|“If you build it, they will come.” Long before the fictional movie Field of Dreams – where a farmer upon hearing a voice speaking to him, creates a baseball diamond in the middle of a field of corn – Gerry Patrick Dunn felt the same real-life urge to push ahead in 1941 with an idea so grandiose it left some people scratching their heads in amazement. Gerry erected the most ambitious summer dance pavilion ever built in Ontario cottage country:
Dunn’s Pavilion – “Where All Muskoka Dances”
When it was completed and the doors were opened for business in the summer of 1942, Gerry’s gift to Bala was a treasure that attracted dancers from near and far, who dressed in their finest attire to dance in an atmosphere that was first-class all the way. The new pavilion was an immediate success, featuring dancing six nights a week throughout the summer to a house band, with at least one major international Big Band attraction booked in every week for an engagement.
It was unheard of in the 1940’s for famous entertainers to travel so far away from their traditional touring routes, but Dunn’s Pavilion quickly became known in the music industry as one of the premier Canadian summer dance halls in which to play.
Although the pavilion attracted huge crowds from opening night, it wasn’t just the music that gave thousands of people an experience they’d never forget. Gerry instinctively knew the secret to creating a good business, long before he built his hall. The real estate industry’s cliché – location, location, location – certainly contributed to the pavilion’s prosperity, but it was Gerry’s personal charm and attentiveness to every detail that ensured Dunn’s Pavilion would enjoy a long run in Bala.
He was a gracious host, making every person feel special as he greeted them personally at the door.
And once inside the pavilion – even before the band played its first note – the unique decor of the hall convinced patrons for that evening they were about as far away from their day-to-day life as their minds would allow them to travel. Palm trees, hanging baskets of plants, a fountain with coloured lights in the centre of the sunken dance floor and a ceiling decorated with silver cedar boughs all combined to create a sophisticated yet comfortable ambience for an exciting night of dancing. As a reminder of the pavilion’s Muskoka setting in the middle of Ontario cottage country, Gerry designed the stage’s backdrop to be the facade of an actual small cottage, complete with window awnings. On a warm summer evening couples would often wander out on the large balcony for a romantic moment where the twinkling lights of cottages and the boats in the harbour reflected off the water of the bay.
Little did Gerry know at the time he built the pavilion on Lake Muskoka, that for close to six decades the tradition he started would continue every summer. A number of owners have taken turns running the business since Gerry sold the hall in the early 1960’s; all of them have faced the challenges of managing such a unique business, and many have enjoyed significant rewards due to their efforts and hard work.
But Dunn’s Pavilion – which for nearly 30 years has been called The Kee To Bala – continues to draw thousands of people who attend dances with one intention: to have a good time, just like their parents and their grandparents did in their own way in previous years. Tank tops and blue jeans have long ago replaced long dresses and sports jackets as acceptable dress wear; the Big Band music of yesterday has changed to reflect the tastes of today’s music fans; and BYOB is no longer necessary with The Kee now being fully licensed. However, the tradition Gerry Dunn started with his pavilion in 1942 for his generation, repeats itself year after year as new generations of young people discover the musical shrine Gerry conceived.
THE EARLY YEARS
Long before Gerry built his pavilion in 1942, he had been doing business on the same site in the drug and department store he had purchased from the Langdon family in 1929.
Few photos are available of the business during the 1920’s, but at this time a small open-air dance platform was located at the rear of the store.
When Gerry bought this business in 1929, he was a recently graduated pharmacist from the University of Toronto, and he felt there was good potential in Bala for both a drug store and service station, with the dance floor being an added attraction. Gerry Dunn immediately saw the popularity of the dancing area and changed the music format from a solo pianist to orchestras, with Jerry Richardson and the Varsity Collegians, and Carl Mueller’s Varsity Entertainers being the first two bands booked into the pavilion.
During the off-season Gerry lived in Detroit, working as a pharmacist during the day and playing hockey in the evenings, which enabled him to raise funds to pay off his Bala investment.
In the second year of ownership, Gerry made the first of three enlargements to the original pavilion’s 35-foot dance floor.
The structure was eventually covered in completely when the floor had been lengthened to 100 feet.
One of the great Muskoka traditions began in the early 1930’s, which was travelling to Dunn’s Store and dance hall by water – canoes, rowboats and motor boats were the primary mode of transport. People would arrive for an ice cream during the day and to dance in the evening, with many a young man working up a righteous sweat pulling the oars of his skiff while dressed in a shirt and tie. New friendships developed between people and summer romances blossomed, some of which developed into long-term relationships and ultimately marriage. Many couples today still reminisce about meeting one another at Dunn’s.
TIME FOR A NEW PAVILION
As the 1930’s drew to an end, the crowds became so large at the old pavilion that Gerry decided to tear down the hall and build what would become his famous pavilion, where all Muskoka would come to dance. He had visions of bringing the best bands in the business to Muskoka, but knew that he’d need a hall that could hold enough people to pay for the big acts.
“I designed the pavilion myself – no architect was involved,” says Gerry, who at 97 years old was back at his Bala summer home in 1998. “It took some time on my part, coming up with different designs that I’d draw on the brown paper we used in the store to wrap things.” Finally, he came up with a unique design for a hall with a 75-foot span that would be built out over the water. A structure that wide normally would require steel beams, but since this type of building material was in short supply due to the War, wood was used instead.
With a crew of 14 men, the pavilion began to take shape in late 1941. By utilising a gin pole (a high device for raising heavy weights) fashioned from a tall white pine tree cut along the Moon River, they raised the upper rafters into place with Gerry at the top, nailing them down.
Next time you’re in the pavilion, take a look up and try to picture a younger Gerry Dunn anchoring down those roof supports in 1941.
WHERE THE BIG BANDS COME TO PLAY
Gerry featured live music six nights per week during the summer months, and often included a Sunday evening concert (dancing on Sundays was illegal in staid old Ontario at that time). House bands led by musicians such as Howard Cable, Eddie Stroud and Frank Evans all enjoyed many years of steady employment at Dunn’s.
And one evening each week, usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday, Gerry would bring in a famous Big Band which was guaranteed to attract people from the nearby Muskoka lakes as well as from towns and cities around the province.
Special mention should be made here regarding bandleader Mart Kenney who performed at Dunn’s for the first time on August 2, 1942. Older Canadians will recall Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen who criss-crossed Canada for decades, and who particularly devoted so much time and energy to the country during the World War II Coca Cola Victory Parades. Mart established his own dance venue near Toronto in 1949, calling it Mart Kenney’s Ranch. Through his thousands of remote radio and television broadcasts (many of his radio remotes emanated from Dunn’s), Mart became Canada’s premier musician, comparable to today’s younger stars such as Burton Cummings or Bryan Adams.
Incidentally, at 89 years old, Mart lives in British Columbia and still tours extensively, maintaining a schedule that would tire a person half his age. He returned to Bala to perform on the original stage in 1998, and giving his fans a memorable show.
As old Dunn’s posters indicate, just about everybody in the business appeared at least once at Dunn’s Pavilion Ð The Dorsey Brothers, Les Elgart, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Guy Lombardo, Les Brown, The Glenn Miller Orchestra with Ray McKinley, Woody Herman and the great Louis Armstrong were just a few of the headliners.
Pictures of these stars were taken by Dunn’s resident photographers, Don and Winnifred McIndoe. The couple would also snap shots of dancers throughout the evening and insert the picture in a souvenir folder. Don & Winnifred took many group shots of the pavilion’s staff and house bands.
Perhaps one of the most memorable Big Band nights at Dunn’s Pavilion took place near the end of Gerry’s tenure in the early 1960’s when Louis Armstrong performed for hundreds of fans inside with another 1,000 outside on the grounds and in boats, listening to Satchmo’s music float from the pavilion into the warm moonlit Muskoka evening.
GERRY DUNN SELLS THE PAVILION
By 1963 Gerry was entertaining thoughts of selling the pavilion. It came as a surprise to many people who assumed that both Gerry and his dance hall would endure indefinitely, but the time had come to move on.
The mid-60’s witnessed one of the most significant transitions in music since the Swing Era. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll had been established for over 10 years as the music kids were turning to, but with the advent of the Beatles, other British bands and their American counterparts, rock music became a tidal wave that could not be ignored or stopped.
Unfortunately, the new owner was slow to make the transition from Big Band to rock, and failed to recognize new trends and tastes in music. Crowds fell off, and the future of the grand Muskoka pavilion was in real doubt as it fell into a state of financial woes and disrepair. Ownership ultimately fell into the hands of the bank.
NEW LIVE, NEW OWNERS & A NEW NAME
Enter Ray Cockburn.
Ray had been successfully running his own pavilion in nearby Orillia since the late 1950’s. As well as being a savvy hall operator, Ray was extremely respected and well-liked by everyone in the music industry. He also listened to his customers. When “The Pavalon” (known by most Orillians as “The Pav”) brought in rock music as part of its program, Ray encouraged the kids to form a Teen Town. This organization worked in co-operation with Ray, providing many suggestions regarding music format and bands they would like to see. Weekends at The Pav would usually feature a teen dance on Friday with an orchestra for the adults on Saturday.
When Ray was asked if he would be interested in breathing new life into Dunn’s Pavilion he decided to take the plunge, and even had the bank take care of tearing down the old store out front, which was now in a condemned state. Ray then built the extension you now see on the front of the Bala pavilion.
Ray introduced a program of new music – rock ‘n’ roll – and a new name: THE KEE TO BALA.
Says Ray, “A short name, easily remembered, was what I wanted, and when someone suggested that the pavilion was the `key’ to Bala and the surrounding Muskoka area, I jumped at the idea and changed the spelling to KEE.”
His policy of booking two rock bands into The Kee for an evening of continuous music also proved to be immensely successful. At this time, Ontario boasted some of the best bands in the country, with many of them hailing from the Toronto area. Ray could promise the bands he booked a gig at The Pav in Orillia one night, with a job in Bala the next. The Kee quickly became THE place in Ontario for bands to work, and just about every name group had an opportunity to hit the stage over the years.
The late 1960’s and into the 1970’s were pure magic at The Kee. As one person wrote to me: “I remember the music with Major Hooples Boarding House, Mandala’s rendition of `White Rabbit’, Motherlode, Coney Hatch and a summer romance with a guy I met from Bracebridge. His name was Carl and boy, could he dance. We were high on life and love that summer. I remember the `heat’ in The Kee around 11 p.m. when the wooden dance floor literally shook and bounced. The place would be filled to capacity and body to body – everyone grooved to the tunes. I loved it all!”
In the early 1970’s Ray was approached by the Parry family who indicated they were interested in purchasing the pavilion. Bev Parry and her family had many successful years at the Kee, taking the pavilion through the 1970’s and into the next decade. With music being an art form that never sits still, the Parrys had to move with the various phases of rock ‘n’ roll, constantly aware of the fact that many of Ontario’s venerable dance pavilions were falling like soldiers on the battlefield.
It became obvious that for the Kee to remain viable and compete with bars and other forms of entertainment available to people, a liquor license had to be obtained, so they set the wheels in motion. The Kee has now had a license for close to 25 years. During the late 1970’s a new stage was built, on the east side of the dance floor, at least twice the size of the old platform, and much higher. The old cottage facade was left standing, but instead of potted palm trees and flower boxes underneath the windows, a bar was installed.
When the Parrys decided to move out of the pavilion business, the keys (no pun intended!) were handed over to Joe Kondyjowski, a man who brought with him many years of experience in the dance hall business. Joe is probably one of the most knowledgable and experienced people in the business today. He has owned Greenhurst Pavilion on Sturgeon Lake, managed the Jubilee Pavilion in Oshawa, owned The Kee to Bala, and today runs his Red Barn Auditorium in Oshawa.
Joe is a man of action, a man who, when he eyes a job that should be done, simply takes charge and sees the project through to the end. As a person who loves to preserve the original integrity of older buildings, taking over the Kee in the 1980’s presented a number of challenges for Joe. The pavilion Gerry Dunn had built extended 75% over the water, and much of the structure sat on cribbing and pylons that had been installed in 1942. As Joe says, “We had much work to do!”
Joe built a new Viceroy home on the property, poured asphalt for a parking area, installed a new roof and built a new deck. He installed new cement cribs, and very slowly and in stages, jacked up the building because it had begun to sink. The pilings underneath were all replaced. A new kitchen was put into the building and the outside was completely painted in a Cape Cod type of feel – a whitish blue/grey tone with slate blue trim.
When his project of refurbishing The Kee was completed, Joe invited Gerry Dunn into the pavilion. “Gerry said he was very pleased, and commented `the place had not looked this good since I sold it in 1963.’ That was the ultimate compliment for me,” says Joe.
A subsequent operator took the reins for a year, and then in 1990 Sanober Patel acquired The Kee, assisted in the business by her son, Jim. Bringing entertainment to a sometimes fickle audience is a challenge for any entrepreneur in this business, and Sanober worked hard to bring in some of the top rock acts as they mounted their summer tours across Canada. Kim Mitchell has always been a perennial favourite at The Kee, as has Burton Cummings, Doug and the Slugs, Colin James, Blue Rodeo, April Wine, Jeff Healey……the list is long. Bands consider The Kee a very special place to play, possibly because, in the words of Kim Mitchell to a newspaper reporter, “It’s the whole vacation experience that makes the hall special; people are in a cottage frame of mind!”
Sanober also brought in a weekly Yuk-Yuk’s comedy night, and one major Big Band evening for the people who fondly remembered dancing at the hall when it was called Dunn’s Pavilion. The 50th Anniversary in 1992 was marked with a performance by Mart Kenney.
In 1995 Sanober sold the Kee to a partnership. One of the partners Stephen Wyllie, took charge of the operations.
Every new operator of The Kee to Bala has brought his or her plans, hopes and dreams for the pavilion. They realize that it is not simply another concert hall or dance hall; there is so much history behind Dunn’s Pavilion that ownership also brings with it a responsibility to the residents, cottagers and visitors to Muskoka who regard the pavilion as one of the most familiar and significant landmarks in the region.
Stephen has a deep awareness of the importance that The Kee holds for so many people. “Practically every day someone will stop by, knock at the pavilion door and talk about the good times they had dancing here,” he says.
And Stephen has already set the wheels in motion to honour the rich past of his pavilion. Re-painting the pavilion to its original Muskoka white with green trim was Stephen’s first job on his long list of “to-do’s.”
In 1996 and in 1998 Steve brought back memories for many people by featuring a couple of Big Band dances, and even re-built the old stage in front of the cottage for these events – the first time in nearly 20 years that bands have used the old stage. For the these nights Steve had a large sign painted to hang behind the band: “Dunn’s Pavilion, established 1942.”
For many years a small but interesting building has sat beside The Kee. It was first used by Gerry Dunn as a gas and service station, and has been used by subsequent owners as accommodation for bands, storage and other purposes. It’s often been referred to simply as The Garage. Stephen resurrected this structure in 1997 under the name “Dunn’s Station,” a popular ice cream parlour and coffee bar.
Establishing The Kee as an historic site and having it featured on Muskoka boat tours are more projects Stephen would like to explore. Mid-week jazz concerts, a film documentary, a CD and many other ideas are all part of this owner’s plans for The Kee in the coming years. Meanwhile, Stephen is always planning the line-up of super talent he’ll continue bringing to The Kee.
THE PARTY CONTINUES
They originally came to Dunn’s Pavilion to see the Big Bands, and today they’re still coming to The Kee To Bala. Sure, the music has changed, but so has everything else in the world – it’s called life. And life continues. Just like the hall that Gerry built continues.
Maybe it’s just a building. But oh, what a building it has been. And every one of the hundreds of thousands of people who have entered this building have their own special thought or memory about their experience here. Because, it’s not just the building that makes the memories – it’s the people. Dunn’s Pavilion/The Kee To Bala has been a conduit, bringing people together for one purpose, and that has been to meet, dance, enjoy music and have an evening of fun.
About the Writer of Dunn’s Pavilion/The Kee To Bala
Author Peter Young has recently completed a major project, researching every well known dance pavilion and dance hall in the Province of Ontario. With the exception of some notable venues such as The Kee, Wasaga Beach’s Dardanella, the Palais Royale in Toronto, Wonderland in London, and a few others, most of these memorable pavilions have disappeared due to fire, demolition or conversion to other uses. Peter Young has delved into the rich past of each pavilion, interviewing former owners or their descendants, employees, the general public and also many of the musicians who performed at the various locations. His first book was released in 1997. Entitled The Kee to Bala is Dunn’s Pavilion, its detailed text enhanced with dozens of photographs, portrays a human interest slice of Ontario’s best known summer dance hall from the 1920’s right up to the present, with emphasis on the Big Band period of the 1930’s to the ’50’s, as well as the rock ‘n’ roll years of the 1960’s to the ’90’s.
Young’s second book Lake Huron’s Summer Dance Pavilions, is now available. His third book on the subject is slated for release in the next few months. To order these books, or for more details on Dunn’s Pavilion/The Kee to Bala or any other pavilion you recall with fond memories, you can email Peter at email@example.com