Sunday, February 03, 2013

past pieces of toronto: palace pier

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on January 15, 2012.


A scene from an evening at Palace Pier: during a dance sponsored by the Arthur Murray Dance Studio in January 1951, participants were officially greeted by Toronto Controller John Innes. As his speech neared its end, he noted that it would be nice if everyone in the hall knew how to do an old-fashioned waltz.
“Having said his piece,” reported the Star’s Alex Barris, “Controller Innes was leaving the stage when the band started playing—a waltz.” Innes grabbed Lisa Derny, an Arthur Murray employee who had introduced him to the audience earlier in the evening, “waltzed her around a couple of times, planted a kiss on her cheek and strutted off.”

That anyone ever received a kiss at Palace Pier was a minor miracle given the venue’s checkered history. When the Provincial Improvement Corporation received the go-ahead from the Toronto Harbour Commission in July 1927 to build an entertainment complex stretching nearly 1,800 feet into Lake Ontario, it had grandiose visions. Had the original plan gone ahead, Palace Pier would have included a ballroom to hold 3,000 dancing couples; a “palace of fun” containing bowling and skating facilities; a bandstand with a capacity of up to 3,000; a 1,500 seat theatre; covered walkways and a steamship dock. Fundraising went slowly, and it wasn’t until January 1931 that the cornerstone of the first phase was laid. The ballroom was as far as building went, and it stood vacant for nearly a decade. The developers periodically promised to complete the site, but lawsuits and failure to pay mortgage and taxes led to foreclosure by 1940. As one shareholder remarked, the site was “that white elephant at the mouth of the Humber.”

The following year, the unexpected happened: Palace Pier opened as a roller rink. For the grand opening celebration in June 1941, comedian Bob Hope was brought in to raise money for the Red Cross British Bomb Victims’ Fund. Hope told jokes for 15 minutes about his movie co-stars then signed autographs for an hour. “Bob made it a lark instead of a job” reported the Star. “He joked with the crowd, sang at the top of his voice when the mood struck him, or dazzled some sweet young thing with a look.”

During the mid-1940s, Palace Pier was one of the city’s premier big band venues. Among the bandleaders who played there were Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Harry James and Stan Kenton. When bookings dried up in the 1950s, the site was used for private functions, political rallies and boxing matches.

The end of Palace Pier came swiftly. Flames rising 200 feet in the air during the early morning hours of January 7, 1963 were visible across the lake in Buffalo, where local media called the Etobicoke fire department to verify the blaze. By the time it was extinguished, only the stone fa├žade and side walls remained. After the debris was cleared away, the site sat vacant for a decade as redevelopment plans came and went until one of Metro Toronto’s first waterfront condo communities bearing the star-crossed name opened in 1976.

Additional material from the June 26, 1941 and January 5, 1951 editions of the Toronto Star. Image: Palace Pier under construction, July 29, 1931. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 34, Item 70.

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