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Honouring The Gerry Dunn Way
One afternoon in early June, 1942, the editor of the Gravenhurst Banner sat staring at the layout for the front page of the next week’s paper. The war against Nazi Germany was not going well and he wanted a positive local news story to make his readers feel good. Suddenly, he smiled and reached for a pen. The result was a boldface headline at the top right of page one of the June 14th issue.
The headline said it all: Famous Orchestra For Opening Night At Dunn’s Pavilion. The Frankie Masters Orchestra, the top hotel band in New York City, would be playing at the opening of Dunn’s Pavilion in Bala on Wednesday, July 1st. The Banner article hailed this as “a new era of entertainment for visitors to Muskoka and district.”
Gerry Dunn’s bold decision to build a world-class dance pavilion on Bala Bay was the good news that all Muskoka and maybe much of Canada had been craving. On July 1st, roughly 1,000 drove to Bala from as far away as Toronto and Buffalo. Dressed in their finest clothes, couples began gathering towards the end of the dinner hour on what would later be called the Bala Falls Road. Their destination was Dunn’s Pavilion, the new white clapboard pavilion building that sprawled across the Bala Bay waterfront behind Dunn’s, Gerry’s prominent store on the main street.
To get to the pavilion, couples entered Dunn’s and walked roughly 100 feet to the rear wall of the store. The front of that line-up came to a halt at the foot of a few stairs that led to the entrance to the new pavilion. Behind them, the line-up stretched back to the street and around a corner to the road leading to Torrance and eventually Gravenhurst.
Locals in the line-up used the long wait to tell out-of-towners how Dunn’s had started off as a small ice cream parlour that Gerry Dunn bought in the summer of 1929. At 27, he had just graduated from the University of Toronto as a pharmacist and had been a campus celebrity as the lead centre on the U of T hockey team.
Thanks to his hockey skills, Dunn was in demand to play for a number of semi-pro hockey teams. Instead, he chose to buy Langdon’s Ice Cream Parlour, which was roughly where the Kee to Bala is today. The price was sky-high – $11,000 – but Dunn saw an opportunity to become the only pharmacist between Gravenhurst and Parry Sound.
What also swayed him was the fact that Detroit’s semi-pro hockey team had offered to arrange a winter job as a pharmacist at the Henry Ford Hospital, if he would join them. Dunn wanted to continue playing hockey while having his own summer business. He opted for the Detroit offer and going to Bala.
Dunn had never been to Bala while growing up in Bracebridge and was fascinated to learn there was a small open air dance floor behind the ice cream parlour where a waiter from the nearby hotel would come to play piano on Saturday evenings, weather permitting.
After his first summer, he slowly expanded the dancing area and enclosed it so that small bands could come to perform. Over the next few years, Dunn turned the ice cream parlour into “Dunn’s,” a large store that included a soda fountain, sales of clothing, fishing tackle and beach supplies, and of course, his pharmacy.
As the storytelling waned and the word was finally given the pavilion was open, those at the front walked up a few steps through a doorway. An attendant (probably Lillian Sutton) collected tickets and stamped the back of hands. That allowed coming and going.
The first couples inside the new pavilion felt like they were walking into a Hollywood movie scene. Musicians from the Frankie Masters Orchestra were seated in two rows on a slightly raised stage at the north end of the 100-foot hardwood maple dance floor, resplendent in their tuxedos. Behind them was the facade of the front of a Muskoka cottage.
High above the dance floor, cedar boughs hung down from the rafters. The boughs, dipped in calcium chloride to be fireproof, were now a glistening silver colour. The sound system was primitive – two large speakers but the acoustics of the pavilion produced great sound.
By 9 p.m., the excited audience had filled every available seat including private boxes that each held 20 occupants. Others looked down from balconies on three sides. The first melody they heard was the theme song of the Frankie Masters Orchestra, Scatter Brain, a bouncy foxtrot composed by Masters. The song was familiar to all because the band’s recording of that tune had topped the hit parade for eight weeks. Dancers quickly filled the dance floor.
The pavilion never looked back after that sold-out July evening. Howard Cable led a nightly eight-piece house band, featuring Norma Locke as vocalist. Mart Kenney brought his band on Sunday, August 2nd, for a dance that started just after midnight to obey Sabbath laws. He returned on September 6th to close a season that had included Fletcher Henderson’s top-rated swing band from New York. The Gravenhurst Banner gushed on July 30: “Never before have visitors been able to enjoy the thrill of dancing to Canadian and American ‘name’ bands until Gerry Dunn’s New Pavilion was built this spring.”
Word spread quickly.
On August 13, 1942, the Gravenhurst Banner reported “In one short season, Gerry Dunn’s Pavilion has become so widely known that all the foremost bands in Canada and the United States are anxious to play in the beautiful new hall.”
Over the next 21 years, Gerry Dunn brought the world’s top dance and swing bands to Bala: Count Basie. Les Brown. Guy Lombardo. Cab Calloway. Stan Kenton. Duke Ellington. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. The most popular was Louis Armstrong, who came to the pavilion four times between 1959 and 1962 and set an attendance record of 2,100 in his final year.
It is surprising how many Muskoka residents over a certain age have stories about Louis Armstrong. Dunn’s son, Patrick, now retired as a judge from Ontario Court of Justice, paid the visiting band leaders in his late teens. The manager of Armstrong’s band insisted on receiving the band’s money.
“If Louis gets it, he starts giving it away,” he explained.
Jane Templeton was a Bala girl who boldly walked onto the band’s bus and asked Armstrong for his autograph. His signature in green ink is now proudly framed on her wall. Templeton’s younger brother, Jack, was only 11 when Armstrong invited him for breakfast with himself and his wife at the nearby hotel, a block away.
Mike Webb, a longtime Moon River cottager, was a teenaged waiter when the pavilion had no liquor licence. He recalls serving “set-up specials” which included a large bowl with ice and a large bottle of Muskoka Dry ginger ale. “We never asked what was on the floor below the table cloth,” he says. “That was none of our business.”
Casey Piekarz, a longtime cottager at Henshaw Lake who recently turned 96, was a member of the Frank Evans house band at Dunn’s Pavilion between 1957 and 1963.
“I earned $45 a week plus $15 for writing a new arrangement every week,” he recalls. “I brought my wife and our small children, and rented a cottage from Herb Farlie on Long Lake for each of those summers. It was a magic time for my family and myself.”
Gerry Dunn finally sold his pavilion in 1963. It was re-named the Kee to Bala in 1968 after the aging Dunn’s store was torn down. A new addition was built across the front of the pavilion and is still there, housing the ticket office. The music now reflects a new generation’s love of rock ‘n roll and there is a large new stage but the old pavilion is still there with ghosts from the past.
One year ago, the Township of Muskoka Lakes Council decided it was time to honour the memory of Gerry Dunn. The Bala Falls Road which leads to the Kee to Bala is now also known as the Gerry Dunn Way.
Muskoka Lakes Township Ward A District Councillor Ruth Nishikawa says a plaque honouring Dunn will be mounted soon. This pleases Don Elliott, a longtime Moon River cottager, who has been urging recognition of Gerry Dunn for years. Now retired in Ottawa, Elliott was 12 when he washed dishes between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. for the marine soda bar at Dunn’s Pavilion.
“I got paid 50 cents an hour but gas was 33 cents a gallon,” says Elliott. “I could put gas in my 5 horsepower Evinrude boat motor. We all looked up to Gerry Dunn. He was Mr. Bala.”
This year marks the 90th anniversary of Gerry Dunn’s arrival in Bala, an appropriate year to honour his memory.
He died peacefully in Toronto on Dec. 9th, 1999, but will be forever remembered as the man who put Bala on a world map. He did that with perseverance and love for his small town, which was the Gerry Dunn way.
That is also the new name on the street signs – Gerry Dunn Way.
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