General Articles

MISTER "EX”

Two champion walkers got C. N. E. boss Elwood Hughes into show business, where he now moves at a sprinter's pace

ANGUS McSTAY August 15 1947
General Articles

MISTER "EX”

Two champion walkers got C. N. E. boss Elwood Hughes into show business, where he now moves at a sprinter's pace

ANGUS McSTAY August 15 1947

MISTER "EX”

General Articles

ANGUS McSTAY

Two champion walkers got C. N. E. boss Elwood Hughes into show business, where he now moves at a sprinter's pace

ELWOOD ALEXANDER HUGHES, O.B.E., had crossed the Atlantic 46 times and never been seasick. He has never missed a world’s heavyweight championship fight in the last 35 years—although each is an unkind reminder that he might once have become Joe Louis’ manager. He is also the general manager of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto and is paid important money for bossing this “biggest annual show on earth.”

He is called Hughsie by his wife; Elwood by his friends and Chief Marathon by the Six Nations Indians.

To international businessmen and top names in the sports and entertainment world he is known as an adroit supersalesman who, during the fortnight’s run of the Big Show, has lured as many as 2,500,000 men, women and children into the 350-acre park which houses the $26 millions plant of the C. N. E.

Hughes knows that he has a good product to sell even though, this year, the preparation of the first postwar Exhibition (1941 was the last one) presented the toughest job any general manager of the C.N.E. has had to tackle.

This explains why, for months before the huge gates swing open, Hughes has been up at seven every weekday morning, working 12 to 18 hours a day. Most of the time his lunch is simply a sandwich and a flask of coffee hastily gulped at his desk. Sometimes he even sleeps overnight on the leather couch in his office, where he keeps a ready supply of clean linen and a couple of freshly pressed suits.

Most men are only busy enough for one big desk but Hughes has two. He sits between them—one in front of him and one at his back—swinging around on a swivel chair as occasion demands. Round the walk of his office are oil paintings and cabinets of awards and trophies. Lie collects metal modek of horses as a hobby and was an enthusiastic horseman until a few years ago when he found he had no time for it.

He has inherited the lavish bathroom which was installed in the Administration Building of the C.N.E. for the then Prince of Wales when the royal scion came to Canada in 1919 to open the Exhibition. Brisk, natty Mr. Hughes makes good use of it.

A diminutive and dapper man, who is partial to hand-knotted bow ties, he looks younger than his 62 years. He has a chubby, pleasant face and his mild brown eyes look out from under charcoal-black brows. The rest of his hair—what there is of it-—is greying. He’s been with the Exhibition for 40 years.

The “Ex” has come a long way in 68 years.

The first exhibition in 1879 was mainly an agricultural and industrial show. Amusement attractions were

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meagre. The grounds then comprised 40 acres and the exhibits were housed in small wooden buildings. Toward the beginning of the 20th century the large permanent buildings now characteristic of the “Ex” began to take form.

After World War I, the huge Coliseum, which seats 12,000 people, became an imposing addition to the layout, and home of the Royal Winter Fair. Between 1922-32, other large buildings were added. Even though a footsore cash customer to the C.N.E. would be the last to admit it after tramping all day and evening over the grounds, Exhibition authorities now believe that the structures might have been more widely spaced for efficiency and attractive layout.

However, on top of Hughes’ mighty task of whipping almost an entirely new C.N.E. into shape for the first postwar exhibition, an unexpected calamity was the burning down of the grandstand early on a Sunday morning in April, 1946. Hughes now believes that this catastrophe has, in the long view, opened the way to greater development of the C.N.E.

The new long-range plan provides for the erection of a $2,500,000 grandstand some 300 feet south of the old site and elimination of traffic bottlenecks. The new stand is to be the first unit of a proposed bowl which will seat more than 50,000 people. Several new imposing and permanent buildings are planned and roadways will be lined with fountains and nighttime lighting effects.

Hughes is careful to point out that the City of Toronto owns the C.N.E. and that the $26 millions plant hasn’t cost the taxpayer a penny. The plan of expansion is, as in the past, to have exhibitors sign up for display space for 10 or 20 years, with the city floating debentures. Hughes is ruefully pleased that all C.N.E. exhibit space for the 1947 show was sold out last February. He has had to turn down some 500 requests for accommodation.

Hughes entered the C.N.E. picture in 1908 by astutely creating a job for himself. For years, the last day or so of the fair had always shown signs of that tired, letdown feeling. The final Saturday morning would see the trucks carting away the exhibits, the gaudy midway would be breaking up and the grounds would look like the preview to a staging of “The Deserted Village.”

Hughes, a sports reporter, suggested to Dr. J. O. Orr, then general manager, that the final Saturday of the Ex be built up into a gigantic sports festival.

His plan was accepted and Hughes got busy. He brought over the British and Olympics champion walker, Ernie Webb, and matched George Goulding of Toronto against the visitor. More than 25,000 people, mostly with Old Country accents, jammed the grandstand and the paddock—and Hughes, a stripling of 23, was established as a man of ideas. The C.N.E. made him sports director.

Ten days after the declaration of war in August, 1914, Hughes enlisted as a private in the 3rd Battalion. He went

overseas with the First Division. Before he was invalided back with the rank of sergeant he had won the Meritorious Service Medal. He recovered, transferred to the 180th (Sportsmen’s) Battalion, gained a commission, went overseas again, and became a major and Chief Inspector, Quartermaster General Services of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.

Hughes’ job was waiting for him on his discharge and his organizing ability and drive found new outlets. He commenced to feature girls’ sports on the theory that these would prove a male lure and that you could usually get girls’ publicity pictures into the newspapers.

The Big Swims

Hughes’ most spectacular sports promotions were the Wrigley marathon swims in 1927-28-29, which brought great crowds and world-wide attention to the C.N.E. George Young of Toronto had been the surprise winner in 1926 of Wrigley’s Catalina Island marathon and the resulting publicity and home-town pride created an immense public for this gruelling, tedious sport.

When the 1927 race was held, there were 339 starters from all parts of the world competing for $50,000 in prize money. More than 100,000 spectators lined the shore leg of the triangular course by eight o’clock in the morning, and several thousand of them were still there in the early hours of next morning, watching weary swimmers finish out the 21-mile grind under searchfights.

The race began at 8.30 a.m. Ernst Vierkoetter, whom the newspapers dubbed the Black Shark of Germany, crossed the finish fine at seven that evening to win $30,000. Five hours later Georges Michele of France came in second to win $15,000, and Bill Erickson of New York finished in third place at 4.30 the following morning for $5,000. Lake Ontario’s cold waters were too much for many of the swimmers, and most of the entrants, George Young among them, didn’t finish.

Next year so many of the men racers dropped out due to the cold that the judges divided the $35,000 prize among the 14 who lasted more than five miles. Ethel Hertle of New York went the distance in the women’s 10-mile race and pocketed $15,000.

Eddie Keating and Martha Norelius were the winners in 1929, but the public was beginning to lose interest in the big swims. Hughes carried on the marathons, but at reduced purses, and turned to new ideas—speedboat and automobile races, greater track meets, aerial exhibitions, stunt flying by RAF men—anything that came under the heading of sporis and speed.

By then Hughes was obviously being groomed for the C.N.E.’s top position. He became publicity director as well as sports director, was made secretary in 1932 and the next year he was appointed general manager.

He has a good background for the job. While still in short trousers he started hitting the headlines. Before he was 12 he had saved three people from drowning and was the youngest person

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in the British Empire to win the Royal Humane Society Medal. He got this for diving from the steamer Queen City in the middle of Lake Ontario to rescue a man who outweighed him by 30 pounds. When he rescued two youngsters off a bathing beach near Grimsby, Ont., Hughes was later presented with the Royal Albert Medal and the award of the Royal Canadian Humane Association.

As a skinny youngster, he began collecting sports trophies during his publicand high-school days in Dundas, Ont. Before matriculation he had won the Canadian junior championships in cycling, swimming and speed skating. During his arts course at the University of Toronto, he won the two-, fiveand 10-mile championships of Canada for running and held the records for four years. He was also an intercollegiate boxing champion.

Marathon on a Bicycle

In his senior year in university Hughes captained the first Canadian team to enter the Olympic Games and sailed for Athens in 1906. Shortly before the marathon race—which he was expected to win for Canada— Hughes tore a tendon in his left ankle during a practice. That ended his days of competitive running.

But despite considerable pain and disappointment, Hughes was not entirely out of the Olympic Games. On the day of the race, he borrowed a bicycle and pedalled approximately 26 miles—with one foot—as attendant to Willie Sherring, a distance runner from Hamilton. It was Hughes’ task to wring out towels in mountain streams, drape these over Sherring’s head and shoulder, and provide the runner with small rations of cool champagne during the final stages of the race. Sherring won by 7 Y minutes.

While he was at university Hughes had written sports for the undergraduate newspaper, The Varsity, and when he went to the Olympics he was the Toronto Star’s correspondent as well as a member of the squad. As a sports writer he covered his first big fight for the Star—Jim Jeffries vs. Jack Johnson at Reno, Nev., in 1910. He has been at the ringside of every world’s heavyweight championship fight since, either as special writer or spectator. Following the fights has taken him to Paris, Havana and Mexico, and he has been at the Olympics in Athens, London, Stockholm, Antwerp, Paris, Los Angeles and Berlin.

During the early 30’s Hughes staged amateur boxing bouts in Toronto. One of his matches was a young colored fighter from Detroit called Joe Barrow, whom he sent in against some forgotten Irishman for five rounds. Hughes didn’t think much of Barrow, predicted he wouldn’t go far. He still blushes about it: Barrow turned professional and started popping up in the public prints as Joe Louis.

With the first postwar C.N.E. scheduled for the fortnight of Aug. 22 to Sept. 6, Hughes faces the toughest problem in his 40 years in show business. Whexx on Sept. .18, 1939, he was appointed to the Defense Purchasing Board, it was Hughes’ task to convert the buildings and grounds of the C.N.E. into one of Canada’s most important training centres.

Within a few days interiors of the buildings had been stripped and converted into barracks and training areas. In marched the Toronto Scottish, the 48 th Highlanders and a thousand men of the Engineers Corps. Later, some 10,000 men of the RCAF moved in. Ultimately the camp population rose to 30,000 men.

For two years the big fair carried on while men of three services marched and drilled within earshot of the midway. The attendance in 1941 was 2,500,000, the largest ever, and when the Ex closed that September it closed for the duration. The last of the services did not leave the buildings and grounds until August of last year.

Reconstruction work began almost at once. Since early this spring, Hughes has had more than 700 laborers and artisans renovating the parkful of empty and paint-peeled buildings. Major restoration had to be performed on six of the big buildings, and another 11 were badly in need of sprucing up. All this has been on top of the usual bustle that precedes a fair.

Apart from securing such entertainment attractions as the U. S. Navy Band and inducing Olsen and Johnson to create a whole revue as the headline act in special C.N.E. stage attractions, Hughes was faced with a barrage of requests from would-be exhibitors as soon as the resumption of the Exhibition was announced.

These applications for space, ranging from a mere 126 square feet to 20,000 square feet, poured in from all parts of Canada and the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

There was a wide scramble on the part of postwar industry to secure as much space as possible at the 1947 Big Show and this has pointed up the necessity for new buildings that are already planned. As it is, industry on parade will have over 2,250,000 square feet of indoor display space at this year’s Exhibition.

From Peanuts to Jet Planes

It was Hughes’ job to mollify everyone, from the automotive and aviation moguls to the little businessman who sells balloons or candy floss. This year there will be over 1,100 exhibitors representing Big Business and some 300 of the little fellows selling anything from souvenirs to peanuts in outdoor booths.

The burning down of the grandstand, with its two huge restaurants each serving 300 to 400 hungry customers at a sitting, also posed another

problem for Hughes. It is no secret that this first postwar holding of the

C. N.E. since 1941 is expected to lure in record crowds. Temporary restaurants, each seating around 400 diners, will replace the two grandstand casualties, but Hughes has also provided for many additional smaller restaurants and a greater number of supplementary refreshment stands.

Such free shows as the U. S. Navy Band, the nightly fireworks displays and attractions to boost the carnival spirit, will also be supplemented by such free spectator sports as the world’s professional swimming championships for men and women, Canadian and international motorboat races, yacht and dinghy races, fancy diving events, Caxxadian and international archery contests, and a host of other events that took Hughes and his henchmen months to arrange.

In the Hall of Plastics, C.N.E. visitors will see the first show ever staged in Canada of the raw materials and finished products of this new and exciting industry. More sugar-coated education for young and old will include daily jet-plane races across the C.N.E. water front to break present speed records, an automotive show that will introduce the new rear-motor type of car in addition to the latest developments in automobiles and trailers. This year the C.N.E. is also staging a boat show of the latest in cruisers, outboards and sailing craft.

Hughes lives in a large 14-room stone home of Norman-French design where open house is kept for the celebrities of Big Business or the entertainment world who drop in unexpectedly at all hours. Invariably, the guests descend to the large playroom in the basement where Mrs. Hughes shows color movies of the C.N.E. Hughes can be persuaded to play the piano but prefers talk or poker.

His first wife died in 1936 of a heart attack, suffered on the opening night of that year’a exhibition. In October, 1944, Hughes was married to Peg Willin Humphrey, whom he met at the Great Lakes Exposition at Cleveland where she was executive assistant to the general manager. She later took a similar post at the World’s Fair in New York during which Canada’s Number One Showman made her reacquaintance. When the LJnited States entered the war, the blond and busy lady was ordered by the Washington authorities to organize the first U. S. Army Show. As a colonel she outranks Major Elwood Hughes, O.B.E.,

D. C.M., M.S.M.

Despite Mrs. Hughes’ wide experience in exposition showmanship, she now devotes her time wholly to her home and social activities. The Hughes’ idea of a quiet evening at home—when they can get it—is to curl up in their library with a copy of The Billboard, which deals with the outdoor amusement industry throughout the world. They wisely avoid friction by buying a copy apiece. ★