1934 was an outstanding year for many in Canada. The Depression was almost at an end. Across Ontario, there was an awareness of prosperity - not yet arrived, but on the way. In Europe the rumbling of war echoed with the rising of Mussolini and Hitler, but little of the impact was felt in Canada. It was the era of dancing - of the waltz, foxtrot, quickstep and tango: a time when across the nation and the neighbour to the south couples were dancing arm in arm to the music of dance bands playing the latest tunes.
In the States, many of these bands were reaching the zenith of their popularity: Benny Goodman, a quiet unassuming clarinet player from Chicago, had formed a dance band that included many of the great dance band musicians of the times. Goodman, with a drive and toe-tapping rhythm that took the youth of America by storm, was the first band leader to herald the birth of Swing. Not far behind him were the bands of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, of Ray Noble, Artie Shaw and, soon, the great Glen Miller.
Radio brought their music, not only across the length and breadth of the United States, but also to the young people of Canada and already dance bands, composed of leading Canadian musicians, were dancing to packed dance halls and hotels in Toronto, Montreal and cities across the nation. The echoes of that music sounded north across Ontario to arrive at the sleepy lakeside village of Grand Bend, nestling on the shores of some of the finest beaches of Lake Huron - immense wide stretches of white sand lapped by the waves of the lake only occasionally whipped into fury by wind, rain and snow.
Grand Bend, in 1934, was not ignorant of the dancing craze. For more than a decade, a small dancehall, the Lakesview Casino, had brought enthusiastic dancers from the surrounding towns and villages and, as far back as 1917, a quartet of musicians comprising a pianist and three brothers: Carmen, Lebert and Guy Lombardo had come to Grand Bend from their birthplace and homebase of London to play to a sparse gathering of youngsters.
In 1916, a London grocer named George Eccleston viewed the wide sandy beach at the Bend and had the foresight to realize that a thriving summer resort could be built where only a score of shacks and small houses stood.
Eccleston purchased a 45 acre tract of land fronting on the beach. His initial project was to build a platform that was a base for a large tent. This "dancing tent" opened for dancing on July 1, 1917 with the London Italian Orchestra (later to be known as Guy Lombardo & the Royal Canadians) performing. They received $10 for their efforts, some saying this being their first paying job. His tent dance pavilion did not last long before it succumbed to the gales that occasionally churned up the lake into a maelstrom. It was replaced by the more permanent Lakeview Casino in 1919.
Lakeview Casino was built to last, with George Eccleston pouring the concrete walls himself. After building the pavilion, George and his wife Ida opened a few small novelty shops and a bath house underneath the dance hall. After George died in 1931, Ida and their daughter Ella decided to run the business themselves. In 1937, when Ida decided she would have to sell the Casino, her daughter and son-in-law made the decision to buy the Casino and move to Grand Bend from Toronto to run it. This they did, successfully, for the next 30 years.
In the 1930's, black entertainers were welcomed. The Ecclestons hired McKinney's Chocolate Dandies and McKinney's Cotton Pickers, two all black bands. But Jews were banned. A prominent sign at the entrance to the casino's dance hall said "Gentiles Only".
Jimmy Namaro and his 12-piece orchestra were popular. Namaro would delight his audience by changing his tuxedo from black to white mid-way through the show.
Ella and Eric McIlroy worked long hours every summer, operating several businesses under the dance hall during the day and running dances at night.
During the winter of 1916, Mrs Eccleston and her sister-in-law made 96 bathing suits to be rented the next summer. These bathing suits consisted of stockings, bloomers, tops and hats and were made from sugar bags with turkey red cotton for trim. Those who arrived at the beach without appropriate attire could rent bathing suits at a modest charge. Men were not allowed to bare their chest in public; the two-piece suits were the fashion. The outfit for women covered the entire body, consisting of stockings worn with long pantaloons and an overskirt.
During the 1950s and 60s beach parties, beauty contests and hootenanys brought out enthusiastic crowds. Lakeview Casino was front and centre at these events. But the McIlroys were aware of the changes in musical tastes, and they decided to bring in rock and roll acts for the younger crowd. By 1966 they decided it was time to sell the Casino.
The Casino changed hands several times in the next few years, as business ventures fizzled. In 1981 the grand old lady of the Grand Bend beach, now a pinball arcade and fast food restaurant, was destroyed in an early fire. Then tragedy struck on July 1, 1981. Suspected arson was the cause of the building being completely destroyed, except for the concrete walls. The "grand old lady of the beach" was gone forever.