"You can't beat the excitement and the hustle and bustle of the CNE," says Ardo Girado, who's been working at the Ex for about 50 years. He started at age 15 by picking up stray balls at the milk carton game.
Since then, he's amassed a mini carnival empire filled with rides and games. He met his wife on the midway and he and his family are still there - they also run Screemers and appear at a number of Toronto events, including Taste of the Danforth.
Like many of his fellow vendors, Girado's spent much of his career - and life - at the Ex. It's people like him who imbue the annual fair with its distinctly nostalgic vibe and keep adults and kids coming back year after year after year.
Sheryl Rawlings knows this first hand. She runs the Lavender Cart in Heritage Court with her daughter. "We took it out for a couple of years because it was getting too expensive," she says, but that hiatus didn't last very long. "People complained so much so we brought it back. They wanted the cart there or it wasn't the Ex."
Her uncle brought the cart to the CNE about 70 years ago, just after the Second World War. When he retired, Rawlings took it over - it's a job she's held for 40 years or so.
"I actually started working at the CNE when I was 11 or 12 years old. And I'm 68 now, so I've been here a long time," she says with a laugh.
Sam Scanga's also spent a lot of time at the Ex. He and his father Luigi have been doling out 99 cent pasta at the Primo Spaghetti booth in the Food Building for 30 years. But they're the new owners - Scanga thinks this CNE staple has been around for much longer.
But the price of the Primo noodles with Unico tomato sauce has remained the stable."Things keep increasing down here, the cost to eat is very expensive," says Scanga. "So it's nice to have that alternative."
Along with the two spaghetti booths, he runs three other businesses in the Food Building, including Cookie Dough Me, which sells deep-fried cookie dough. He also owns Braised in Leslieville. But for 18 days at the end of the summer, it's all about the Ex.
Tiny Tom's Donuts is everyone's favourite doughnut booth and they have been a stalwart at the CNE since 1960. Visit the food building to grab a bag filled with one dozen powdered sugar doughnut holes - there's no argument here, powdered sugar is a billion times better than cinnamon sugar.
If you've eve played a game at the Ex, it might've been one of Ardo Girado's. He's seen the CNE change quite a bit, and remembers when the Blue Jays played at Exhibition Place and when the Grandstand hosted top tier touring artists.
Like the Girados, the Madden family has had a presence at the Ex for more than 50 years. As a CNE spokesperson tells us, they now run the Northern Comfort Saloon - a country-themed spot where you can drink, dance and be merry.
Perogies, Pogos and pickles-on-a-stick (and waffles and ice cream) were my family's go-to foods at the Ex. The Perogie Chef has been around for about 40 years, though it's under new management now.
Photos by Hector Vasquez and Jesse Milns.
by Amy Grief via blogTO