Blog Post Series

A while back…like several posts ago I mentioned that I picked up this awesome book called “Let’s Dance: A Celebration of Ontario’s Dance Halls and Summer Dance Pavilions” by Peter Young and was going to visit and blog about as many as I could. I have currently written a post on Toronto dance venue the Palace Pier and today I am writing about the venue “CNE Dance Tent/Dance Pavillion“.


The CNE stands for “Canadian National Exhibition“. It is an annual event at the end of summer held in Toronto and with approximately 1.3 million visitors each year, the CNE is Canada’s largest annual fair and the seventh largest in North America.

Canadian National Exhibition 1940s

The CNE Tent was only open during the couple of weeks while the fair was on for everyone’s dancing pleasure. It measured 80 feet by 260 feet and was created in Chicago just for this particular event. It was located south of the coliseum and just west of the electrical building (the big tent in them middle of the picture).


During my research I actually discovered that the CNE Tent was not the first dance floor to have stood on the grounds of the fair. In the 1930s, when swing music was at the height of its popularity, the Automotive Building for two years (1934-5) contained the Ballroom, where the dance bands of Duke Ellington, Rudy Vallee, Guy Lombardo, and others played to overflow crowds. Later in the 1930s a large marquee (tent) with a dance floor was erected to house the bands and their audiences. The CNE tent was born (Source).

Guy Lombardo 1930s Toronto Big Band
Source: CNE Archives

Great 1937 advertising mentioning Guy Lombardo and dancing on Canada’s largest dance floor amongst many other exciting activities to do at the CNE.

Canadian National Exhibition 1937 vintage advertising
Source: Torontoist


The Tents official opening was in 1938 and its first year featured Benny Goodman, Buddy Rogers, Guy Lombardo and Tommy Dorsey on the dance floor. Could you imagine dancing to all of these bands in one year??!! The Lindy Hopper in me is kind of losing it just thinking about it.

CNE dance pavillion late 1930s
Look at all the lovely dancers! Source: CNE Archives


In 1940 a great advertisement appeared in the CNE official program stating:

 “Dancing! Dancing – in the great, airy pavilion on a satin-smooth floor. Dancing – to the world’s finest dance bands. Dancing – toe-tickling tunes by music-making masters of rhythm ‘sweet’ and ‘swing.’ Dancing – to the bands you’ve dreamed of, now a reality in the Dance Pavilion.”

(from the C.N.E. Official Catalogue and Programme 1940, pp 23 & 49-Source).


1938 was not the only time the CNE Tent brought in top-notch performers, Torontonians made special trips just to see their favorite acts like:

Duke Ellington, Abe Lyman, Guy Lombardo, Rudy Vallee, Horace Heidt, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Buddy Rogers, Glen Gray, Tony Martin, Artie Shaw, Eddie Duchin, Sammy Kaye, Al and Bob Harvey, Ina Ray Hutton, Benny Goodman, Tony Pastor, Vaughan Monroe, The Modernaires, Gene Krupa, Trump Davidson and Spike Jones all thru the 1940s.

A famous Canadian Judge – Hon. John Arnup shared a story of his visit in August of 1940.

“The Canadian National Exhibition in the late 1930s and early 1940s had a huge tent covering a dance floor, with tables around its perimeter. In late August, 1940, I took ‘my girl’ to hear and dance to Duke Ellington. At 1am outside her apartment I proposed to her and accepted. We were married a year later and have been happily married for 53 years (in 1994)” (Source).

cne-dance-tent 1940s
CNE Tent 1940s


Other Exciting information about the CNE Tent…

Tommy Dorsey makes history before playing at the CNE-September 8th, 1939

Toronto has a city airport now called “Billy Bishop Airport” but back in 1939 it was originally named Port George VI Island Airport in honour of an upcoming royal visit  The first commercial passenger flight to the airport was a charter flight carrying Tommy Dorsey and his swing band for a two-day engagement at the Canadian National Exhibition on September 8, 1939. It was also the first airliner from the United States to arrive in Toronto. To mark the historical moment Tommy and his band played a few tunes right at the airport (Source).

Beauty Contest held at the CNE Tent

Beyond dancing the CNE Dance Pavillion/CNE Tent also hosted a beauty contest on September 4th, 1940 with the famous dance band leader “Tommy Dorsey” awarding the winner. Then later Dorsey, Al and Bob Harvey and their Canadian Coster Band, with Patricia Bailey played from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. Cost $1.00 per person (Source).

Here are some of the contestants from the contest that year. All beauties!

Miss Canada contest held at Toronto's Canadian National Exhibition on 4 September 1940. Photo from the Halifax, Nova Scotia newspaper, the Halifax Chronicle, Tues. Sept. 10, 1940.
Source: Oakville Public Library

Note: I previously did a post on Miss Toronto contest which was held at the CNE as well but I cannot find information that this was that same contest.

Big act comes to the tent to perform

Frank Sinatra

In 1948 Frank Sinatra performed under the big tent.

I found this GREAT post on a Sinatra family forum page about his visit thru the eyes of an attendee, which I will share with you now. (source).

I was able to retrieve a couple of memories from my Mom about the 1948 Concert held under the big tent at the CNE in Toronto.They are wonderful memories of a time totally lost. I asked her to try and write everything down when she feels up to it.The tent was jammed to the limit with fans, and not one speck of trouble occurred. My mom remembers the wood floor that was layed out for the dancing. Can you imagine trying to pull that off nowadays? If we could only have times like that today!She remembers his famous bow tie, and how all the girls were just swooning at the front of the stage.She had the best time. My parents’ seats (they were newly engaged at the time), along with my Uncle and Aunt were quite a distance from the stage, but the minute Frankie came on my Mom and Aunt were off like a shot, my Dad and Uncle following. As I mentioned before, she was right up to the stage, and loving every minute.You can imagine her excitement, as she’d been a bobby soxer through and through, buying every magazine, and record. And here she was FRONT AND CENTRE STARING UP AT HER IDOL! Hopefully she’ll be able to write her memories of this great time down.

Take Care,from the Second Generation of Sinatra Fans-Ann

I had a bit of a laugh last night, as my Mom recalled another interesting fact about the concert in Toronto.There was a dance floor put up in front of the stage, and the guys were wanting to dance. The girls on the otherhand were just standing there staring at their beloved Frankie!!!! But then again what else would one expect! He was sooooo cute!!! -Ann-

What an amazing memory about Frank! I”m kind of envious of that story. I mean I have some memories of a boy band or two in the 90’s but it’s just not the same, not even close.

And there you have it friends an overview of a historic dance hall in Toronto that sadly no longer stands. I hope you enjoyed the post as much as I did researching information about it. And if you get a chance you really should read Peter’s book, it is truly a good read.

Other ‘Lets Dance’ Posts: Palace Pier, Kenwick on the Lake, Port Dover Summer Garden

Liz 🙂


7 comments on “‘Let’s Dance’: Canadian National Exhibition Dance Tent”

  1. I can’t imagine dancing on a “satin smooth” floor. Great post and timely since I believe it’s Sinatra’s 99th bday today. Lots of beauties in Toronto evidently.

  2. Some amazing memories! My favourite is the Judge’s story about dancing and getting engaged that night. How sweet. I imagine many similar memories were made after a romantic night of dancing 🙂

  3. Some amazing memories! My favourite is the Judge’s story about dancing and getting engaged that night. How sweet. I imagine many similar memories were made after a romantic night of dancing 🙂

    • I loved that story too about the engagement and your right I’m sure that there are many more stories like that out there.

  4. Stellar post, dear Liz. Could you imagine hopping back in time and finding yourself – suitably attired, naturally 🙂 – on the middle of that dance floor. I think that would be a dream come true for most of us vintage loving folks.

    I greatly enjoyed this excellent, well researched and composed post. It’s always such a treat to learn more about Canadian history via the blogosphere. (You know, I lived in the GTA for six years and never once made it to the CNE. So not cool! Hopefully I can remedy that one day. In the meanwhile, there’s the fab PNE out on this end of the province to hopefully get to again sooner or later.)

    Big hugs,
    ♥ Jessica

    • Thanks so much Jessica 🙂 I really enjoyed putting this post together it was really interesting to learn that only 10 mins from my home such amazing piece of musical and dance history took place. Love it!

      I wonder if the PNE had a dance tent? I cannot recall from you wonderful post on the event.

      This is why I love blogging to be able to share info like this to others who might never of known about it.

      Have a wonderful day!

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