CNE Midway Sideshows – Step Right Up!

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1960 - A crowd captivated by a snake charmer on a stage at The Midway. The Crystal Maze is in the background
1960 – A crowd captivated by a snake charmer on a stage at The Midway. The Crystal Maze is in the background (Courtesy of the Canadian National Exhibition Association Archives)

The Midway is a big attraction for CNE-goers, and while most first think of the rides and games, The Midway also featured sideshows until the mid-1980s.

They were called sideshows because they had a separate entry fee from the main fair. Husky-voiced carnival barkers would attract passers-by with words like “never seen before” or “feast your eyes,” promising shock or delight for variety, beauty, athletic ability or some other tempting feature of the shows.

Along with the mainstream performers that could do amazing tricks like sword swallowing, fire breathing, snake charming, trick horse riding, fire high diving and such, there was also a darker side to the touring sideshow attractions. Visitors would pay to see people and animals with physical differences, including those struggling with weight, a disability or a medical disorder. In time, the public stopped viewing the displays with curiosity and began to recognize the exploitative nature of what was termed a “freak show.”

CNE Midway Sideshow Photos

1899 – While it's unknown if Professor Pepper's London Ghost Show was on the Exhibition's Midway, it was a major attraction at the 1899 fair. The show featured an illusion technique perfected by John Henry Pepper that made objects or people appear as apparitions or ghostlike to the audience. Notice the skull and clown characters in front of the show
1899 – While it’s unknown if Professor Pepper’s London Ghost Show was on the Exhibition’s Midway, it was a major attraction at the 1899 fair. The show featured an illusion technique perfected by John Henry Pepper that made objects or people appear as apparitions or ghostlike to the audience. Notice the skull and clown characters in front of the show (CNE Heritage)
1904 - The Exhibition Midway featuring Cora Beckwith, "champion lady swimmer of the world" with 10¢ admission, and The Red Dome Theatre giving top billing to Steorra, the Serpentine Dancer
1904 – The Exhibition Midway featuring Cora Beckwith, “champion lady swimmer of the world” with 10¢ admission, and The Red Dome Theatre giving top billing to Steorra, the Serpentine Dancer (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 341)
Circa 1910 - A palmistry tent on The Midway. A local newspaper article said the Palmists' Parlours were visited by a steady stream of people during the Exhibition
Circa 1910 – A palmistry tent on The Midway. A local newspaper article said the Palmists’ Parlours were visited by a steady stream of people during the Exhibition (CNE Archives)
Circa 1912 - A bareback equestrian performer at the Canadian National Exhibition
Circa 1912 – A bareback equestrian performer at the Canadian National Exhibition (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 277)
1912 – Cleopatra and her snake, one of the sideshows on the CNE Midway
1912 – Cleopatra and her snake, one of the sideshows on the CNE Midway (CNE Heritage)
Between 1912 and 1920 - Fire high diver on the Exhibition Midway
Between 1912 and 1920 – Fire high diver on the Exhibition Midway (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 190)
Circa 1912 - Bareback horse act at the CNE
Circa 1912 – Bareback horse act at the CNE (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2174)
Circa 1913 - A sideshow along the Exhibition Midway. Notice the carnival barker and the ticket booths
Circa 1913 – A sideshow along the Exhibition Midway. Notice the carnival barker and the ticket booths (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 279F)
1914 – Sideshow performers at the Canadian National Exhibition
1914 – Sideshow performers at the Canadian National Exhibition (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 279B)
1915 - Carnival barkers along a crowded Exhibition Midway attempting to attract patrons to a sideshow
1915 – Carnival barkers along a crowded Exhibition Midway attempting to attract patrons to a sideshow (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 913)
1925 - Huge crowds along the Canadian National Exhibition Midway. Notice the Over and Under the Sea sideshow
1925 – Huge crowds along the Canadian National Exhibition Midway. Notice the Over and Under the Sea sideshow (CNE Archives)
Circa 1920 – A high diver on the CNE Midway
Circa 1920 – A high diver on the CNE Midway (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1028I)
1930 – Sideshows at The Midway include sword swallowing, neon tube swallowing and comedy juggling
1930 – Sideshows at The Midway include sword swallowing, neon tube swallowing and comedy juggling (CNE Heritage)
1930 - A Midway sideshow
1930 – A Midway sideshow (CNE Archives)
Circa 1930 – A Midway sideshow at the Canadian National Exhibition
Circa 1930 – A Midway sideshow at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE Heritage)
1937 – Conklin ad in the Canadian National Exhibition program
1937 – Conklin ad in the Canadian National Exhibition program (CNE Archives)
1937 – The Great Guillotine Mystery show and the roller coaster on The Midway
1937 – The Great Guillotine Mystery show and the roller coaster on The Midway (CNE Heritage)
1937 - Tahiti Mystic Isle of the South Seas sideshow on The Midway
1937 – Tahiti Mystic Isle of the South Seas sideshow on The Midway (CNE Archives)
1937 - A sideshow on The Midway
1937 – A sideshow on The Midway (CNE Archives)
1939 – Conklin World's Finest Shows poster
1939 – Conklin World’s Finest Shows poster (CNE Archives)
1930s – A sideshow at the Canadian National Exhibition Midway
1930s – A sideshow at the Canadian National Exhibition Midway (CNE Heritage)
Circa 1939 - Ladies wearing beach pajamas in the Hollywood Follies sideshow on The Midway
Circa 1939 – Ladies wearing beach pajamas in the Hollywood Follies sideshow on The Midway (CNE Archives)
1940 – The Conklin World's Finest Shows train. Patty Conklin used an 80-car train painted bright orange to carry his show across the country. Mr Conklin's $65,000 custom-built railcar was at the end of the train. By the early 1970s, it took more than 100 trucks, which were painted bright yellow or white, to transport the carnival around the province
1940 – The Conklin World’s Finest Shows train. Patty Conklin used an 80-car train painted bright orange to carry his show across the country. Mr Conklin’s $65,000 custom-built railcar was at the end of the train. By the early 1970s, it took more than 100 trucks, which were painted bright yellow or white, to transport the carnival around the province (CNE Archives)
1940 - "Here they come - Conklin Shows - World's Finest Shows" poster depicts the company's train and a carnival scene
1940 – “Here they come – Conklin Shows – World’s Finest Shows” poster depicts the company’s train and a carnival scene (CNE Archives)
Circa 1950 – A carnival barker attracting patrons to Randall's 3 Ring Model Circus on the CNE Midway. The show was dubbed the Greatest Little Show on Earth
Circa 1950 – A carnival barker attracting patrons to Randall’s 3 Ring Model Circus on the CNE Midway. The show was dubbed the Greatest Little Show on Earth (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1173, Item 159)
Circa 1950 – A sideshow on the Canadian National Exhibition Midway
Circa 1950 – A sideshow on the Canadian National Exhibition Midway (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1173, Item 155)
Circa 1950 – Parisian Night sideshow on The Midway
Circa 1950 – Parisian Night sideshow on The Midway (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1173, Item 158)
Circa 1950 – Crystal Maze and Randall's 3 Ring Model Circus - The Greatest Little Show on Earth on the CNE Midway
Circa 1950 – Crystal Maze and Randall’s 3 Ring Model Circus – The Greatest Little Show on Earth on the CNE Midway (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1173, Item 154)
1954 - The Striporama tent on The Midway. "Girlie" shows ran at The CNE Midway until 1962. In a 1963 local newspaper article, Patty Conklin said it was economics and not moral pressure that stopped the attraction
1954 – The Striporama tent on The Midway. “Girlie” shows ran at The CNE Midway until 1962. In a 1963 local newspaper article, Patty Conklin said it was economics and not moral pressure that stopped the attraction (CNE Archives)
1954 – Dressing for the Striporama show at the Midway
1954 – Dressing for the Striporama show at the Midway (CNE Heritage)
1954 - Striporama Sirens on The Midway
1954 – Striporama Sirens on The Midway (CNE Archives)
1950s - Knife throwing in front of the Famous Beauties show on The CNE Midway
1950s – Knife throwing in front of the Famous Beauties show on The CNE Midway (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 536, Item 104)
1960 - A crowd captivated by a snake charmer on a stage at The Midway. The Crystal Maze is in the background
1960 – A crowd captivated by a snake charmer on a stage at The Midway. The Crystal Maze is in the background (Courtesy of the Canadian National Exhibition Association Archives)
1960s – A CNE Midway sideshow
1960s – A CNE Midway sideshow (CNE Heritage)
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