A look back at Sylvan Lake’s dance halls

Michael Dawe

Michael Dawe

With the May long weekend just past, the traditional Alberta summer season is now upon us. In the coming months, many thousands of vacationers will flock to such popular resorts as Sylvan Lake.

Among the most popular of the attractions at Sylvan Lake for many decades were its dance halls. From the May 24 Long Weekend to Labour Day, these halls were packed with people wanting to dance or to simply enjoy live music on warm summer nights.

The Golden Era of the dance halls started in the 1920s, in the aftermath of the terrible First World War.

People had become more intent on enjoying themselves and putting the long period of suffering behind them.

The Sylvan Lake Hotel, renamed the Hazelwood, became a popular venue for dances. Before long, a second dance hall, known as the Oriental Gardens began operations next door.

In 1925, Henry and Della Hussfeldt built a large dance hall, tearoom and several summer cabins along the lakeshore, near the current site of the Chateau Suites Hotel. They named it the Alexander Pavilion, after Della’s father, Alexander Loiselle, who was the first permanent settler at Sylvan Lake.

The Alexander Pavilion was a quality establishment. The hall was soon used not only for summer dances, but also concerts, public meetings and the first motion picture shows in Sylvan Lake.

Disaster struck in 1927 when the Sylvan Lake Hotel and the Oriental Gardens were destroyed in a major fire. The hotel’s owners needed a quick replacement before the start of the all important tourist season.

Hence, the old Alamo Hotel, from Suffield, Alberta, was moved cross-country to Sylvan Lake as a replacement.

The fall of 1929 brought the Stock Market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Perhaps it was a reflection of the onset of new economic hardships that some anarchists attempted to blow up the Alexander Pavilion with dynamite in August 1930.

Fortunately, damage was slight and no one was hurt.

It was also in the summer of 1930 that James P. Simpson, owner of the Sylvan Lake Boathouse, decided to build a large new dance hall on the corner of Lakeshore Dr. and 46 (Sesame) St.

He named the new establishment the Trianon.

Despite the hard times of the Depression, Sylvan Lake thrived as an affordable family resort. On summer evenings, throngs of people made their way up and down the lakeshore, often going into one of the dance halls for a night’s fun and entertainment.

In 1933, the Trianon was purchased by John Penley of Calgary. He renamed the facility the Varsity Hall, as part of successful attempt to draw a younger crowd to the dances.

The onset of the Second World War brought even more crowds, as large numbers of military personnel from A-20 Army Camp in Red Deer and the airbases at Penhold and Bowden made their way to Sylvan Lake for some recreation and fun.

In 1948, the Varsity Hall was purchased by three members of the Paul Perry Orchestra from Lee Ditzler, who had bought it in 1946. The popularity of the Sylvan Lake dance halls extended through the rest of the 1940s and on into the 1950s and 1960s.

However, disaster struck on one summer’s evening in the late 1950s when the old Alexander Pavilion, which had been renamed the Prom, burned to the ground.

As the remaining major dance hall in the community, the Varsity Hall continued to flourish. However, by the early 1970s, the popularity began to flag.

Changing liquor laws and increased dancing areas in the bars cut into the appeal of the Varsity Hall where liquor wasn’t sold.

On Aug. 1, 1979, the last dance was held at the Varsity Hall. The old building was torn down and the Raccoon Lodge was built on the site.

The popular nightspot did not completely disappear however. Part of the hardwood dance floor was installed at the Ridgewood Community Hall. The beautiful large stone fireplace was relocated to the Terratima Lodge south of Rocky Mountain House.