As the long weekend arrives and summer officially appears like a distant train at the end of a very long tunnel of wacky weather, I was thinking about the days when summer meant one thing to me and my delinquent friends: Sylvan Lake.
We would beat a well-worn path on the old Highway 11 out to Sylvan Lake pretty much every single weekend during those summers of Honda motorbikes, rattletrap cars, and girlfriends who dump you.
In those days the sleepy little town had only a handful of permanent residents who would spend the weekdays milling about minding their own business, talking about the weather, and then BAM! Friday to Sunday, all of sudden it become a teaming party place with about a million teenagers, many of whom wearing nothing but bikinis for three straight days.
This was when the age for alcohol consumption was (officially) still 21 years old, so there were no pubs or bars that seem to occupy every third building in the town these days, but we had something that bested any bar, anywhere, any time. We had Varsity Hall.
Like teenaged moths to the proverbial flame we’d flock like stampeding lemmings to the dance hall on Lakeshore drive – not even caring that we were mixing our metaphors.
Anybody who was ever in that shrine of music and magic will no doubt remember the ticket booth where you got a stamp of invisible fluorescent goop on the back of your hand, and when you put your hand under the black light box, the mark would glow that ghostly greenish glow that meant another Sylvan Lake Varsity Hall adventure was waiting for you just a few more steps inside.
Of course, the ‘high tech’ fluorescent stamp system was put in place of the old black ink stamp because we… I mean some other teenagers had figured out that if you pressed a freshly ink-stamped hand onto your friend’s hand, you could transfer the ink image to your friend’s hand, and said friend would get in free.
We found — I mean they found — that didn’t work very well with the invisible fluorescent stamp. But I can still remember the suspiciously toxic smell of that goopy green glowing ink on the back of my hand, smudged into a blob from an unsuccessful transfer attempt.
But once inside, the marvelous mayhem would begin. With the more popular bands, a teeming crowd was guaranteed, and so you would venture into the dark throngs of like-minded partiers, who were caught up in the throes of thronging away on the dance floor to a solid rock and roll wall of 110 decibels coming from the stage at the far end.
There was a short railing all around the dance floor where you could lean and attempt to look cool whilst sizing up the prospects (and the competition) from the braver ones who were already dancing.
At least the girls were dancing while the guys were basically flailing around the dance floor in their own personal version of the act of ‘dancing’.
And if you weren’t brave enough to either dance or lean, there were benches along the walls where you could sit in the shadows and work on getting up enough nerve to ask someone to dance.
It was also a good place to be when the band launched into the popular song Higher and Higher which meant that the girls would climb onto the shoulders of their partners and parade around the dance floor.
Many of us guys (especially us short skinny ones) took great pains to avoid that particular ritual, and made a beeline for the benches whenever the bass player started that dangerously familiar Higher and Higher riff.
But that was only one of a million moments that made Varsity Hall such a purveyor of peak experiences, and there will be many memories that those of us lucky enough to have been there will keep re-living.
Like all good things though, it all came to an end.
In 1979, after well over five decades of excessive decibels, it finally collapsed when the dances were cancelled and the big old building couldn’t stand the silence.
Also, somebody snuck in at sunrise and demolished it with a bulldozer so that a motel could be put up on that sacred corner.
What were they thinking?
This is what I was thinking about the other day, munching on a Big Moo ice cream cone and reading a small plaque with a picture of Varsity Hall that stands at that iconic corner on Lakeshore Drive.
And in a classic case of ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’, I looked off toward the lake, toward the lighthouse and… and couldn’t see a darn thing. On account of someone decided that right smack on the small beach in the middle of the busiest part of town, they would erect a two-storey monstrosity that not only blocks everyone’s view, but takes up precious space on the beach.
Believe it or not, this is the new bathroom building — and it’s about the size of Varsity Hall.
And the irony is not lost on us Hallers — they demolish something that everybody loves and makes so much sense, and build something that everybody hates and doesn’t make any.
But hey, maybe someone could book a couple of local bands in the Two Story Bathroom Monstrosity – turn it into a dance hall, maybe salvaging some sense out of the ridiculous eyesore.
And when they do, I know a couple of guys who can still play a mean version of Higher and Higher.
Harley Hay is a freelance writer living in Red Deer.