Manitoba History: The Normandy Dance Hall
by Myron Love
Before the advent of disco, before the Beatles, even before Rock and Roll, there was the sound of the big bands, and the era of the dance hall. In the 1930s, the ‘40s, and even the early ‘50s, if you wanted to go out with friends, go on a date, pick up a girl (or guy), dance, or just enjoy some music, you went to a dance hall. In Winnipeg, one of the places to swing was the Normandy Dance Hall on Sherbrook. The Swing Era has gone but the Normandy, under a new name, remains.
The Normandy was erected about 1905, and originally christened the Norman Hall. It was used for social functions, and housed a dance studio. However, it was not until the Swing Era of the ‘30s and ‘40s that it really came into its own.
Sid Boughton and George Evans began renting the hall in 1937. “During the week,” remembers Mrs. Boughton, “we ran bingo games and whist drives. Friday and Saturday evenings were dance nights.” In 1939 the partners bought the building from the owner, Mrs. Norman. “We renamed it the Normandy,” said Mrs. Boughton, “because we wanted to retain the Norman name, and because it was war-time and everyone was talking about the Normandy beaches. So we added the ‘dy’.” The new owners switched the main hall entirely to dances. “The reason for the change,” Mrs. Boughton explained, “was that it was illegal to run a bingo game for other than charitable purposes. All our cards were confiscated.”
Upstairs at the Normandy was the Blue Room for banquets and socials. Downstairs was the dancing and, at its height, the Normandy was packed every night. For 25 cents admission as many as a thousand people at any one time danced polkas, jigs, and two-steps to the music of Andy Desjarlais and his Red River Settlers. For eleven years, 1939-1950, Desjarlais and his group were broadcast every Saturday night from the Normandy. Saturday afternoon bandstand broadcasts were also tried but, as Mrs. Boughton recalled, they had to be stopped because rival juvenile gangs were getting into fights in the audience. Other musical groups performed at the Normandy as well. These included Buff Gibson, The Hawaiian Troubadors, and Glen Frain and his Buckaroos. The late Wally Kostur was a featured singer, and Harold Burns sang for fifteen years at the Normandy with several different bands.
In the 1940s the Normandy became a meeting place for armed forces personnel. There was often trouble with the servicemen. Thane Smith, Mrs. Boughton’s brother, noted: “The soldiers were always smashing things. There would be one or two broken toilets a night.” Recalled Mrs. Boughton: “There was one real donnybrook during the war between the airmen and soldiers. The airmen were barred for eight months. My husband, Sid, finally went to the commander, explained that the fight took place outside the hall, and got them reinstated.”
One airman who was a frequent visitor to the Normandy was Richard Burton, who was stationed at Rivers, Manitoba during the war. “I remember hearing his voice,” said Mrs. Boughton, “and seeing a good-looking man, but never thought much of it. Then one day I heard that voice on T.V. and looked up and there was my airman with the nice voice.”
Said Barbara Boughton: “A lot of people have the impression that the dance halls got a bad name. But people’s attitudes were different then. There were no drugs. The only trouble was with people trying to bring in bottles.” This was the era of very restricted licensing and, as Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Boughton’s sister-in-law, observed: “We all brought bottles in under the table.” The Boughtons and Evans tried to keep liquor out of the hall. For many years they had a big floorman named Steve Polish who kept things under control. Murray Jaques, who grew up in the area, recalled “The owners of the Normandy ran a clean place. Booze was kept out. When we were kids, we used to steal booze from the soldiers outside the hall.” Later, about 1950, he worked at the Telephone Exchange building next door. “At the time,” he observed, “there were no singles bars, and no place to legally drink. You would take a bottle with you, and go stag, and try to meet a girl. I went to the Normandy a couple of times, but nothing ever happened.”
“A lot of romances were brewed at the Normandy,” said Mrs. Boughton. Jaques, on leaving the Telephone Exchange after work, “would often find lovers on the fire escape.” He remembered Thursday nights in particular. This was maid’s night out, and “a lot of younger, rural girls who had moved to Winnipeg to work as domestics, would flock to the Normandy.”
However, times change. In 1958, a soldier was accidentally killed by the Normandy’s bouncer. Mrs. Boughton recalled the incident: “Two soldiers who had had too much to drink were bothering two girls. Al, our bouncer, went over to help the girls. One of the soldiers took a swing at Al and missed. Al caught him on the side of the neck and he died. Although Al was acquitted, there were big headlines and business fell off.” In 1960, new liquor laws were passed in the province. Boughton and Evans really did not want to sell liquor, and in any case the building needed a lot of renovation. So they sold the place to the present owner, Ed Posner.
“I bought the place originally for my furniture business,” said Posner, “but decided that it was too big for a furniture store.” There were a few small bookings left over which Mr. Posner honoured. “The previous owners,” he reported, “used to lease small parts of the building for $25 to $35. I saw the demand for halls in the city and the possibilities.” When he bought the building it was in a dilapidated condition, and badly in need of improvements. He renamed it the Sildor, and set about converting it into banquet rooms, while trying to retain as much of the building’s old character as possible. “For many year we retained the old, wooden dance floor,” he observed, “but the maintenance was too great. We put in a tile floor eight years ago.” The building’s original concrete walls are still intact, as is the high ceiling.
So the old Norman Hall has come full circle. It is once again used as a hall for weddings and socials. In addition, part of the building is now occupied by a nightclub. Mr. Posner noted that often people who some to the Sildor for a function come up to him and say, “I used to dance here,” or “I met my husband here.” The era of the dance hall may have faded away, but the Normandy/Sildor and its memories linger on.
Page revised: 30 April 2017