24 May 1939 Victoria Day on Yonge Street

As we continue to celebrate the Society’s 50th Anniversary, we are sharing articles from past issues of our membership magazine. In honour of Victoria Day, we look back to the May/June 1996 issue of Heritage on the Hill and this article by Harry Suter.

Dark clouds of war hung low over Europe that bright Spring of 1939. Young people felt threatened because they would be needed to staff the Armed Services. Stories from World War I (the Great War, it was still called) began to spike our conversation with its tales of carnage. High school students compared the life styles and uniforms of the Navy, Army and Air Force. The life expectancy in each branch was debated with some interest.

Richmond Hill’s telephone poles were plastered with the 24th of May Fair flyers. Games! Horses! Street Dance! Come to the Fair! Towns all over Southern Ontario held such Fairs. Richmond Hill was famous for it’s Street Dance, an annual rural institution. I had never attended the dance, only the hoopla in the fair grounds.

A short walk down Lorne (Avenue) brought you to the Arena where the gate was festooned with flashing lights. The chatter of the crowd and the carioca music carried out to Church Street where the echoing chants from the midway announcers, booming out of the loud speakers were overwhelming. You jangled the money in your pocket to decide just which booth you would try first.

There was the ubiquitous coconut throw where you got three baseballs for ten cents to throw at stacked wooden pins about twenty feet distant on a wooden table. It seemed a ridiculously large target for teenage soft ball players. In the end it usually cost at least fifty cents to win a ropy fifteen cent coconut.

There were ring throwing games where you must encircle a wooden block under a glamorous prize to win. The hoop was almost identical in size with the diagonal over the corners of the block making the game deceptively difficult.

There was a honey tongued barker coaxing each girl to buy a ticket to allow him to guess her weight within five pounds. If he failed she won a kewpie doll.

Brawny young fellows hammered at a lever which shot a heavy ball up a twenty foot track topped with a ball. He showed off bulging biceps to his girl while smacking the device mightily. When the bell rang, it was accompanied by an ecstatic shout of victory over the loud speaker from the attendant and the dramatic presentation of a giant panda toy to the competitor’s girl.

A redolent buttered popcorn aroma floated temptingly over the crowd and many a mother’s supper was thwarted by the frothy stickiness of pink cotton candy.

When your cash was getting low or you had won a giant teddy bear for your princess, you would sit on the grass and watch the horses. The late afternoon hours could be spent quietly watching earnest young aristocrats urge giant horses over loose railed hurdles.

The sharp ammonia aroma of the horses and the flying clods from their hooves were a relaxing end to an exciting day at the fair. After supper the serious gamblers took a whirl at the roulette wheels. The currency at the wheel was cigarettes but one could sell the prizes back to the croupier for the retail price, twenty five cents a package of twenty five.

After dark, near eight o’clock, the glamour of gambling wore thin except for some fanatic gamblers. The remainder of the young adults began to drift up towards the band stand on Yonge Street for the street dance.

This was the first year that dancing had caught my fancy. Up until now, girls had been shadows in the water. They could be seen, but were difficult to get your hands on.

One could expect country western music, square dances and the like at a pre-war street dance. They were obviously lively and fun, but never the less old fashioned, the diversion of the previous generation. My age class had their own thing.

Things got off to a roaring start at eight o’clock with a Virginia Reel and a high stepping Dip for the Oyster, Dive for the Clam square dance. The radial track scarred pavement of Yonge Street was powdered and yet shiny under the harsh glare of street lights.

The orchestra was ensconced on a 20 foot square wooden platform thrown up in the middle of the street at Yonge’s north end near Crosby. The fiddle bows screeched. The dos-i-dos and allemande lefts were exciting and lively, setting a fast pace for the country dancers.

As time crept on the young adult crowd called for some jive. Many of us had never heard the term.

A group of teenagers from Lawrence Park Collegiate in the north end of Toronto called for the orchestra to play Jazz. The band responded with gusto.

In the last hour before midnight they showed us the new craze which was sweeping the country. It had started in New York’s Harlem about 1935.

I saw Roy Holmes and his girl Ruth Kerswell watching but they were too dignified to be caught up in this type of melee. University students were of a different genre. Dave McGibbon was a bemused spectator. The farmers who lingered were as intrigued as I.

The pace speeded. Drums rumbled with vigour as In the Mood and Frenesee were pounded out. Clarinets and saxophones wailed.

Lanky teenage youths and gum chewing girls swarmed on to the street to swing at arm’s length and sway to the fast rhythm of this intoxicating new music. Heads were high and backs straight as these Bobby Soxers hopped to the new beat, swaying and weaving with the gait so smooth a glass of water would al¬most balance on their heads.

Much of the time these pagan prancers were not even in contact. They gyrated at about three feet from one another, meeting to pirouette, even turning away from partners to clap hands, wave, step out and return. Round young fannies gyrated like bobbing bumble bees.

The girls wore pony tail hair styles with fancy barrettes, and were mostly clad in calf length plaid skirts, tight at the hips and flaring just above the knees. They wore flat sole shoes and ankle length socks with tartan design at the top. They chewed gum almost in time with the music and bore a faraway look as they danced appearing almost hypnotized. The girls seemed to be focused on the music while the boys relaxed in loose gaited abandonment.

It was an intricate dance with many sequences. A girl I knew from Earl Haig Collegiate beckoned me to her with a grin over the side line ropes. I stumbled through a few bars before retiring in confusion when I found how complex the steps were. When I returned to the next street dance a full year later, I had still not mastered the jitterbug steps.

When I was on leave in London, I took some dance lessons which stood me in good stead in Belgium and Holland where the girls all seemed able to float like a cloud to a simple accordion solo.

I do not remember any 24th of May jamborees when I returned from service.

The dancers in Richmond Hill this night bobbed and weaved in syncopated lock step until 11:55 P.M. The band played Good Night Ladies and The King sharp at midnight.

The trolley was allowed to rumble past the barrier at the station up to the north terminal at Elgin when the crowd pitched in to dismantle the band stand. There were mighty few automobiles at that time of night.

Most of the dancers found their way into Fetch’s Trolley Station Grill at Lorne (Avenue). I replenished my bottomless cave with a toasted western sandwich and hot cocoa.

When the last trolley rolled south, a happy crew of teenagers greeted it in good natured banter with Corsets, the conductor who stood stiff as a ram rod while piloting the radial rocket. He was usually good natured and put up with the hijinks of the school crowd with a grin and a shrug as we filed aboard.

The radial swerved sharply from the centre of Yonge when it reached Major Mac (Markham Road). Then it hurtled in heart throbbing haste down the hill, travelling on the east side of No. 11. The first stop was May Ave.

When I alighted at stop 20, there were still as many riders going further south, as far as Toronto. They were happily dos-i-doing in the drivers cubicle at the rear end of the radial car while the conductor just shook his head and grinned.

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