Marilyn Monroe to woo CNE crowds

The McMichael gallery is famed for drawing art lovers to a Canadian treasure trove in the woods, but now the gallery brings a Hollywood icon to the big city.
Photographer John Vachon shot Marilyn with Mountie Raymond Cooper Morris in 1953 in Banff, Alta. (Estate of John Vachon and Dover Publications Inc.)

Visitors to this year's Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto may catch a rare glimpse of Marilyn Monroe in Canada.

Images of the iconic blonde are famous the world over, but few have seen her standing tall beside a Mountie in Banff or learning to smoke cigarettes in a Niagara Falls hotel room. Photographs of these scenes will be on display starting Friday, when the McMichael Canadian Art Collection showcases the Monroe memorabilia at the Queen Elizabeth Building.

"What we were showing is that there is a sustained interest in Marilyn. Her pop culture appeal transcends borders," said exhibition curator Chris Finn.

In February Finn created the Marilyn in Canada exhibition to complement an international tour about the screen goddess, which visited the McMichael gallery.

The CNE show is a pared-down selection of that show, featuring lesser-known Monroe photographs, film posters, vintage magazine articles and movie screenings. Audiences will see Marilyn posing in a canoe and standing next to Miss Canada in a vintage Maclean's article.

Canadian connection

"We wanted to create a Canadian connection to Marilyn Monroe," said Finn. "A lot of people know her through photographs. They see her as an icon of beauty and fashion, and others are fascinated by her life story."

John Vachon captures Marilyn Monroe in a canoe in 1953, one of the images to be shown at the CNE show dedicated to the star's visits to Canada. (The estate of John Vachon and Dover Publications Inc.)
The star was born Norma Jeane Mortenson, and spent her youth in orphanages, foster homes and with family friends. She became a star with films such as Some Like It Hot, The Seven-Year Itch and Niagara, which was filmed in Canada.

Her glamorous life was tinted with tragedy, including failed marriages and struggles with addiction. Her untimely death  at the age of 36 crystallized her as a forever-young idol in 1962.

"I think I have a better understanding of what she faced," said Finn, who added that he developed a certain degree of respect for Monroe while working on the show.

Marilyn lights up in Niagara

Rose Loomis, Marilyn Monroe's honeymooning character in Niagara, was a smoker — but Monroe was not. Before the shoot, the actress practiced smoking in her room at the Hotel General Brock (now the Crowne Plaza Hotel) while Toronto photographer Jock Carroll captured her attempts. The starlet was still quite accessible in those early days of her career, according to McMichael publicist Stephen Weir. The 1953 film went on to become Monroe's first major hit.

Her first big hit Niagara was filmed in 1953 in Niagara Falls, Ont., and she worked in Banff, Alta., during filming of River of No Return in 1954. Photographers John Vachon of the U.S. and Jock Carroll of Toronto captured a fresh-faced Marilyn against Canadian landscapes.

Some like it haut

The Marilyn show is expected to draw a general audience, including those who have never even heard of the McMichael and its founders.

The permanent collection at the public gallery is a treasure trove of Canadian artwork by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, as well as First Nations and Inuit artists. It is tucked away in Kleinburg, Ont., about 45 km northwest of Toronto.

"We're not going to all of a sudden become a populist gallery, but there's a demand for more than the Group of Seven," said gallery publicist Stephen Weir.

Weir and Finn acknowledged that the McMichael is reaching out to new crowds and allowing more flexibility in its curation of contemporary exhibitions. Monroe in Canada: A Selection is free with general admission to the CNE, and will be stationed inside the Arts, Crafts & Hobbies Pavilion, next to a collection of decorative bras.

Reaching new audiences

"Because she is such a pop culture icon it seemed like an interesting fit," said Finn of the unlikely venue.

The legendary blonde still draws the crowds decades after her death. The original Marilyn in Canada exhibition, launched this past February, brought many first-time visitors to Kleinburg. Men and women of all ages roamed the halls, some in replica white dresses and others brandishing Monroe-inspired tattoos.

"Most of the people who came weren't even born when she died," said Weir. He added that CNE organizers approached the gallery after seeing the success of the February show, which Finn said surpassed expected attendance by 90 per cent.

The partnership signals the historic gallery's increasing willingness to travel and experiment with new subjects.

"What we hope is that people will realize that they can enjoy themselves looking at art," said Weir. "You don't need a degree in fine art to appreciate a show."