In 1926, Port Stanley opened up what would become the largest and most famous dance hall in Ontario at the time, measuring 13,000-square-feet. The club was originally named the L&PS Pavillion, but renamed the Stork Club in the early 1950s. It was located at the other end of the boardwalk from Hopkin's Casino and built partially out over the water on pilings. The Stork Club opened its doors to the public on July 29th, 1926, with over 6,500 people in attendance to dance to The Vincent Lopez Band.
Being known as the “Coney Island of Canada,” Port Stanley’s beach offered several dance clubs, a Ferris Wheel, two carousels, a bowling alley, two theaters, restaurants, a swimming area with water slides, a penny arcade, miniature golf, and numerous games and refreshment stands along the stretch of boardwalk that led right to the Stork Club, where almost everyone would end up each night. The Stork Club was the place to be on hot summer evenings as the building’s large windows overlooking Lake Erie were usually open to let in the cool breeze. The focus in the creation of the Stork Club was to create exciting night life as a compliment to the sun, sand, and water activities that were popular at the time.
The Stork Club was famous for swing dance and attracted some of the biggest bands in North America at the time including; Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and, the last group to ever play at the Stork Club, Day Break. The band most closely associated with the Stork Club, however, was the Johnny Downs Orchestra, the house band through most of the 1950s. In an interview 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.”
The main swing and jazz bands of that era circled the great lakes in both the USA and Canada, particularly revolving around Lake Erie each summer attracting large crowds of people to their music.
Along with the big bands, came the big crowds. Port Stanley drew thousands of tourists each year from 1926-1979 to hear these Big Band stars. The largest crowd ever was 7000-plus on September 6th, 1950 for Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians
Admission in the Stork Club 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. However, signs were posted before each dance indicating what type of music it would be. Thus waltz fans, or those who preferred other types, could decide if they wanted to enter the floor or not.
The dance hall was completely refurbished over the 1973-74 winter only to have the last event a few years later; a performance by Day Break on New Year’s Eve 1978/79. Twelve days later, the famous Stork Club was set ablaze from a dumpster fire, damaging the building too heavily to save it, and the dance hall was never reconstructed. Not long after the fire, Johnny Downs and some of his friends stood on the charred stage and played a few numbers as a symbolic farewell to the Stork Club.
A group of Port Stanley residents who were regulars at the Stork Club wanted to help preserve the memory of the Stork Club. The group’s efforts resulted in the creation of a museum - the Stork Club Music and Memories Interpretive Centre was in downtown Port Stanley and housed a life size mural of the Johnny Downs Orchestra performing at the Stork Club, a white grand piano - believed to have once belonged to Guy Lombardo, and other big band memorabilia.
The Stork Club was a space to dance like nobody's watching and find your first love, including Johnny Downs, who met his wife on the boardwalk of the Stork Club. Unfortunately now all we can do is reminisce on the pictures and memories made at the Stork Club, and enjoy the fun times that were spent there.
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It is not down in any map; true places never are.