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Historicist: The Poor Man’s Riviera

Every Saturday morning, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Photo of Sunnyside Beach in 1924 from Wikimedia Commons.
When Sunnyside Amusement Park officially opened on June 28, 1922, it was grandly proclaimed to be ushering in a new era for the city. Addressing a crowd of thousands, R. Home Smith, chairman of the Toronto Harbour Commission, said that “Toronto is upon the eve of the greatest development in its history. I am quite sure if we try to rise to it we will be in reality—what is only now in promise—a truly great city.” That the amusement park, located on the lakeshore below the King, Queen, and Roncesvalles intersection, was publicly-owned meant anyone who could afford the transit fare was welcome, irrespective of class or ethnic origin. Cheap enough for the working class, many of the attractions were also respectable enough to appeal to the middle class. Likewise, while the populist entertainments were family-oriented, they also presented a rare public venue for romantic courtship. Until the park’s demolition in the mid-1950s, the midway, boardwalk, and beach at Sunnyside were a meeting ground for Torontonians from all walks of life, where the city’s social mores were both reinforced and challenged.

There’d been earlier amusement parks in Toronto, including Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island (which thrived from the 1880s to the late 1920s) and Scarborough Beach (which was operated by the Toronto Railway Company between 1907 and 1925 as a surefire way of boosting non-commuter traffic on its east end transit routes). The Toronto Harbour Commission’s development of Sunnyside Park in 1922 contributed to the demise of both. As part of a broader redevelopment of the commercial waterfront, the Harbour Commission planned a recreational ground on reclaimed land between Bathurst Street and the Humber River. A two-mile long boardwalk was added on the south side of Lakeshore Boulevard. The Bathing Pavilion was constructed in 1922, and a huge outdoor pool added a couple years afterwards. Upon receiving dozens of requests from budding entrepreneurs, the Harbour Commission approved some rides, games, and concessions, and it wasn’t long before Sunnyside Beach became known as “the playground by the lake.”
The midway’s concessions filled the air with the aroma of hot dogs, fried onions, and French fries. In between winning prizes at the shooting gallery, guess-your-weight stands, and other games of skill, kids begged their parents for cotton candy, or Downyflake doughnuts. But the main attractions for parents and kids alike were the rides. In addition to a couple carousels, more thrilling rides included the Aero Swing, the Whip, Dodgem, Gadabout, Lover’s Express, and the House of Fun. Most popular was the park’s rollercoaster, the Sunnyside Flyer. Advertised as having the “dippiest-dips on the continent” according to Mike Filey’s I Remember Sunnyside, the coaster was redesigned to be higher, steeper, and faster in 1933.
Aside from the family-friendly excitement of these rides, they provided an extra thrill for young adults. Fearful anticipation of the rapid descent, twists, and turns compelled sweethearts to eagerly grasp each other for security. As such, the Flyer offered a rare moment of intimacy for unattached young adults in a staid, moralistic city that even strongly regulated bathing suit fashions. At poolside and on the beach, men could strut like peacocks, but if they dared swim shirtless, they risked arrest. Women’s swimsuit fashions, too, reflected society’s prudishness. Knee-length singlets made of wool flannel couldn’t have been very comfortable, but even in the 1950s a skirt-less swimsuit would’ve been indecent. Even Sunnyside’s annual Miss Toronto pageant was considered a scandalous display of femininity by the city’s prudes.
2008_06_07Sunnyside4a.jpgAs the sun went down, Sunnyside became “the city of lights.” Young Torontonians emptied the beaches to hit the strip’s popular night clubs: the Pavilion (later known as Club Esquire, and the Top Hat); the Sea Breeze outdoor dance floor; and the still-posh Palais Royale. There they danced to house bands like the Jack Evans Orchestra, and “Canada’s King of Swing” Bert Niosi, or the continent’s leading jazz bands like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Artie Shaw. With so many young Torontonians of both sexes freely mingling on the dance floor, the friendly encounters could be misconstrued. As historian Mary L. Adams notes, single women who frequented Sunnyside’s nightclubs and other unsupervised places of amusement could have their reputations called into question by finger-wagging moral reformers bent on “protecting” them. The clubs did what they could to retain an aura of propriety by placing restrictions on amorous dancers. One posted a sign proclaiming: “No Jitterbugging or Fancy Dancing Allowed.” Nevertheless, the strip remained the place to be seen well into the Second World War.
Sunnyside offered a wide variety of diversions to attract the broadest possible audience. Some, like symphony performances, military bands, and the annual Easter Parade, were obviously intended to draw the respectable middle class, and to be socially uplifting for the working class. Others, however, appealed to the sillier elements of populism: Tiny Tim, the dancing bear, made an appearance in 1923; female impersonators contested for a crown in 1927; Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flag-pole for days in 1931; and there was a dishwashing contest in 1934. At other times, there were escape artists, mind readers, fortune tellers, performing seals, amateur wrestlers, and parachutists. During one heat wave, the strip was turned into a giant seaside slumber party. Such attractions didn’t require refinement—or even English proficiency—to enjoy, and drew a cross-section of Torontonians. With time, however, the growing allure of automobile-accessible holiday destinations like the Kawarthas and Muskoka chipped away at attendance figures.
Cutting through the centre of the park, Lakeshore became a dangerous snarl of traffic for park-goers, and a nightmare for commuters. In 1948, the Planning Department recommended the construction of a cross-town expressway as a solution. That Sunnyside Amusement Park no longer fit the maturing city’s vision of itself is clear from the words of Metro Chair Frank Gardiner. He said: “We can’t have this honky-tonk at the main entrance to the city on both sides of the main expressway. It should be completely cleared away.” Eventually, after a series of fires in November 1955 hastened the destruction of the park, the site was totally cleared to make room for the Gardiner Expressway.
Several attractions lived on elsewhere. The Derby Racer carousel and others found a home at the CNE. Sunnyside’s original, hand-carved merry-go-round was sold to Walt Disney, who refurbished it as King Arthur’s Carousel for his new theme park. Its fate was symbolic of the decline of public (and therefore potentially seedy) amusement parks of the early 20th century, such as Sunnyside or Coney Island, in favour of a new generation of nostalgic and sanitized theme parks. On Toronto’s lakefront today, only the Bathing Pavilion, pool, and the Palais Royale remain as lonely remnants of past glories.
Aerial view postcard and postcard of the rides from Chuckman’s Other Collection (Toronto Postcards) Volume 2. Photo of the rides in 1923 and postcard of the boardwalk in 1931 from Wikimedia Commons.

This article originally noted that “Metro Chair Frank Gardiner….said: ‘We can’t have this honky-tonk at the main entrance to the city on both sides of the main expressway. It should be completely cleared away.’” The man quoted is Frederick Gardiner, not Frank. The quotation was falsely attributed to “Metro Chair Frank Gardiner” in Mary Louise Adams’s Almost anything can happen: A search for sexual discourse in the urban spaces of 1940s Toronto, which was used for research for this article (and cited above). The error in her article was not caught for ours. Torontoist apologizes for the mistake.


  • Svend

    Good history, it must have been a great park at one time.
    One small note, it should be Fred Gardiner.

  • ghanima

    Note the tragic irony in having such a lively and eclectic social hub destroyed as an eyesore, to be replaced by the Gardiner.

  • Adam Sobolak

    Don’t forget the age of television as another thing that blunted the allure of attractions like Sunnyside–in a way, their fate was akin to the fate of big record stores a la Sam’s today…

  • Kevin Plummer

    You’re right, Svend. I took the quote from the Mary L. Adams article linked to earlier in the post. She attributes it to “Metro Chair Frank Gardiner.” But the quote should, of course, be attributed to Frederick Gardiner. Thanks for spotting it.

  • David Topping

    Indeed, I’ve appended a correction to the post noting what Kevin just did. (And apologies for the delay; I’ve been out all day.)

  • TokyoTuds

    Always an excellent feature! I would love to have seen it in its hey-day.

  • Vikkie

    This is amazing. I love this column!

  • ambrose

    really interesting!

  • chantelle

    This is where my partner and I met. We are both history academics and I had no idea! So appropriate! Thanks!!

  • David Toronto

    . . .”the age of television as another thing that blunted the allure of attractions like Sunnyside–in a way,” . . . .
    I also noticed that when more families got TV sets, they stopped sitting out on the front verandah and having conversations with passersby. Verandahs were not for sitting on anymore come the mid-60s.
    Television also affected evening church attendance. A history of the Diocese of Toronto (Anglican) mentions it as the “Ed Sullivan factor”. By the mid-60s it was hard to find any churches having a Sunday evening service.