In the 1980s, a good fireworks show included the Burning Schoolhouse

No Victoria Day weekend would be complete without a fireworks display, and in the 1980s two CBC personalities came out in favour of the underappreciated Burning Schoolhouse.

Broadcaster Stuart McLean found 'dramatic charm' in what others called 'setting a shoebox on fire'

Fireworks fall under federal explosives regulations

39 years ago
Duration 1:29
In an effort aimed at safety, fireworks sales are limited to persons aged 18 and up in 1984.

No Victoria Day weekend would be complete without a fireworks display.

And for many people, no fireworks display would be complete without the Burning Schoolhouse.

Poster diagram of fireworks for sale
A store poster showed the range of pyrotechnics available in a Toronto corner store in 1984. (CBLT Newshour/CBC Archives)

"Now here's an old favourite," said the CBC's Bill Copps, reporting on Victoria Day in 1984 as the camera showed a stack of the humble Burning Schoolhouse fireworks.

"Brings out the wishful thinking on this holiday, doesn't it?" 

Copps said even as fireworks became more sophisticated, safety was the most important thing.

"Fireworks are now under federal explosives regulations," said Copps, as a trio of kids examined a store display of pyrotechnics with names like Floral Bombshell, Big Bertha and Jack in the Box.

"Kids can look, but the purchaser must be at least 18 years of age." 

There were other restrictions, too, on the type of holiday explosives available for backyard spectacles.

"No more of those cannonball fireworks that could blow up a bottle or a tin can," said Copps.

The 'correct' Canadian fireworks finale 

Ode to the burning schoolhouse

38 years ago
Duration 1:41
Stuart McLean praises a polarizing part of Victoria Day observances.

A year later, the CBC's Stuart McLean praised the "dramatic charm" of the Burning Schoolhouse on CBC's The Journal.

It had been the finale of his own neighbourhood fireworks show that year, as it was every Victoria Day because McLean insisted on it, over the protests of a neighbour.

Burning schoolhouse cardboard firework
The Burning Schoolhouse was a staple of fireworks displays in the past and can still be purchased today. (CBLT Newshour/CBC Archives)

For Rick, his neighbour, "watching the Burning Schoolhouse is as exciting as setting a shoebox on fire," said McLean.

The cardboard red-brick, two-storey building with a chimney and cartoonish flames shooting out the windows was a Canadian invention, said McLean, and it hadn't changed — "not a brick" — in the lifetime of anyone watching.

Then there was the uncertainty over whether it would even burn the way everyone expected. 

"Only one out of every three or four of them actually burns right down," said McLean. "The manufacturer admits it."

The manufacturer's excuse for these "duds and disappointments"? Cardboard "doesn't burn the way it used to."

But McLean was steadfast in his devotion. For him that wasn't a flaw, but a feature. 

"I say the suspense is part of the dramatic charm."

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