The following feature appeared in Peace Arch News’ Indulge magazine, published March 26.
As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on into a second year on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, it’s sometimes hard to imagine that anyone went through anything like this before.
But, as we know, the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918 killed about 50 million people worldwide – and it hit after some four years of the Great War had already killed millions and caused untold suffering, anxiety and separation.
When life finally began to return to normal around 1919-1920 there was a huge appetite for novelty, social events and entertainment of all kinds – in short, anything people could do to celebrate a return to normality and separate themselves from the humdrum and bitter memories of the preceding decade.
The ’20s were ready to roar – and the citizens of the Semiahmoo Peninsula, and the focal community of White Rock, were just as primed as anyone else to join the party.
While the area was still emerging from the pioneer era, as chronicled in Lorraine Ellenwood’s Years of Promise: White Rock (1858-1958), it quickly became a lively hub of entertainment for the surrounding region that might surprise many who only know its sleepier side today.
Part of this was due to the rapid development of technology. The train had already helped build White Rock as a summer and weekend resort before the war, and now the automobile was also becoming commonplace as more and more people were able to afford their own ‘Flivver’. And a lot of those choosing White Rock as a destination were heading north, either by car or train, from the U.S.
America’s disastrous – and poorly timed – experiment with Prohibition started on Jan. 17, 1920. It was yet another reason for thirsty Washington residents to cross the border, where – while B.C. was still in the throes of its own Prohibition Act of 1917, not officially repealed until 1921 – the law was much more loosely enforced and had many grey areas that enterprising business owners were happy to exploit to the maximum.
Foremost among these locally was A.E. Balmer, who already offered a more picturesque oceanside alternative to the wild and woolly environs of the St. Leonard Hotel, at the border, with his East Beach establishment, known as the Boathouse or ‘Balmer’s Beach’ .
In 1919 he built his adjacent Dew Drop Inn, a combined dance hall, cafe and hotel – and co-incidentally a centre of the bootlegging trade – and by the late summer it was already packing in locals and visitors alike.
The British Columbian newspaper’s July 1 edition noted: “On Friday evening the opening dance at “Dew Drop Inn” will take place from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. with the Willison’s orchestra in attendance. Balmer and Buckland (evidently a partner) have made every arrangement for the comfort and pleasure of their patrons.”
‘Cinderella’ dances were also a feature of the White Rock Tourist Hotel every Saturday night during that era.
Live music was a major attraction for those seeking release from wartime and pandemic stress – and it had changed too, as the genteel syncopations of pre-war ragtime were supplanted by the raucous horns and danceable rhythms of early jazz and blues.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and the smoother, more sophisticated sounds of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra had scored million-selling records that became staples of parlour Victrolas for the younger generation, and, thanks to the enterprise of a robust music publishing industry, transcribed arrangements capturing the style and verve of the new music were readily available to local ensembles across North America.
Willison’s orchestra – details of which are lost to time – seemed to be serving up most of the big hits locally in that post-pandemic season. Thanksgiving Day it played the formal opening of The Auditorium, a dancing and sports events venue built by Edith (later known as Granny) Vidal on family property fronting Washington Avenue (now Marine Drive), conveniently across from the Great Northern Station (now the White Rock Museum and Archives).
The success of that venture – which also included food service from the Central Hotel – can be seen in reports later that month that the GN station in Blaine was so crowded with young people heading for The Auditorium’s Halloween dance that the train was an hour late arriving in White Rock.
Although The Auditorium was up for sale by 1921, it continued to be a thriving enterprise, with one August dance that year drawing some 300 revellers.
Even under new management it continued to present twice-weekly dances, many of them featuring another popular local group, the Andy Westland Orchestra, until the barnlike structure burned down in the fire that swept businesses on the waterfront in January of 1927.
The other great White Rock dance mecca of the 1920s was Burnie Feedham’s fabled Blue Moon, which first opened as a rooftop venue above the stores at Martin Street and Washington in 1926.
When the block was redeveloped in 1927, Feedham leased another Washington Avenue property to the east of Martin Street, constructing the Blue Moon Dance Pavilion – set in a five-acre plot that also boasted an auto camp and sandwich shop, and which could accommodate as many as 400 dancing couples.
That era also ended by fire – in this case a blaze that consumed the building in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 1931. But it was far from the end for the Blue Moon, which continued through the 1930s in a new building built for the entrepreneur, the Feedham Block (transformed during the Second World War into the Cloninger Hotel – now the Ocean Beach).
One other development also changed the face of the White Rock and South Surrey entertainment scene – the arrival of the area’s first movie theatre (an attempt by the White Rock Amusement Company to establish a bathing house and movie theatre, next to the pier, had foundered in 1919 after one of the principals died in an accident).
Just as music had changed, so had the movies, which had progressed from the one-reel novelties of the nickelodeon era of the early 1900s – a kind of counterpart of YouTube videos today – to the full-length features of such powerhouse producer-directors as D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Cecil B. DeMille, by 1915.
In 1922 the golden era of Hollywood was well underway. Features such as Douglas Fairbanks’ super-production Robin Hood, Rudolph Valentino’s steamy starring vehicle Blood and Sand, Paramount Pictures’ historic spectacle When Knighthood Was In Flower starring Marion Davies, and bespectacled comedian Harold Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy represented not only a pinnacle of artistic achievement for the silent screen, but were also the year’s highest-grossing box office hits.
It’s likely that Semiahmoo Peninsula residents of all ages sat transfixed by all of them – as that was the year that The Pavilion Theatre opened on Washington Avenue.
Another venture of the enterprising Edith Vidal, it was built just to the east of The Auditorium, and, like it, was originally designed for a variety of different entertainments, including concerts, lectures, theatricals and even basketball games.
It’s clear that the public’s appetite for movies quickly superseded the other attractions, however. Managed by J.W. Rushton and staffed by local residents, The Pavilion offered residents and visitors a continual rotation of the latest Hollywood productions – and probably some British features exported to the Canadian market as well – until it, too, succumbed to the blaze that destroyed The Auditorium in January of 1927.
If fire seemed to be a continual threat to the Peninsula’s entertainment scene in those days, the hardy White Rock business community seemed more than willing to re-launch winning ventures, Phoenix-like, out of the ashes.
Within months of the fire that claimed The Pavilion, the White Rock Theatre was born in virtually the same location, finishing out the 1920s with a program of two features each night.
But the seasonal nature of White Rock business was a factor even then. Even though it had access to the best that Hollywood had to offer, the White Rock Theatre provided only a summer season, from July 1 to September 1, and that policy remained in place throughout the 1930s, even after Tom Shiels took over the theatre in 1934 and upgraded it with the latest sound and projection equipment.