Varsity Hall and the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll

Sylvan Lake resident recalls musical transition at former local dance hall

For many years, spanning from the early 1930’s well into the late 50’s, on any given weekend the stage at Varsity Hall was home to the sounds of smooth jazz and noteworthy big bands. The hall had become well known for the specific style of swing music.

However, in 1956 something happened that would change the course of musical history for the hall and for the world. The date was September 9, 1956. Young Elvis Presley was set to perform for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show a popular American TV variety show that ran on CBS every Sunday for over 20 years. Across the continent, Presley presented a new genre of music rock ‘n’ roll onto the televisions and into the homes of millions.

William ‘Billy’ Smith, remembers the rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll well. A life long Sylvan Lake resident, Smith’s parents were good friends with the owners of Varsity Hall, Paul and Jim Guloien. The couple frequented Varsity Hall’s Sunday night family concerts and began taking their son in 1958. He recalls as a child he was naturally drawn to music. Each week he would spend his hard earned paper route money on new 45’s at Ritz Drug Store.

EXTRAVAGANT DESIGN Inside Varsity Hall was a large dance floor surrounded by a white railing. To the left of the dance floor, when entering the building, the fireplace was often the first item one would notice. Photo courtesy of Sylvan Lake Archives

At this time, the Sunday night concerts were largely jazz based however, as rock continued to rise, the scene was changing at the hall.

“So many people think that after swing died so did the scene at Varsity Hall but they’re wrong. It was only beginning,” recalls Smith. “Rock ‘n’ Roll was about to hit in a big, big way and it really changed things for Varsity Hall.”

In 1963 Smith attended his first rock concert at Varsity Hall Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. The band was known for their smash single, ‘Sugar Shack’.

“My parents couldn’t keep me away and they knew it,” he remembered, he added it took a great deal of work to convince his parents to allow Jim Guloien to take him to the concert that night. “Jim perched me up on that big mantle and I had a bird’s eye view. I’d waited for so long and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

Smith detailed how the fire place was the focal point of Varisty Hall and the first thing one would see when entering the estabilishment for the first time.

“It was the best place for kids to watch the shows from and over the years you’d always see a couple youngsters perched up there each night,” said Smith.

By 1964 the British Invasion was set to take place. The phenomenon would see UK rock and pop acts catapult the genre into pop culture through the likes of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. On February 9, 1964 The Beatles would perform in front of an estimated 73 million Americans on The Ed Sullivan Show solidifying rock into mainstream media forever.

“Paul and Jim were hesitant at first to start booking rock bands the whole world was hesitant to embrace rock ‘n’ roll,” said Smith. “But they knew they had to stay current and the Guloien did a mighty fine job of it. They brought in some incredible music.”

In 1967 at the age of 14, Smith was quickly becoming a rock connoisseur. That year he began working for the Guloien’s. Smith’s duties included cleaning up the hall each morning following a concert.

“We would come in and sweep up,” he detailed. “We’d lay a fresh coat of wax on the oak floors to make sure they were ready for the next show that night. Then eventually my job was to be the guy at the back door guarding the fire exit.”

He explained how by law the hall was required to have a key holder at the back fire exit to ensure the safety of the patrons. Should there be a fire, he was to use his key to open the door. Smith was also responsible for playing the records in between bands.

“I guess you could say I was the DJ for a while,” said Smith. “It’s funny because at the time, no one thought rock would be there for long. But it just kept growing.”

The Guloiens sold the establishment to the McKenzie brothers out of Edmonton in May of 1973. In the eight years Varsity Hall remained open after it changed ownership, the hall would see a plethora of big name rock bands roll through including Chilliwack, Trooper, Dr. Hook, Sweeney Todd, as well as Wes Dakus and the Rebels.


BIG NAMES Chilliwack was one of the many rock ‘n’ roll bands that graced the stage of Varsity Hall in 1977. Courtesy of Bill Smith

“They loved playing here and people loved coming here. By the end of 70’s, Varsity Hall was the last beach dance hall standing,” said Smith. “The atmosphere on any one of those nights in the 70’s was just electric. There would be crystal clean shining vehicles parked all up and down the strip, little parties happening all along the beach and people as far as the eye could see all night.”

A particularly memorable concert for Smith was the weekend of July 29-31, 1977. One of the last Midnight Frolics were set to take place with Chilliwack headlining.

“Back in those days you’d have these epic long weekends where the band would be in town for three days,” said Smith. “There would be regular hours on the Friday and Saturday night, but on the Sunday night music wouldn’t even start until midnight.”

In Smith’s opinion, the eventual closure and dismantling of Varsity Hall in 1979 was the culmination of a number of factors which led to the perfect storm for the final owners.

“The building was getting older, repairs were expensive and the music scene was changing again as disco was gaining popularity mainstream,” he explained. “The Progressive Conservative party had gained power in 1971. One of the first things they did was change the legal drinking age from 21 to 18.”

He added this played a big factor in the changing scene. Young people were beginning to prefer bars and pubs to large scale dance halls. With liquor licenses being costly, Varsity Hall opted to remain unlicensed.

“By 1979, the hall was antiquated. It was the end of an era,” said Smith.

On Aug 3,4 and 5 of 1979, Varisty Hall owners hosted ‘Last Chance To Dance’ a final farewell to pay homage to the history that had taken place within the four walls. The weekend featured the musical styling of One Horse Blue, who was the last band to ever play the Varsity Hall stage.


LAST CHANCE On Aug 3,4, and 5 of 1979 Varsity Hall hosted ‘Last Chance To Dance Varsity’. The three day long weekend extravaganza featured a band named ‘One Horse Blue. The event was the last dance ever held in Varsity Hall. Photo courtesy of Bill Smith

Following the ‘Last Chance To Dance’, the building was dismantled with the iconic fieldstone fireplace being sold to the Terratima Lodge located outside of Sylvan Lake. The original oak flooring was sold to the Ridgewood Hall in Red Deer County and three of the four exterior walls were moved to the property of Fred Freschette and moved a few kilometres outside of Sylvan Lake.

RELOCATED The former fieldstone fireplace once located inside Varsity Hall was relocated to Terratima Lodge near Rocky Mountain House following the deconstruction of the former dance hall in 1979. Photo courtesy of Terratima Lodge

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