It was a warm summer’s evening along the lakeside. The year was 1936 and swing was king in the dance scene.
Tour boats drifted blissfully across the lake as the sun set quietly below the horizon. As the sun crept lower and lower, the lakeside community of Sylvan Lake was transformed. Model ‘T’ Ford trucks cruised and congregated up and down the strip before heading to Varsity Hall – a popular dance club founded in the late 1930’s.
Inside the dance hall multiple generations ranging from young children to their grand parents jived and jitter bugged among one another to the big band sounds of Sonny Fry & The Gentlemen of Music. Most prominent in the hall were the hoards of young people, particularly university aged students who flocked to the hall throughout the summer months.
JAZZ GALORE – Sonny Fry and his band were well known for their sensational swing tunes and often played at Varsity Hall in Sylvan Lake. This photo was taken inside Varsity Hall in 1946. Photo courtesy of Sylvan Lake Archives
With a low set dance floor requiring dancers to walk down a few steps to get onto the dance floor and a unique interior design which featured a large stone fire place – the establishment offered the perfect atmosphere for dancers from across North America to let their hair down and bust a move.
In the early 1930’s Sylvan Lake had three popular dance halls: Oriental Gardens, Alexander and Trianon. By the mid 30’s only Trianon stood. In 1933 the establishment was purchased by John K. Penley of Calgary and renamed ‘Varsity Hall’.
The name change was a play of the word ‘university’ and Penley hoped it would draw large crowds of young dancers. Together with his wife, Wahnita, Penley catapulted Varsity Hall into the spot light. The couple was well known in the international dance scene through their own accomplishments with Wahnita originally hailing from Bridgeport, Connecticut. In addition to owning Varsity Hall, the couple operated one of Calgary’s most popular dance schools – the Penley’s Dancing Academy.
Their successful central Calgarian business saw them teaching dance lessons by day and holding public dances by night. The dynamic duo also operated a dance pavilion in Chestermere Lakes. Their establishments were well known for having fraternities and sororities book exclusive Friday night dances during the school year.
Following 16 years of operating Varsity Hall, the Penley’s sold the establishment to Lee W. Ditzler in 1946. Originally a farmer from outside of Clive, Alberta. Ditzler saw success in Sylvan Lake through operating a cruise boat called, ‘Norell’, which provided a 60 to 90 minute lake cruise for approximately 35 people.
In 1947 the hall would once again change hands to fall into the laps of its seemingly final owners. Varsity Hall was purchased by three members of the Paul Perry Orchestra – Paul ‘Perry’ Guloien, Jim Guloien and Geoff Hall. The Paul Perry Orchestra performed at Varsity Hall from May to September each year until 1965. The band also toured each spring in central Alberta.
Officially, the records show the hall as being demolished in 1979. However, one Sylvan Lake rural resident who was present on the day of the ‘demolition’ hopes to set the record straight.
Fred Freschette recalls it was a day much like any other when a friend drove up the lane way of his farm only a miles west of Sylvan Lake. The friend told Freschette how he had just come from town and witnessed steps being taken to begin on the deconstruction of Varsity Hall. Freschette hopped into his truck and rushed to town without a second thought.
Upon arriving at the lake side location, the young man found the contractor who had been paid to remove the building – which had become too costly to repair. Declining revenues for the dance hall had paid a hefty toll and Freschette remembers the ideology behind what the hall once was had become ‘obsolete’. The music scene had changed and the establishment was no longer making enough money.
The contractor explained to Freschette he was unsure of what to do with the building or the waste it would create if fully deconstructed. A bargain was soon struck. The building would become Freschette’s for the cost of $600. The contractor was being paid twice – once from the Guloien’s and now once from Freschette so he hoped to keep the deal on the down low. Quietly the building was taken down wall by wall. The pieces were placed on a trailer and brought to the Freschette farm where they were erected and still remain.
Freshette put down a concrete foundation for the building and raised three of the walls, leaving the fourth wall open to allow for farm machinery to easily drive in and out. He replaced the former wood roof and added a cost efficient tin roof to help preserve the structure.
NEW USE – The former dance hall now acts as a machinery shed for the Freschette farm near Sylvan Lake after being moved from the former lake side site. Jenna Swan/Sylvan Lake News
“To me, it’s a special building – every time I drive or walk in and out of it, I remember those days of dancing and being there with everyone,” said Freschette on why he purchased the building. A musician himself, Freschette couldn’t have imagined the building not being preserved.
Having grown up in Saskatchewan, Freschette moved to Sylvan Lake in 1944 – smack dab in the middle of Varsity Hall’s glory days.
“It really was a different time,” he recalled. “Most people didn’t even think about drinking like they do in places now. We were there for the music. If people wanted to drink they would go outside and sneak drinks in their cars or down by the lake.”
He recalled how diverse the hall often was adding you’d see people anywhere from ages five to 50 at the hall. He explained there was a large population during the summer of young Americans who often stayed for a week or more at a time.
VARSITY HALL HISTORY REMEMBERED – A former Sylvan Lake dance hall’s history is being remembered this month. Fred Freschette, who farms fivekilometres outside of Sylvan Lake moved Varsity Hall to his property in 1979. Jenna Swan/Sylvan Lake News
“Those American girls would get on the dance floor and do swing moves we didn’t even know were possible,” he recalled. “We would just dance. That’s all it was about. We didn’t need alcohol to have a good time.”
Freschette is proud of the history he has preserved and hopes to see a continued sense of historical preservation in Sylvan Lake. He added the original stone mantled fire place which one graced the interior of Varsity Hall is rumoured to have been purchased for a summer home in one of the western summer villages. He was unable to find out who had purchased the piece but hopes its in good hands.
HISTORIC MANTLE – Inside the infamous Varsity Hall was a note worthy stone fire place which is rumoured to still exist in a cabin in one of the summer villages. Photo courtesy of Sylvan Lake Archives