By BOB McCARTHY
There were at one time during the first half of the last century two places here in Lambton County that you could go to dance and enjoy big band sound. At one of these places, as Ed Sullivan used to say, a “really big shew” took place on the evening of July 29, 1946.
Let’s listen in as a man talks to his teen-aged granddaughter one June night during the early 1970s. She is all dressed up, waiting to be picked up by her boyfriend for their senior prom at SCITS that night.
Big Bands and Dancing and Radio
“Grandpa, tell me again about the dances you and Grandma used to go to up along the lake.”
He sat quietly thinking back to the wonderful times he had with his wife when they were newly married. She had died a few years ago, but he so enjoyed remembering her and telling stories to their grandchildren. It was a few minutes before he replied.
“Certainly, my dear. There were at one time here in our county two great dance emporiums, as we used to call them. One was in Grand Bend. A man named George Eccleston bought 45 acres of beach front property up there, built a platform, enclosed it with a tent, and declared that the Lakeview Casino was ready for dancing.
“The official opening was held on the 29th of July back in 19 and 17. Your grandmother and I were there that day. We were quite a bit younger then, and had only been married a few years. With two other couples, we all jammed into the old Ford model T we owned. It was a Saturday and just after breakfast. We had packed a picnic lunch and wanted to make sure that we would be there in the Bend on time for the official opening.”
The grandfather paused, sitting quietly for a few moments with a smile on his face, obviously remembering the day, before he continued. “The music that day was by a group that at that time called themselves the London Italian Orchestra. But you know them today by another name. We have watched them many times on TV. But at that time, they were just a group of three unknown brothers by the names of Guy, Carmen and Lebert.”
“Oh, you must mean the Lombardos” piped out the granddaughter.
“I most certainly do, my dear, and they had a piano player by the name of Myrtle Hicks. Over the years, Mister Eccleston often told people that the ten dollars he paid the Lombardos that night was their first paid performance. Two years later, a new concrete dance hall was built on the same site.
“For many years, they had what was known as Jitney dancing. I think it was right up to the 1940's. This was pay as you go dancing. You paid 15 cents to enter. Following each dance, the dance floor was cleared and then for an additional 5 cents, you could come back on the floor for the next dance.
“We went all the way up there to the Lakeview Casino many times in those early years. Seems strange now when you think about it but back in the 1930s, black entertainers were welcome. We danced to the music from all-black bands such as the Chocolate Dandies and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. But Jewish people were not welcome. A prominent sign at the entrance to the Lakeview Casino proclaimed ‘Gentiles Only’.
“And, unlike many dances nowadays, whenever we went up there on a Saturday night, we had to dress up. There was a strict dress code of jackets and ties for gents and formal wear for ladies.
“Jimmy Namaro and his 12 piece orchestra would play the midnight to 3 A.M. dances, entertaining his audience by changing from a black tuxedo to a white one half-way through his show.
“We have watched the Front Page Challenge TV show together. Fred Davis, one of the regular panelists, at one time played trumpet for the Modernaires, who regularly played at the Lakeview Casino. Tommy Dorsey played there several times and the Glenn Miller Orchestra played the Casino in 1958.Rudy Vallee and Louis Armstrong also appeared at the Casino. Over the years, 53 Canadian bands & 15 U.S. bands played the Casino.
“Do you know where the other dance emporium was, my dear?”
“I sure do, Grandpa. You showed me where it used to be when we were up at the beach at Bright’s Grove last summer. That’s where you mean, isn’t it?”
“Yes, you are right, my dear. Do you know that the town of Bright’s Grove was once called Crinnian’s Grove. But I am getting distracted. Jack Kennedy, a talented musician and band leader, had operated the Starlite Gardens in Pt Edward prior to 1943 when he opened Kenwick Terrace in downtown Sarnia. The opening night at Kenwick Terrace in January 1943 featured Louis Armstrong. A few years later, in 1946, he purchased a dance hall in Crinnian’s Grove. The dance hall was extensively rebuilt over the next few months and opened as Kenwick-on-the-Lake in June 1946.
“Kenwick -on-the-Lake drew dancers and music lovers from all over to hear big name bands along the shore of Lake Huron. The name Kenwick comes from the first part of Jack Kennedy’s last name and the last part of his wife Genevieve’s maiden name Warwick.
“Kenwick-on-the-Lake attracted big name bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, Louis Armstrong, and Glen Miller to play to crowds of up to 3,000 on weekends. Many of the shows were also broadcast by radio across Canada. The Governor-General of Canada visited Kenwick-on-the-Lake on the opening night in June 1946. We were there that night.
“The business was expanded to include rock gardens, dining rooms, a bathhouse and stand to rent out bathing suits, a concession booth, an outdoor bowling alley, kid’s rides and a popcorn machine. But the music was always the main draw.
“With many cottages nearby and new renters every week or two, there were always new people wanting to dance at the Kenwick. Locals and visitors alike would enjoy dancing to songs such as ‘Moonglow’ and ‘That Old Black Magic’.
“Now, my dear, do you know what big show took place there on the evening of July 29, 1946?”
As she moved her head from side to side, her grandfather continued.
“July 29, 1946 was a Monday. It was the height of the summer along the shores of Lake Huron. Kenwick-on-the-Lake had opened just one month earlier and was already popular with the dance crowds. This evening would feature music as always, but with a difference. Backed by the Jack Kennedy Orchestra, the show would celebrate the first radio broadcast by Sarnia’s own radio station with the call sign of CHOK.
“Promptly at 7:00 P.M., a fanfare resounded throughout the county as the prelude to a program that lasted for 6 hours. Canada’s newest radio station was on the air.
“The show headliners that night were Dorothy Deane and Russ Titus, stars of the Cashmere Bouquet House Party of the 1940's, who appeared in person during the inaugural show for CHOK. There were also special greetings for Canada’s newest radio station from entertainment greats Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Vaughan Monroe and Guy Lombardo.
“CHOK, then owned by H.M. Hueston, A.D. Mackenzie and Claude R. Irvine, was officially welcomed by W.C. Nelson, Mayor of the City of Sarnia and Bryan Cathcart, M.P.P.”
As he heard a ringing sound, the man stopped speaking. His granddaughter jumped up and exclaimed “That’s the doorbell, Grandpa. Johnny is here. I have to go.”
She walked over to his chair, gave him a hug and, with a smile in her voice, told him “Grandpa, I always enjoy your stories. Good night. I will see you later.”
As she walked away from him in her pretty formal dress, he spoke in a whisper. “How beautiful she is. She looks so much like her grandmother did as we left home so many Saturdays to go dancing at one of the emporiums. I miss you so much. God rest your soul. We will be together again some day, dancing on the clouds to the music we loved so much.” Then, as he closed his eyes, his mind went back to the days when the two of them would jump into the old model T and head up to the Bend or the Grove.
It was only a few minutes before he had fallen asleep in his chair.
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:
After George Eccleston died in 1931, the Lakeview Casino remained in the Eccleston family, operated by daughter Ella, and son?in?law, Eric McIlroy until 1966. By then, the Lakeview Casino had seen its glory days. It declined in popularity under the control of various owners. The Casino met its final demise when it was destroyed by fire on 1 July 1981.
When the popularity of the big bands declined in the late 1950's, the owners of Kenwick-on-the-Lake tried Sunday night concerts, wrestling, square dancing and summer theatre. But the combination of damage caused by the 1954 tornado, a later fire and declining attendance led to its closing in 1962.
All that remains today is the terrazo pavilion floor which now serves as a basketball court in Kenwick Park in Bright’s Grove.