd surged forward while policemen on horseback raged in to try and get the masses to stand down. The cattle were scooped up and tossed back into the arms of ground officers waiting with Billy clubs and handcuffs. Sharon barely escaped with the help of folks giving her a hand over a security fence. There was thousands of dollars in damage and Ivan caught the entire fiasco on audio tape which we’d use years later in our next band, Moving Targetz, as a backing track to his song “Fly To a Flame”.

I missed it all and was safely on my way home from another tiring eight hours in the stifling Toronto heat. But, during my shift the next day I happened to be in front of the CNE head office where Alice Cooper and his entourage arrived in two black limos. As he walked to the office doors to quell the anger of the mayor, City Council and a team of CNE executives I asked him what had happened. In a low grovel he said, “Asthma”. Cooper’s family had moved from Detroit to Phoenix when he was young because the pre-fame Vincent Fournier had asthma. He hadn’t had a flare-up in years…until he arrived in Toronto the night of the show.  He and the promoter were on the hook for $25,000. Cooper never spoke about the incident again publicly and returned in 1982 to play Maple Leaf Gardens with Goddo opening the show.

These days, as a family man, it’s been great to go to The Ex with my kids. It’s certainly no longer the same – The Hockey Hall of Fame is gone, CNE Stadium is gone, The Alpine Way is gone, the centre-piece for lost and wayward children, The Bulova Tower, is gone. But the kids have had their own experiences there. One year we played street hockey on plexi-glass and on another they got to ride elephants. And we still enjoy the Air Show. Good times!
Check out more photos at: http://www.facebook.com/CNEArchives

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

2 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – LET’S GO TO THE EX”

  1. jen baxter Says:

    I really enjoyed your story about the CNE and could really relate to all of your memories there as I come from the same generation as you. I sure miss the Grandstand and the concerts there were the highlight of every night at the ex…I remember my mom would always take me to see the Beach Boys concert there when I was little to celebrate the end of summer. Well done and thanks for the memories!

  2. […] following summer I worked at the Canadian National Exhibition as a janitor (see here for the full story). I was still juggling high school but also had my new band Swindled occupying […]

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