Brant Inn History
BRANT INN WAS PRIDE OF BURLINGTON
By Christine Stanton & Dennis Gibbons, The Post (September 1983)
The story really begins in 1900.
Burlingtonians were celebrating the turn-of-the-century Dominion Day with the opening of the Brant Hotel, located where Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital now stands, while over in Hamilton a man named John Murray Anderson was born.
These two incidents became enmeshed over the next 60 years in one of the more colorful and glamorous elements of Burlington history — the Brant Inn.
A.B. Coleman built the original Brant Hotel, along with an adjacent building which became known as the Country Club. While the hotel was in operation, the Country Club was used as a men’s club in conjunction with the hotel. Men gathered there to play billiards or to bowl. There were change facilities for people using the beach, as well as a boat rental operation.
Built in 1917, the federal government expropriated the hotel to turn it into a soldiers’ hospital. A.B. Coleman did some renovations on the Country Club and re-opened under the name of the Brant Inn.
Brant Coleman, son of A.B. still lives in Burlington and says no one ever called his father anything but A.B. He says A.B. didn’t really want to operate the Inn himself so usually rented it to operators for a dining and dancing facility. But none of the renters ever ran the Inn with the success of later owners Anderson, and his partner, accountant Cliff Kendall.
Brant remembers the fire in the summer of 1925 that burned the original Brant Inn to the ground.
“At that time the trains on the railroad there were coal burners,” he says. “There’s a two per cent grade up that hill and they used to stock up. They’d be snorting away pretty good and belching. There was a south wind blowing and they figure that’s how it got started because it started on the roof.”
Brant was a teenager at the time and remembers people fighting the fire with garden hoses, but nothing would put it out.
A.B. reconstructed over the following winter and the ensuing brick building was the building purchased by Anderson and Kendall.
Anderson, Kendall and Cec Roberts, a Hamilton restaurateur, rented the Inn from A.B. Coleman in the early ’30s. Roberts left the operation in the late ’30s while Anderson and Kendall stayed with it to purchase the Inn in 1939 when A.B. died. They remained partners until 1954 when Kendall sold out his part of the business to Anderson.
The Brant Inn’s heyday was during the ’40s and ’50s when its name became synonymous with glamor and elegance and big-name performers. And it was Anderson, with his flair for show business and his way with words, who made the Brant Inn go.
“Murray was a real showman. He wanted to spend money to make money,” recalls Bert Niosi, whose orchestra palyed at the Inn during the ’40s and ’50s. “Cliff was the accountant to keep things in line.”
Harry Parker, manager of the Inn from 1954 to 1960, says Anderson always wanted to be an actor and got as close to show business as he could by bringing the big stars to Burlington. He would vacate his penthouse suite at the Inn to provide accommodations for big stars like Sophie Tucker.
And Anderson had his little idiosyncracies. “We had this jazz tune called the One O’Clock Jump. Murray said it was too loud, he would only allow it to be played in the mutes,” Niosi remembers. “But later he got to like it.”
Gav Morton, who directed the Inn’s residetn band from 1951 to 1961, says that as an entrepreneur Anderson had no equal in the area, but “could be a tough son-of-a-gun to deal with.”
Morton’s last performance at the Inn,for example, was in July 1961 after Anderson received a bill from his band for overtime rehearsal playing for Andy Williams.
Still, Anderson is credited with being the first to bring big bands and floor shows into Canada and specifically with getting the popular Sky Club, which extended out over Lake Ontario, built at the Inn.
“Others claimed they were the first, but it was Murray,” says Roy Wilson, former manager of the Inn and now manager of special special projects for Canada for Canada Dry in Downsview. “Murray’s only problem was he didn’t change with the times. Dancing went out and he went out with it.”
Wilson says Anderson convinced A.B. Coleman to build the Sky Club, an outdoor dancing terrace which seated 1,700, borrowing an idea form a club in Cuba.
“There weren’t many clubs in the world that could touch us,” claims Wilson. “The only place that could was Cuba. That’s where they got the idea of the revolving stage in the Sky Club.”
The Brant Inn was so popular that patrons paid as much as $20 a person to dance to Eddie Duchin’s music before the Second World War. Later, when Frankie Laine made his first appearance there, newspaper ads promoting the performance created such a response that they had to be cancelled.
While the Inn was the pride and joy of Burlington, most of its clientele came from Toronto, with small percentages from Hamilton, the Golden Triangle (Guelph-Kitchener-Galt) area and upper New York state. And they used every means of transportation.
Wilson remembers sororities from the University of Toronto and Queen’s coming to the Inn by train for parties. Passengers could detrain literally at the front door of the Inn, on the siding which still crosses Lakeshore Rd. near the Beach Strip intersection. Others came by boat from Toronto, Oakville, and Hamilton either to dock at the Inn and go dancing or just anchor out in the lake to listen to the music.
Eavesdropping and knotholing were popular with Burlingtonians who either couldn’t get tickets or couldn’t afford to frequent the Inn. A July 1938 edition of the inhouse publication — The Brant Inn News — reports on a visit of Benny Goodman.
“Traffic jammed for miles about the Inn and,true to Goodman tradition, all available provincial police were needed to handle the crowds,” the report reads. “Eager souls lined the railway tracks, sought vantage spots on roofs, trees or literally anywhere high enough for a bird’s-eye-view.”
Stars came to Burlington by the dozens. The Inn was the first to have Xavier Cugat and Abbe Lane and their entourage of 28 performj. There was Sophie Tucker, Victor Borge, Lena Horne, Louis “Satchmo” armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Liberace.
And the big American bands came through — Goodman, Les Brown and his band of renown, and Stan Kenton, who poacked 1,600 people in to the place. “Most of the people at the Kenton performance wanted to listen to the music rather than dance,” Parker recalls.
The Inn helped make many Canadian musicians famous. It was during Niosi’s time in Burlington that he was dubbed “Canada’s King of Swing”. Later, Bert did several jobs for CBC Rradio and television, including conducting the Canada Hit Parade on both radio and TV and working 7 1/2 years on CBC radio with the popular show — “The Happy Gang.”
Mart Kenny, who now lives in Vancouver in semi-retirement, was popular with Brant Inn dancers. Kenny’s band played more ballads than Niosi, whose specialty was swing.
Morton, who later operated a men’s wear shop in Roseland Plaza for several years, backed up several name stars at the Inn with his band during the ’50s. The Morton band would plkay Friday and Saturday evenings in the winter and Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights during the summer.
MURRAY’S THE MAN WHO MADE IT GO
By Christine Stanton & Dennis Gibbons, The Post (article that appeared in the late 1980s)
The Brant Inn thrived during the ’40s and ’50s on the innovative direction of owner John Murray Anderson.
Anderson’s instinctive flair for the entertainment industry of the time led him through a steady series of alterations, expansions and renovations at the famous Inn. He redecorated and rebuilt, but never stepped away from his dedication to maintaining a top-of-the-line musical entertainment spot in Burlington.
Harry Waller, who followed Gav Morton as leader of the Inn’s house band in the early ’60s, recalls an incident which clarifies Anderson’s attitude.
Waller had gone to the Inn to speak to Anderson on the evening of a performance before a packed audience by organist Earl Grant. He found Anderson short-staffed and working the switchboard himself. Asked if he was pleased with the crowd, Anderson replied in the affirmative but said he probably wouldn’t make any money on the acclaimed show.
He told Waller that following the opening of the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto, the acts he was accustomed to drawing to the Inn were becoming to expensive.
“But he said he still ran top names to keep the place literally on the entertainment map,” says Waller. “He said he made money on bands like Gav Morton, Stan Kenton, and Bert Niosi.”
The Inn’s biggest drawing card was naturally the big-name performers Anderson was able to contract for performances. The list is extensive and impressive, including Louis Armstrong, Liberaces, Benny Goodman, The Ink Spots, The 3 Suns, Jayne Mansfield, Fats Waller, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, and on and on.
But Anderson was constantly adding new features to the showcase of entertainment at the Inn, not relying solely on the appearances of the stars to create his glittering, glamorous domain. In 1948, he rebuilt and redecorate the lobby, then in 1949 opened the Sidewalk Cafe. The summer of ’49 featured dinner theatre with the Strawhat Playhouse, while 1950 heralded the opening of the Sky Club, with its 1,700-person capacity, moving stage and four flower-decked teraces off the terrazzo dance floor.
Miss Canada was crowned at the Inn in 1950 and, in 1952 the in-house publication — the Brant Inn News — was celebrating its 15th anniversary with a press run of 20,000. There were debutante dinners and countless weddings and private parties in the rooms off the Lido deck, weaving the Brant Inn into the memories and personal histories of so many Burlington and Hamilton natives.
Dance crazes like the Lambeth Walk and the Big Apple hit the Inn first, then spread throughout the area. In 1949, Anderson introduced the Champagne Hour, then popular in the U.S. with dancers demonstrating dance steps for the Sky Club and Lido Club crowds.
One of the best-known features was the “Meet Me at the Brant” radio show with popular Hamilton radio personality Paul Hanover.
Hanover says his association with the Inn began about 1946, when he did a half-hour weekly show featuring the performing band which was broadcast coast to coast in Canada. Then he became the Knight of the Turntable, when Brant Inn patrons were the first in the country to dance to music strictly “off the record” with disc-jocky Hanover.
The Meet Me at the Brant interview show followed, with Hanover interviewing the visiting performers and patrons of the Inn live on the air.
“It was exciting — a chance to put on the dog a little bit,” says Hanover, adding that the coast-to-coast broadcast gave him a little prominence. He is still approached by patrons he interviewed on the show who remember the questions he asked them on the air, and their sometimes embarrassing answers.
Hanover’s personal association with the Inn is even more extensive. He became engaged at the Inn, was married at the Inn, and had to leave work at the Inn thenight his child was born. He remembers Anderson as one hell of a host.
“I found him a great host — a great entertainer of people,” says Hanover, reminiscing about Anderson’s fabulous penthouse upstairs and the numerous after-hour parties with performers like Patti Page, Victor Borge, Martha Raye, and Sophie Tucker.
“He was very good and gracious that way. He had a flair about him — a way of living an ddoing things. He was glamor-stricken and glamorous in his own way and they complemented each other.”
Anderson’s generosity and famed hospitality was not limited to the stars, according to Hanover, who says he remembers the performers often piling into a car for a trip up the Hamilton mountain to the Sanatorium for an impromptu, outdoor performance for the patients.
Hanover says he has heard Anderson could be a little tough and emotional as a boss, but on the other hand people like the chef, Slim Lee, stayed working there forever.
“It was really a big family — it was more than a place to work,” he concludes.
Helen Cappelli, who was a waitress at the Inn and later married Jimmy Cappelli who was a bartender there, agrees that the Inn staff was like a big family with many of the staff members living in the room upstairs.
One of the quirks of the Brant Inn in its heyday was its lack of a liquor licence. Mrs. Cappelli says there was just beer in the dining room at first, then later beer and wine.
“But you took your own bottle on the dance floor,” she says. “We served the set-up — the mix and ice. I don’t rmember any trouble as long as the bottle was hidden.”
She had fun working at the Inn in spite of the long hours and the hard work, and remembers swimming in the lake off the Sky Club in the afternoon when the staff and Guy Lombardo’s band members had some time off.
Her immediate boss was the dining room hostess Lena Duz, who tok the banquet and wedding bookings and took care of much of the day-to-day organization of the Inn.
The climate of the ’40s and ’50s when the Brant Inn was at its peak began to change in the ’60s with the introduction of more extensive home entertainment like television and the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll. Toronto began to develop a dining and entertainment industry of its own and the big-name performers Anderson had always attracted were beginning to price themselves out of his market.
Waller, who led the house band during the changing years from 1962 to 1964 says Anderson managed to weather the storm of the changing times with a nucleus of a good dance crowd wanting the big band sound.
But poor health led Anderson to sell the Inn in 1964 to a firm called the International Atlas Development and Exploration Ltd.
Waller says it was an absentee-ownership with an appointed manager at the Inn, who started with some rock ‘n’ roll music in the tavern then wanted to feature rock ‘n’ roll through the whole place. Waller, with his big band sound, was let go and went to the Fischer Hotel in Hamilton.
“But it didn’t attract the young people and they lost the nucleus of the middle to older generation,” he says. “They were groping for what to do with the place as far as an entertainment policy was concerned. The whole music scene was changing.”
In its initial year of publication in 1965, The Post sponsored teen dances at the Inn as a promotion. The Beetles were popular at the time and the British beat, produced by a host of bands from the area, drew teens to the Inn by the hundreds on Tuesday and Friday nights.
Dances were held on the Lido Deck and the entertainment package became known as Club Lido. One mammoth dance, held outdoors in the larger Sky Club area attracted 2,500 teens to hear nine bands play on the same evenings.
But managhement insistence on a dress code, which included a shirt and tie for the boys, turned many teens off and Club Lido was first cut back to just Friday nights, then faded after only one year.
In 1968, the decision was made by the owners of the Inn to close the entertainment landmark following the New Year’s Eve celebration. Demolition was scheduled for early 1969. The reasons for the closure cited in a Post story at the time were economic.
“The dining and entertainment spot has been operating at a loss for the past several years and demolition will save taxes, insurance and other costs involved in what “Brant Inn officials) describe as a ‘negative operation’,” the story states.
The Inn closed its career in a fitting manner on that New Year’s Eve with a full house — and later in January, 1969, its contesnts were sold at two auctions. It was literally auctione to the bare walls, including decorations from the vairoius rooms, furniture from the hotel rooms and the Lido Deck piano, which went to then ward 8 Alderman and lawyer Harry Zahoruk for $1,000.
The day of the auciton was described in tThe Post as the biggest day for the Brant Inn since the big bands became a memory — seemingly sad and unfitting end for such a bright, glamorous spot of local history.
But just scratch one resident from the Burlington and Hamilton area in the 40 to 80 year age range, and the glamor and elegance of the Brant Inn will come alive again.
CITY’s HISTORIC BRANT INN COMMEMORATED
The following article was provided by the Burlington Historical Society as part of its monthly series Burlington Remembers.
A commemorative plaque designating the spot where the Brant Inn flourished was recently unveiled by Mayor Rick Goldring.
It is located at the western end of Spencer Smith Park close to Maple Avenue. For many, this will answer the question of where this famous nightspot once stood.
The placing of the plaque was a project of the Burlington Historical Society in partnership with the City of Burlington.
Although the building itself disappeared 42 years ago — in 1969 — this extraordinary place is fondly remembered by those who were drawn here by the music, the entertainment and the building itself.
The Brant Inn is a unique and fascinating chapter in Burlington’s history. Its prominence as an entertainment venue was largely due to a fascinating entrepreneur — John Murray Anderson — who proved he had what it took to compete with the giants of the entertainment business.
It’s all the more remarkable considering he put the Brant Inn and Burlington on the map back in the era of the Great Depression and the Second World War, when the community was just a small Ontario town of 4,000 souls.
In spite of these challenges, the Brant Inn with Anderson’s guidance became one of North America’s most noted and successful nightspots.