The Palais Royale is located at 1601 Lake Shore Blvd W (on the south side, at the foot of the Roncesvalles Pedestrian Bridge) in the Sunnyside neighbourhood of Toronto.
Part of the Sunnyside Amusement Complex
Built in 1921/22, the structure was designed by architects Chapman, Oxley & Bishop. It was initially home to Deans’ Sunnyside Pleasure Boats and the Palais Royale. The boat works and showroom was located on the bottom story and front strip of the ground floor, while The Palais dining room and dancing hall were at the back of the ground floor. On opening day afternoon at Palais Royale, dances were 10¢ followed by a $1.00 evening supper dance.
When the boat company went out of business in the late 1920s, The Palais dining and dance hall took over the entire building. It went through a few operators, including Luigi and Leo Romanelli and a hotelier named Louis Epstein, who tried operating it as an elegant nightclub called The Riviera. Then in 1930, it became Hicks’ Grill. Still offering dining and dancing, it was run by Hamilton restauranteur Earl Hicks. In 1932, the Palais Royale closed and was boarded up.
The Big Band Era
That same year, businessmen Bill Cuthbert and George Deller, who ran concessions in Sunnyside Amusement Park, decided to try their hand at operating the dance hall. Palais Royale opened to the public with Harry Bedlington and his Whispering Orchestra. Admission was 25¢, and it was 10¢ a dance.
The expected crowds weren’t coming though. Joe Broderick, a booking agent, told the men that the prices were too high and made them an offer. If he, Mr Broderick, could call the shots, he would supply the band. They all agreed, and that’s where some of Toronto’s music history begins.
Mr Broderick lowered prices to 10¢ admission and 5¢ a dance and brought in a band he managed, Bert Niosi and his Orchestra. The crowds started coming.
In 1933, internationally famous swing and jazz bands started playing at The Palais, starting with Eddy Duchin and his Central Park Orchestra. Other musicians included Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, the Dorsey Brothers, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Lunceford (the biggest crowd-pleaser) and many more.
While the big names usually played during the week, the weekend crowds wanted the music of Bert Niosi. Canada’s King of Swing, Bert and his band played at the historic dance hall for 18 years and also between intermission of the international bands.
At the height of the venue’s popularity in the ’30s and ’40s, The Palais was open six nights a week (closed on Sunday). The well-behaved crowds were so big that police had to clear dancers off the bandstand. Any trouble and you were out. Popular dances of the era included the Lindy Hop, the Big Apple and the Jitterbug.
The Palais Royale was once described as “the Emerald City at the end of the yellow brick road which wound through an Oz-like amusement park called Sunnyside” and, “until you’ve been to The Palais, you hadn’t fully lived.”
When Mr Cuthbert and Mr Deller passed away during the 1940s, Joe Broderick took things over in 1949. World War II was over, and many people stayed home to watch a new form of entertainment, the TV. Toronto’s nightlife had also shifted to downtown with the opening of cocktail lounges like Le Coq d’Or and the Colonial Tavern. The music of the big bands was fading, and so was the Palais Royale, now open 3 to 4 nights a week.
The closing of Sunnyside Amusement Park in 1951 wasn’t the most significant blow of all to the dance hall. It was the construction of the Gardiner Expressway. Ladies often brought two pairs of shoes, one for dancing and another for wading through the mud to get to and from The Palais.
Throughout many of the years, liquor was not served at the Palais Royale however, it wasn’t like it couldn’t be found either. Still operated by Joe Broderick, by the mid-1960s, there was dancing on Friday and Saturday nights that brought in about 1,200 people. A couple could go dancing and have some refreshments and sandwiches for $5. Banquet permits were also now available for liquor service.
Through the Decades
In 1966, the building was sold to the Polish National Union for $125,000. The City entered into an agreement with Palais Royale Ballroom Ltd to lease the land where the hall resides. Dances were still held on Friday and Saturday nights, usually polkas, two-steps and tangoes. In the decades to come, the once glittering palace fell into disrepair.
Just before New Year’s Eve in 1999, a fire broke out. While the historic structure wasn’t destroyed, there was over $250,000 in damage.
After a years-long ownership dispute with the City of Toronto, the lease expired in early 2000, and the City obtained clear title to the building.
That same year, the City entered into a new lease with Shoreline Entertainment Corporation. In it, they would relieve the City of $2 million in expenses for the restoration and rehabilitation of the building. Bands like Blue Rodeo and Echo and the Bunnymen played The Palais. In 2002, when word got out that The Rolling Stones were performing a surprise gig there, fans started lining up the night before. They played to approximately 1,500 people, and admission was $10.
The Palais Royale Today
In 2005, the lease was transferred to the Pegasus Group and that year, the lakeside venue underwent a $3.5 million revitalization. They hired GBCA Architects, who had recently completed restoration work on the C.P.R. North Toronto Station, to assist with the heritage restoration process.
The famous ballroom features Art Deco furnishings, a new dance floor (the original floor was too damaged) and a stage. Outdoors, there’s a 4,000 sq ft two-tier deck overlooking Lake Ontario. The building’s original columns, cornices, stone fireplace and incredible barrel-vaulted ceiling were restored. A 125-spot parking lot was added to the centre median between the east and westbound lanes of Lake Shore Blvd W, directly across the street.
The beautiful Palais Royal Ballroom reopened in 2006. The state-of-the-art venue hosts weddings, cocktail receptions, corporate events, parties, and for nostalgia’s sake, their own dinner and big band dances.
Did You Know?
- While the Palais Royale opened to the public on July 1, 1922, it was formally opened by the Toronto Board of Trade on June 27, 1922.
- Palais Royale is one of two remaining original buildings from the Sunnyside Amusement complex, the other being Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion.
- In 1974, the structure received heritage status from the City. Ten years later, Ontario Heritage Trust also deemed the building heritage based on historical and architectural grounds. The Palais Royale has a hipped roof entry pavilion with flanking symmetrical wings and a stucco and clapboard exterior.
Palais Royale Photos
- City of Toronto Heritage Register: 1601 Lake Shore Blvd W
- Ontario Heritage Trust: 1601 Lake Shore Blvd W
- City of Toronto: Lease of the Palais Royale – Request for Proposals P-129-99.RFP (High Park), July 2000
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Jun 17, 1922, pg 14
- The Toronto Daily Star Newspaper Archives: Jun 30, 1922, pg 19
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Dec 31, 1931, pg 2
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: May 4, 1932, pg 12
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jan 4, 1979, pg 14
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jul 16, 1987, pg A18
- Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Dec 31, 1999, pg A11
- Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Dec 28, 2000, pg A22
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Jul 29, 2003, pg A10
- Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Oct 23, 2003, pg G3
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 20, 2005, pg M4
- Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: May 21, 2006, pg C4
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 28, 2006, pg A8
- Palais Royal Ballroom
- Photos: Denise Marie for TorontoJourney416
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives & Toronto Public Library