Dance Hall Days

The Stork Club may be history, but the love affair with the iconic beachside attraction in Ontario endures.
Dance Hall
Photo: Courtesy of the Stork Club

Even today, decades since she spent her summers at the Stork Club, Isobel Spencer only has to hear a few bars from a Guy Lombardo song to have the past snap into focus.

Spencer was just a baby when the Stork Club, then known as the London and Port Stanley Dance Pavilion, opened on July 29, 1926, with more than 6,500 people in attendance. But by 16, she was a regular fixture on the scene.

“If it was open,” she says, “I was there.”

She and her gal pals would get gussied up and head over to Main Beach, which was the place to go on most balmy summer evenings. Sometimes called the “Coney Island of Canada,” Port Stanley’s beach offered miniature golf, a swimming pool, concessions, carnival rides and much more along the stretch of boardwalk that led right to the pavilion, where most everyone would end up.

“All the girls went together, and never with a date,” says Spencer. “We would just wait to see what happened.”

Admission was 15 cents — except on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which were free for the ladies. The cover charge got them as far as the promenade around the hall, where they could lean on the rail and listen to the bands play, but couples had to pay an additional 5 cents per song to dance.

After paying, dancers took a turn around the gargantuan 13,000-square-foot maple dance floor, lit by chandeliers and a spinning mirrored globe. The broad windows overlooking Lake Erie were usually open to let in the cool breeze.

“It was a beautiful dance hall,” says Spencer. “And I loved to jitterbug: this side, that side, underneath and over the shoulder. I did that! There was a section of the dance floor roped off just for doing the jitterbug.”

Even though World War II was in full swing, too, Spencer and her girlfriends had a steady stream of boys they could dance with, thanks to a Royal Canadian Air Force technical training school in nearby St. Thomas, Ontario.

“Every Friday, 125 young men came, and 125 went out,” she says. “I remember my dad asking me, ‘Are you trying to meet all the men coming through here?’ I said, ‘No, Dad, just the ones that aren’t married.’”

Many romances began in the dance halls that had sprung up in most Lake Erie communities, fueled by the growing love affair with music on the radio. Listening to big band music at home just wasn’t good enough; people wanted to get out and dance to live music.

Over the years, many famous musicians took the stage at the Stork Club, including Guy Lombardo, who had grown up in nearby London, Ontario, and gone on to international fame.

There were others too — Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong.

The band most closely associated with the Stork Club, however, was the Johnny Downs Orchestra, the house band through much of the 1950s.

In an interview before he died in 2003, Downs said: “I had always wanted to play Port Stanley because it had been Guy Lombardo’s hopping-off stop. We never found a better place than the Stork Club.”

Johnny’s wife, Dorothy, still lives in their Port Stanley house, on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. Their romance started back in 1942 on the boardwalk near the Stork Club. After they were married, Dorothy took over the job of booking gigs and arranging contracts. The couple also ran a popular restaurant and entertainment venue in London, Ontario, called the Latin Quarter.

The Stork Club, though, was always their first love.

Dorothy, along with a handful of other Port Stanley residents, helped create a nonprofit — the Stork Club Big Band Hall of Fame — to help preserve the memory of the Stork Club, which was destroyed by fire in 1979, following years of decline as rock ’n’ roll and nightclubs nudged dance halls out of favor. “It broke our heart when it came down,” Dorothy says.

The group’s efforts resulted in the creation of a museum — the Stork Club Music and Memories Interpretive Centre in downtown Port Stanley, which is open seven days a week during the summer. An almost life-size mural of the Johnny Downs Orchestra performing at the Stork Club greets visitors when they walk through the door, as does a white grand piano, believed to have once belonged to Guy Lombardo, who always brought two to his performances. The museum also houses other big band memorabilia and showcases the accounts of those who remember the glory days of the Stork Club with interactive audiovisual displays.

“I’m shocked by the number of people that contact us and tell us their stories,” says Cynthia O’Neill, who heads strategic planning for the museum, which hopes to expand in the future.

Isobel, the girl who loved to jitterbug with the servicemen passing through town, finally found one worth keeping — her future husband, Joe. “I swear to God, he had two left feet,” she says. Joe passed away in 1993, just shy of their 50th wedding anniversary. But he loved his wife, so he never stopped dancing.

“He got to be pretty good,” Isobel says. “But he never did the jitterbug.”

Get into the Swing of Things

The Stork Club Music and Memories Interpretive Centre is at 302 Bridge St. in Port Stanley, Ontario. Visit for more information about upcoming events, such as ballroom-dancing lessons and big band concerts.