The Grand Old Lady—Past, Present and Future
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 19 Mar 1981, p. 300-315

Warren, R. Michael, Speaker
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Item Type:
An historical review of the Canadian National Exhibition, with many details. Issues now facing the Canadian National Exhibition: short and long-term goals and plans. Details of immediate improvements and how they will work. Research that illustrates how decisions were reached. Opportunities for business to participate in the CNE. Master plans for the future. The essential nature of the CNE and what it means to Canadians.
Date of Original:
19 Mar 1981
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
MARCH 19, 1981
The Grand Old Lady—Past, Present and Future
AN ADDRESS BY R. Michael Warren,
CHAIRMAN The President, Reginald Stackhouse


Ladies and gentlemen: For over a hundred years, the Canadian National Exhibition has been a landmark of Toronto's lakefront.

The "Ex" has been so much a part of Toronto life it has become part of the calendar, functioning as a symbolic end to summer, its close each Labour Day telling Torontonians that the holidays are really over. It is thus more than a fair or showplace or carnival. It is part of our fabric as a community, an institution that gives shape to our corporate life. As such its fate and fortune matter to us all, and we are privileged to hear today from the person most prominently connected with plans for its future.

Mr. Michael Warren came to his duties as interim general manager with the benefit of many years' experience in charge of major public enterprises, most recently the Toronto Transit Commission of which he is general manager.

Immediately before that he had headed his own management consulting firm, an organization he formed after thirteen years of senior positions with the Ontario government, the last of which was Deputy Minister of Housing. Before that he had been Deputy Minister for the Solicitor General and Deputy Minister for the Provincial Secretary and Minister of Citizenship.

Mr. Warren was then tagged as a young man in a hurry. He was at age thirty-two, for example, the youngest deputy minister the Ontario government had ever appointed. It is appropriate that such a person should initiate the renewal of the CNE because the Ex impresses many as needing rejuvenation, a grand old lady in need of a facelift, perhaps even an injection of hormones! As Soren Kierkegaard put it, one can look at life backwards, but can only live it forwards.

There are at present 1,620 major annual fairs held in 76 countries, in addition to specialized exhibitions and local fairs. Of this large number, only nine are regarded by the experts as having a world reputation. Seven of the nine are in Europe, one in the Middle East and, I am proud to say, the ninth is our own Canadian National Exhibition.

But for the CNE to remain on that level requires the kind of creative leadership our speaker of today is bringing to it, and I am very happy to present Mr. Michael Warren.


Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Head table guests, ladies and gentlemen: I must confess at the outset that I am intrigued by your decision to invite a civil servant to address you on election day. I can only conclude that you have either had your fill of politicians over the last few months, or this is your way of demonstrating the non-partisan nature of the Empire Club. Of course, I really hope it's because of your interest in the past, the present, and the future of the Canadian National Exhibition.

Mr. Chairman, after reading the results of a recent survey on people's reactions to long speeches, I will try to keep my remarks brief today. The survey reported that after thirty minutes, twenty per cent of an average audience is still paying attention to the speaker. Another twenty per cent is beginning to think about their next engagement or a coffee break. Apparently, the remaining sixty per cent of most audiences begin to indulge in sexual fantasies. On that note, Mr. Chairman, I can only say that I'm delighted that I've been able to give so many people so much pleasure over the years.

Seriously though, the tradition of this club is somewhat intimidating for a man who simply manages a local transit system, and in his spare time escorts a rather tatty old lady called the Canadian National Exhibition. You are used to having global issues brought to your meeting rooms by some of the world's mightiest and most adventurous people. I'm not in that category, but I am rather proud of our transit system and I am particularly excited about my new relationship ... if I can put it that way ... with the grand old lady of the waterfront.

Looking back through the collective histories of the CNE and the Empire Club, it is striking to see how much we have in common. We have literally grown up together; sharing each other's excitements, each other's sense of wonder--through good times and bad.

Just what have we shared? When the Empire Club called its first meeting to order in 1903, the crown jewels of Queen Victoria and King Edward were the major display that year at the CNE. In the seventy-eight years that have followed, almost half of the distinguished people who officially opened the exhibition also addressed the Empire Club. They have included: Governors General of Canada and Lieutenant Governors of Ontario, Vincent Massey and Pauline McGibbon among them; leaders of industry, including C. D. Howe and Sir Edward Beatty of the CPR; distinguished scientists: we had Frederick Banting, you heard from Charles Best.

We have both hosted our share of prime ministers--Borden, King, Diefenbaker and Pearson, to name a few. Actually, the CNE was officially opened by Wilfrid Laurier several years before the Empire Club came into being.

At your meetings, these speakers brought the sprawling world into earshot so that you could hear about it first-hand. They painted verbal pictures of the great events of the times.

At the Exhibition, Torontonians were treated to a four-dimensional kaleidoscope of the changing wonders of the world.

The CNE has never been quite like the other annual fairs in North America. The agricultural fairs are a fine tradition. If you close your eyes you can feel the warmth and pride of men and women showing off the best in great animals, fine husbandry and mouthwatering cooking. You can hear the squeals of children going over the top on the ferris wheel, and the shouts of their parents at the races, the horseshoe pit and other tests of skill. And, in your mind's eye, you can see the people full of laughter in their summer dresses and shirtsleeves. That has always been part of the Exhibition. But the CNE has been more than that.

Those who founded the Exhibition wanted it to be not only a celebration of the wonders of agriculture, but a celebration of technology as well.

They wanted Toronto's annual exhibition to be crammed full of the magic, the mystery and the fun of life in those days. They also packed it with experiences that might spark any boy or girl to go after the best, and go after it with daring. To do this, the CNE not only embraced agriculture, industry and technology ... it also featured the best in entertainment, sports, art and music. This annual extravaganza was a window to the world and a Canadian stage for the new and exciting.

Forty years ago, Exhibition time was a memorable event for everyone. The dates for the CNE were even marked on most calendars printed in Toronto.

Do you remember the particular charm of it all? The smell of the candy floss, the sight of children with balloons and panda bears that were bigger than they were, and the surprise and delight of the small gifts and free food samples.

Children entered the grounds with a unique sense of anticipation. What to do first? Take it all in at once, or move quickly into the nearest building? And they were going to see things they had never seen before! The parents looked for things they did not have in their own homes ... the latest appliances, new cars and fine furnishings. And the children would dart off for yet another senses-jarring ride on the midway, or to test their skill at the myriad of games. And when they finally got tired, they would slip into a satisfied sleep while their mothers and fathers sat on the grass listening to the bands and concerts. As the day wound down, the evening came alive with the grandstand. It really was "grand" in those days with its pageants and choruses, and colourful displays like the RCMP musical ride. Do you remember the fabulous extravaganzas that were produced by "Mr. Showbusiness," Jack Arthur?

When the day was finally over, you would see families returning from the Exhibition, strung out in ribbons, through the streets of Toronto--the kids with their shopping bags packed to overflowing with treasures, struggling to keep up with their parents. They were tired, but their faces radiated a special feeling of pleasure as they headed home after a full day at the Ex.

There really was something for everyone in those days. It truly was a great show--the greatest annual variety show on earth. Around every curve in its streets there was the possibility of coming upon something fresh and unexpected; a show for the curious, excited child in all of us, a show that kept us going back day after day, year after year, and even then no one could see it all.

It was also a place for firsts, a place people went to see great and exciting things for the first time. When the world capitals of London, Paris and New York were in the heyday of gaslight, electric lighting was installed on the grounds and in the buildings of the CNE so that they could remain open in the evenings. That was in 1883, only five years after the opening.

Less than three years after the first manned flight, Torontonians saw a man fly an aeroplane at the Exhibition. A few years later, Gaston Chevrolet came to the grandstand to race his new-fangled automobile against a woman, Ruth Law, flying an aeroplane. Can you imagine the excitement of that race--the leather helmets and goggles, the gloves clutching at the wheel, particularly for an audience that had only seen one aeroplane before and had probably seen very few automobiles. Imagine how daring it was for a woman to fly that plane! And we think we live in the era of women's liberation.

Can you guess what the big ride was in 1883? It was the first electric street railway in North America with Thomas Edison himself at the controls. It was on a line running to Strachan Avenue that Edison completed his experiments with the streetcar.

In 1888, Edison finalized his improved phonograph. That same year, the opening address to the CNE was recorded. It is now the oldest recording in the world.

That brings me to radio. Here is a newspaper account from 1922: "Radio, that latest and most mystifying marvel of science, was demonstrated in a striking way by the Toronto Star in a building in the west end of the park and also through its popular radio car . . ." Imagine the feeling of witnessing the broadcast at the Ex. Remember, it was at a time when only a few families had ever gathered around the amplifying horn while dad adjusted the cat's whisker.

It is even believed that the hamburger, the first hamburger, may have been made at Duggan's restaurant by Eli Dalls and a friend of his who ran Wonderbread Bakeries.

Those were indeed the good old days. They are a hard act to follow. How do you do that today? You can't have a Venus probe circle the grandstand. Still, it is part of the current challenge that we are enthusiastically, and I hope creatively, trying to meet.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Empire Club and the CNE have shared a long and colourful history. It is evident that we also face some of the same challenges for the future. Both of us have to guard against becoming complacent and, in the process, losing our relevancy in a changing world.

There is a difficult balance to maintain. On the one hand, there is the need to preserve the best of the past. On the other, there should be a willingness to embrace a sense of the future. You have to ensure, for example, that your speakers reflect a wide range of backgrounds and viewpoints. In short, you have to have variety to stay alive. So does the Exhibition.

Also, the Empire Club, like the CNE, now finds itself part of the rich, cultural and ethnic mosaic that currently constitutes Metropolitan Toronto. While both of our institutions have sprung from largely Anglo-Saxon beginnings, we now play our respective roles on the rostrum and stage of one of the most cosmopolitan communities in the world. For the CNE to survive and prosper, we will have to reach out to this changing market in a fashion that truly provides "something for everyone."

While the past is fascinating, so too is the present and the future. Before talking about what we are trying to do at the Exhibition this year, I would like to make three general comments.

First, far from being a failure, the Ex is still the biggest annual variety show in the world. It has an audience of more than three million during the twenty-day fair, and nearly ten million people visit the grounds year-round. So there is a loyal and varied audience to build upon.

Second, our immediate, short-term goal is to stage a first-rate fair in 1981, one which will demonstrate that the CNE has a continuing place in Toronto's future. This year's fair is being carefully crafted in a way which will combine the best of the past with new entertainment dimensions that will woo back the disinterested and appeal to a broader cross section of people.

Thirdly, there is a long-range issue which is really exciting, and that is the overall master plan for Exhibition Place--the future use of that extraordinarily valuable three hundred acres that sit on our waterfront.

Before speculating about the long-term future, I would like to talk about this year's fair. Nineteen-eighty was undoubtedly a mixed year for the Canadian National Exhibition. Profits were better than budget, but attendance was moderately down. More importantly, the image and the very raison d'etre of the CNE were seriously questioned in many quarters.

This prompted us to try to bring into clearer focus some of the basic facts of life for an exhibition like the CNE.

Essentially, there are three fundamental, interrelated components in its operation: attendance, profit and quality. By quality, I mean the total entertainment experience that the CNE offers to its visitors--the variety, the "magic," and the value. A successful Exhibition depends on the right blend of these three components.

If profit were the sole goal, it could be achieved by cutting back on the number of free attractions offered to visitors and by further commercializing the site. But this would narrow the Exhibition's attractiveness to a wide spectrum of people and attendance would decrease even further.

On the other hand, if the only goal were to maximize attendance and if money were no object, more free entertainment and substantially decreased food and admission prices could be offered. In this case, attendance would undoubtedly improve, but both the CNE and the taxpayers of Metro would face a substantial annual deficit.

The third component, the quality of the entertainment experience that is offered our customers, is the key to finding the right balance between attendance and profits.

Earlier this week, you might have read about a socalled secret report that I prepared in response to the question "How would you show a profit of one million dollars?" The question came from the Metro Council budget sub-committee in the course of their review of the CNE operating budget. That report crystallizes the nature of the relationship that I am talking about. In essence, it showed that yes, such a profit could be obtained, through some potential revenue sources, but largely through spending cuts. We estimated that these cuts would reduce attendance by a further three per cent in 1981. Profits would be up, but attendance would be down for the third year in a row.

Our primary goal in 1981 is to arrest the declining attendance. Attendance is viewed, whether we like it or not, as the primary yardstick of performance at the Exhibition. Yearly and daily comparisons appear on the front pages of our newspapers while the Exhibition is on. And, certainly, the attendance declines over the past couple of years have caused our partners at Metro and the media to focus increased attention on the stewardship of the Exhibition.

Keeping this in mind, we did some research to find out just what has kept people away. Last year, teenagers did not attend as much. Many of them went to the summer midway which was open prior to the Exhibition. They found it lacking and, as a result, saw little reason to return to the Exhibition itself. The summer midway will not return in 1981.

There were other major reasons for the attendance decline as well. Economic conditions played some part. But many of those who did not attend last year, or who went less often, found that the 1980 Exhibition was not up to its usual standard of quality and found it lacking in value and variety. The main problem, though, was that for a host of reasons, some forty-eight per cent of those formerly attending the Ex had simply lost interest.

We went further and placed full-page ads in the major daily newspapers in Southern Ontario asking the public to tell us "What's needed to make the 'Ex' better?" Thousands of people have replied, mostly with constructive and sometimes very imaginative ideas. Even more significant, this flood of responses from individuals of all ages and backgrounds wanting to be, as the ad said, "part of the Exchange," is tangible evidence of the goodwill that still exists out there towards the CNE, even in the midst of a bleak winter.

We have now taken the results of all the research, the suggestions from every source, and forged them together with our own knowledge and expertise to produce the operating plan for the 1981 fair.

The formula for a successful Exhibition this year can be expressed quite simply:

- Take a fair built on a 102-year tradition.
- Retain and improve its best features.
- Add components that are new, exciting and give good value.
- Package it honestly, persuasively and attractively.--Promote it dramatically.

The "chemistry" of the fair itself? Well, that too can be described very succinctly. We are going to improve the food; reduce the commercial clutter; enhance the park-like setting; roll back the prices on the midway; restore many of the buildings; get rid of the peeling paint; line the streets with colourful banners and bunting for the daytime, and fill the trees with tivoli lights for the evening; provide more music and free entertainment; make it a much cleaner CNE; introduce picnic areas; make the grandstand a stage for world-class entertainment; introduce new exhibits; and improve our customer relations.

In short, we hope to give people a more enjoyable, fun-filled, value-packed entertainment experience. Food has always been an important part of the Ex. The Food Building itself, which is _ visited by over seventy per cent of those who attend the fair, will feature more demonstrations and sampling this year. With the active co-operation of the exhibitors, we expect that the public will enjoy a return to the kind of food bargains that are reminiscent of the "good old days" at the Ex.

We are also making arrangements to bring some major food franchisers to the Exhibition for the first time. I expect that both fast food and family sit-down operations will be introduced. You can also look for an improvement in the quality of food, the portion control, and all at reasonable prices.

We are also in the process of reducing the number of concession outlets on the site. The aim is to find a more acceptable level of commercialism on the grounds and in so doing restore some of the park-like setting that has been missing at the Exhibition in recent years. Our budget for keeping this noticeably more attractive setting cleaner will be increased by fifty per cent.

A lot of attention is also being given to the midway. New rides, never before seen in Canada, will be added, and prices will be rolled back to 1979 levels.

The grandstand will again be "grand" indeed. It will feature top-rated talent ranging from the best of contemporary artists, to rock, to middle of the road, to children's features.

Professional rodeo is now one of the most popular forms of family entertainment in North America. Negotiations are under way to feature, in the grandstand, for several days, one of the world's best professional rodeos. This would be the first major rodeo to be seen in Metro Toronto for decades and will add an exciting western flavour to this year's Exhibition.

A perennial favourite, the World Festival Tattoo, may well include a fantastic new attraction which would be appearing for the first time on this continent.

The grandstand program, coupled with the variety of free music that we will be offering, should provide something for everyone, and act as a major drawing card for the 1981 CNE.

I hope all of these and other initiatives will return the Exhibition to the days of good time fun and values. I really do want to see men in their shirtsleeves and women in their summer dresses taking their ease in the parkland, with their children around them. To help this happen, we are forming a new visitors' services department this year. The department will hire and train thirty-five college students, who will act as roving hosts and hostesses throughout the grounds, reaching out to our customers and helping with any concerns that they have.

We also want to return to the excitement of new technology, which marked earlier exhibitions. This year, in co-operation with a number of high technology firms who are interested in providing sponsorship, efforts are being made to feature a futuristic exhibit in the geodesic domes. This new exhibit may give us all an insight into the future of our cities and the life-styles that lie ahead for all of us.

Today's Exhibition, and tomorrow's too, must reflect Toronto's vitality, its verve and daring, its power and excitement. Sure, it is the Canadian National Exhibition. But just as Expo '67 was a world exhibition which reflected the vitality of Montreal, so must the CNE show the strength of Toronto.

To do that fully, the CNE must reflect the corporate and financial strength of Toronto. We need the help of many of the organizations represented in this room for the financial support, the endorsements, and the sponsorships that are so vital to the CNE's success.

This year, we are experiencing a new spirit of cooperation and support from Metro Council, our concessionaires and our customers. We also need a renewed interest from the business community.

The CNE itself is already big business, but it could make an even more significant contribution. Of the three million people who attend the fair, over forty per cent come from outside of Metro. These 1.2 million visitors pump over forty million dollars annually into the local economy during their stay. So the Exhibition is not only fun and entertaining, it is also an important contributor to the economic health of Metropolitan Toronto.

What are the opportunities for business to participate with the CNE? They really are endless. Each of the twenty days features a theme. One avenue is to sponsor a theme day luncheon and contribute speakers to that important forum. Another is to help underwrite the costs of the free entertainment I mentioned earlier. You can choose from the Disneyland show to musical performances in the bandshell. It all helps, and it can all contribute to an enhanced corporate image.

That's a look at the past and the present. What about the future?

At the moment, Exhibition Park is one of the most under-utilized pieces of prime real estate in Toronto. It could be, with some foresight, daring and imagination, Metro's finest year-round entertainment, recreation and trade complex.

Exhibition Park has everything going for it. Connection to the waterfront and the unlimited possibilities that implies; good transit access with potential for improvement; proximity to all the amenities that downtown Toronto offers.

Currently, the grounds and some of the buildings are occupied year-round, but there is no question that our facilities could be used more. Many of the buildings are not heated and, as a result, their use during the non-CNE period is severely restricted. Also, many of the existing buildings are old and rundown and are not suitable for year-round use. Decisions will have to be made to either invest in these structures to restore them, or to replace them.

In this connection, I'm sure most of you have been exposed to the speculation about the schemes that are being envisaged for Exhibition Place. Reference has been made to proposals for a new hotel complex, a domed stadium and a new trade centre, as well as ideas for constructing an aquarium, a super midway, a new sports complex and a major new exhibit building.

While Metropolitan Toronto officials have already done a good deal of preliminary work on a number of the pieces of a master plan, more analysis has to be undertaken to pull these pieces together into an overall concept, one that will gain the support of the financial partners, including Metro, the province and, perhaps, even the federal government.

The material that has been prepared will be utilized by a senior task team that was recently formed, consisting of the Metro commissioner of parks, recreation and property, the assistant deputy minister of industry and tourism, and myself. We, in turn, will make recommendations to a policy group made up of the Metropolitan Toronto chairman, the Ontario minister of industry and tourism and the president of the CNE.

As usually happens in these studies, one is immediately deluged with answers from all quarters. But, from my perspective, I think our first priority should be to identify the right questions.

For example, we have to anticipate what the entertainment, sports and recreational needs of the public will be, not just today but also five, ten and fifteen years from now. We also have to better understand the needs of the business community, particularly those businesses who rely heavily on trade shows to promote and sell their products.

Essentially, then, one of the first things that has to be done is a survey of our markets before we become too preoccupied with defining the final overall concept. Once we have determined the real needs and interests of our various publics, then we can begin to design a multi-use facility that meets their needs. Naturally, we will also have to take into account the future role of such great attractions as Ontario Place, the stadium corporation, and Harbourfront. I understand the timetable to develop the basic master plan is roughly a year. But, obviously, it will take many years to fully implement the concepts that are ultimately approved by the public sector partners. So what you will likely see is a staged process of realizing the full potential of Exhibition Place between now and the end of this decade.

I personally feel a new sense of momentum and impetus about the master plan for Exhibition Park--one that simply hasn't existed before. It is getting easier for me to envision the CNE grounds being transformed into a vital and glittering piece of the development that is taking place on Toronto's waterfront. The end product of this process could be a showplace for Metropolitan Toronto, the province, the nation, and beyond.

Mr. Chairman, while this tantalizing look into the future may be uplifting, I expect that many of you, when thinking of the CNE, will continue to conjure up the same mental images as I do. The image that is the strongest with me is one that I hope we will always see in this city, the sight of families trudging home through the summer evening, tired but satisfied, with a look that only comes after a fun-filled day at the Ex. That picture is part of our heritage and a part that I think is worth preserving.

Ladies and gentlemen, I conclude by extending a personal invitation to all of you to come and join us at the 1981 Canadian National Exhibition. It will be a fair to remember!

The thanks of the club were expressed to Mr. Warren by Robin Chetwynd, a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Grand Old Lady—Past, Present and Future

An historical review of the Canadian National Exhibition, with many details. Issues now facing the Canadian National Exhibition: short and long-term goals and plans. Details of immediate improvements and how they will work. Research that illustrates how decisions were reached. Opportunities for business to participate in the CNE. Master plans for the future. The essential nature of the CNE and what it means to Canadians.