A Historic Landmark
In order to explain the history of the Palais Royale, it is also necessary to detail the history of Sunnyside Amusement Park and the building’s relationship to its site. Due to the location of the Palais Royale, its history is inexorably tied to that of Sunnyside. The building’s original purpose as a boat house, followed by its success as a dance hall and eventual decline towards the end of the twentieth century, were all tied to the status of the park in which it was situated.
The stretch of shoreline between Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition site (formerly the Garrison Reserve) and the mouth of the Humber on Lake Ontario were named “Sunnyside” after a residence at the Humber mouth in the late 19th century. In 1888, the community of “Sunnyside” was annexed by the city. The length of shoreline was already a popular attraction with day trippers brought by the new sightseeing streetcars as part of Toronto’s Electric Rail system expansion in the late 1890’s. The construction of the Exhibition grounds to the east brought more tourists to the lakeshore, and by 1912, the Harbour Commission had announced plans to lie over 10,000 feet of boardwalk along the shoreline.
During the years of the First World War, progress was slow. After the end of the war in 1918, the success of New York’s Coney Island and the fairgrounds of the adjacent CNE, inspired the Toronto Harbour Commission, which owned the land, to take advantage of its now commercially valuable property. Plots all along the lakeshore were sold to prospective entertainment and refreshment businesses.
Around 1913, local boat builder Walter Dean saw the opportunity to occupy a prime lakeshore spot, and applied to the Harbour Commission for the plot of land at the eastern end of the boardwalk, now occupied by Palais Royale. He built the original structure as a boat yard, with direct access onto the lake for the sale of his famous “Sunnyside Torpedo Canoe”. By the early 1920’s, the plans for “Sunnyside Amusement Park” were taking shape and Walter Dean decided to move his operation into the basement of the building that was originally named Walter Dean’s Sunnyside Pleasure Boats.
Chapman, Oxley & Bishop, architects for Walter Dean’s Sunnyside Boats, drew on seaside pavilions and fairground architecture of the day, taking inspiration from New York’s Coney Island. These structures were largely timber based, simple to construct using local knowledge and materials and certainly not meant for longevity. Similar Edwardian Tea House and café structures already present along Toronto’s Waterfront also provided a starting point for the scale and finish of the structure.
The dual purpose of the building required that the architects’ provide lake access for the boat house at the lower level, and, at the entry level, dance hall facilities visible from the boardwalk, while still promoting the boat business hidden below. Their solution was to design two showrooms, with full height steel frame windows, flanking either side of the entrance doors to the dance hall. The dance hall meanwhile had a projecting balcony with views of the lake above the boat house doors, and terraces either side with views of the lake.
The exterior was stuccoed with large windows and doors punctuating all sides of the structure to flood the interior with natural light. The barrel vaulted roof also allowed light in through the clerestory windows to the north and south, and the decorative timber paneling and fireplace gave warmth to the structure in the evenings.
To coincide with the opening of Sunnyside Amusement Park in 1922, the upper floor was taken over by “Palais Royale Limited” and converted for use as a dance hall. Upon Dean’s retirement, Palais Royale Limited also took over the basement, and the venue was converted into a fully-fledged dance hall, music venue and restaurant. During the 1920’s, the Palais gained in popularity as the new “swing jazz” and “flapper” style of dancing became fashionable. In response, the Toronto Star began regular radio broadcasts from the dances and events held at the Palais Royale.
By the 1930’s, the Palais had made its mark on the nightlife of the city, with no sign of business slowing even during the depression. In 1932 the partnership of Bill Cuthbert and George Deller took on the Palais, with the intention of establishing a world-class swing jazz venue on Toronto’s waterfront. The pair brought in the most popular artists of the day, and the Palais Royale regularly filled its 1000 capacity 6 nights a week, with a crowd of 3000 turning out in 1933 for ‘Eddie Duchin’s Park Central Orchestra’ from New York. The city also continued to invest in Sunnyside and in 1934 a new boardwalk was opened, improving access to the string of lakeshore amusements and dance halls.
Sunnyside continued in its popularity, with free bathing cars bringing scores of children to the lake during the war years. By the 1940’s the Palais Royale Dance Hall was operating at capacity all year round, with the introduction of the ‘Terrace Royale’ for dancing with a view of the lake in the warmer months. At the height of the Big Band Swing era, Cuthbert and Deller were attracting top name headlining acts such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glen Miller to the Palais.
After the end of the war, restrictions levied on the use of motor cars were lifted. As out of town travel became easier, cheaper and more popular, the number of free bathing cars was dramatically reduced and the decline of Sunnyside began. Cuthbert and Deller sold the lease of the Palais Royale to Joe Broderick in 1949, marking the departure of the popular and well respected house band under the baton of Bert Niosi.
Broderick ran the Palais as a profitable business until the mid 1950’s, when the newly formed ‘Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto’ announced its plans to construct Lakeshore Boulevard, which would rip through Sunnyside and fundamentally disconnect the lakeshore from the city. Vandalism, neglect and a number of fires further damaged Sunnyside’s hopes for a reprise and the park was eventually cleared in February of 1956. Despite local objections, the only buildings to survive were the Sunnyside Bathing pavilion and Palais Royale, partly on their architectural and historic merit, but largely because they were not in the path of the proposed highway.
Perhaps reticent about the relegation of Sunnyside to the status of a traffic island, the city invested $250,000.00 in the construction of a pedestrian bridge from the lakeshore to lower Parkdale. Without the context of the Sunnyside Amusement Park to bring in new business to the area, attendance at the Palais dropped dramatically, and by the mid 1960’s, Joe Broderick passed on the lease to the privately run Polish National Union without much objection. The Toronto Harbour Commission had moved its interests to the central waterfront and sold the whole of western beaches of the former Sunnyside Amusement Park to the City of Toronto in 1964.
There was little interest in the Palais for the next decade, and only by way of preservation was the building listed as a Toronto Historic site in 1974. By the 1980’s, the idea of dancing at the Palais Royale had passed into the city’s folklore. There was renewed interest in the Palais after it was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1984 and a number of newspaper articles were published bemoaning its fate. The Polish National Union still held the lease, and although continuing to operate under the name ‘Palais Royale Ballroom Ltd.’, the building was for the sole use of the union, with few public events. Local residents became frustrated by the lack of access to what was now considered a valuable part of the city’s heritage, and there were concerns about the increasing state of disrepair of the building itself. The City of Toronto now felt under pressure to return the Palais to public use and put out a request for proposals aimed at new operators. The primary concern of the city was that the building should be restored and put back into public use as an entertainment facility.
The city regained control of the lease in 2000, and passed on the lease to Shoreline Entertainment under a twenty year term. Shoreline was obliged to fund the renovation of the Palais Royale and restore the building to public use as a ‘venue for ballroom dancing, as a site for banquets, weddings and other functions, or as an entertainment facility.”
In 2005 the Pegasus Hospitality Group has privately invested over $3,500,000.00 dollars to restore the Palais Royale. The doors were re-opened to hold the first event in June 2006 and for the past eight years, business has flourished.
The Palais Royale is once again open for private and public functions. Under the professional and experienced eye of her new operators, the Palais Royale Ballroom is now a world class facility, available for corporate, social and cultural functions. And of course the revival of music and dancing has once again grace her stage and dance floor and has paved the way for a new generation of memories, and a rekindling of old.