No neighbourhood portrait of Toronto’s Beach community could ever be complete without one of the true institutions in the area: the Balmy Beach Club, a private social and athletics club founded in 1905, has been a real anchor of the local sports and recreational scene, and continues to thrive today as a favourite gathering place for many of its members. During a recent interview with Glenn Cochrane, he took me briefly into the Balmy Beach Club and stated that “this is the best patio on Toronto’s waterfront – bar none”. When I headed out on the patio and saw the sweeping 180 degree panorama of Lake Ontario with a view towards Toronto’s skyline, I simply had to agree. Combined with a beautiful setting inside a historic neighbourhood, surrounded by gorgeous mature trees, one would be hard-pressed to find a more perfect urban oasis in Toronto than the Balmy Beach Club.
To find out more about this revered institution I set up an interview with Ken Bingham, long-time member of the Balmy Beach Club, and the official historian of this institution. The Balmy Beach Club, a non-profit organization, is a social and athletic club that came into existence in 1905. It has about 1400 members in two membership categories: the social membership provides access to upstairs facilities, including the bar, lounge, patio and banquet hall. Social members are able to attend a wide variety of functions, for example the Superbowl Party, a Glen Miller Dance, Rock Star Karaoke, a Martini Night and many more. Members in the social category also participate at no extra cost in lawn bowling, volleyball and most social functions run through the club. In addition, members are eligible to rent the banquet facility for private functions such as birthday parties, anniversaries and weddings. Many local community organizations also use the club to hold special events or fundraisers.
The fitness membership includes the privileges of the social membership and additionally provides access to the fitness room, the squash courts, sauna and change rooms on the lower level of the building. With this level of membership it is feasible to join the canoe, hockey or rugby sections of the club. Sports such as curling, tennis, football and lawnbowling are offered as well through the club.
For more than a century the Balmy Beach Club has been noted for its athletic teams which started out with canoeing and lawn bowling, and were later expanded to add other activities such as curling, hockey, squash and volleyball. Ken explained that the land for the Club was donated by Sir Adam Wilson, an Ontario Chief Justice in the second half of the 19th century. The land for the Balmy Beach Park was incorporated in 1903.
The first club house, a beautiful two level structure with large wooden verandas, opened in 1905, but it unfortunately burnt to the ground in 1936. Another club house was built, but again fire struck in 1963. The current club house dates back to 1965.
While Ken was grabbing me some extra papers with historic information I took the opportunity to talk with Chris Buckley, the current president of the club, now serving his second term. Chris works full time in sales, and in his spare time he oversees the club and chairs the board. He informed me that this is a volunteer position, and that a Board of Directors is responsible for the main athletic sections (canoeing, lawn bowling, volleyball, hockey, rugby and squash). Chris further explained that membership is actually rather reasonable for a private club: the social membership is $260 a year while the fitness or athletic membership costs $420 per year. An initiation fee of $300 applies to first-time members, but that fee is sometimes waived during special promotions.
Chris Buckley indicated that he is very interested in increasing the membership of the Club since a larger roster of members also helps to defray the costs of running the club. Sometimes the Balmy Beach Club holds open houses and invites the community at large to get to know the club, its facilities and recreational opportunities. He indicated that the club is very open and welcoming, and has members from as far away as Brampton and Mississauga, but there are also a number of international members who reside in the United Kingdom, in the United States, in Australia and New Zealand.
The sports teams themselves run various fundraising events to cover the costs of insurance and other necessary funds for their sports activities. A very popular fundraising event is a volleyball tournament, and participants often show up outfitted in funny costumes. One time a team was dressed up as gladiators, another time they were pretending to be waiters with bowties from the “Goof” , the affectionately nicknamed historic Garden Foods Chinese restaurant just up the street.
The club itself also gets involved in charitable activities on behalf of the Beach community. The club sponsors local high school baseball, lacrosse and hockey teams, and club members also provide a scholarship to one male and one female student at Malvern Collegiate. During the summer the club runs a canoe/kayak day camp for about 300 children. The linkages to the community are strong.
I inquired into general information about the club, and Chris informed me that the opening hours are Monday to Sunday from 6 am to 1 am. He chuckled and said “the bar closes when the president goes home”. New developments are also in the works: the city wants to build additional volleyball courts on the sandy beach right in front of the club. Toronto has actually become known as the beach volleyball Mecca in Canada with a variety of leagues and tournaments encompassing hundreds of teams that are run out of Ashbridges Bay. The Balmy Beach Club was actually were it all started, and Canadian beach volleyball celebrities Mark Heese and John Child both used to play at the Balmy Beach Club. Heese and Child participated in three Olympic Games: the team won the bronze medal in Atlanta (1996), came in 5th in Sydney (2000) and 5th again in Athens (2004).
World caliber athletes have been coming out of the Balmy Beach Club for a long time. International rugby players have been developed at the Balmy Beach Club, and Chris adds that there are eight senior players that played on the Canadian national rugby team, while six Balmy Beach junior players are currently playing for Canada. Several paddlers from the Balmy Beach Club have won Olympic medals in kayaking and canoeing as well.
What Chris really enjoys about being a member at the Balmy Beach Club is that the club is very inclusive and includes members of all backgrounds and age groups. He enjoys being friends with 18-year old youngsters while he also appreciates the older members, many of whom have been part of this club for several decades. He said it is very sad when some of the older members pass away, and the entire club mourns the departure of long-term club members. He adds that he has football pictures from high school that depict three generations of Balmy Beach Club members.
Chris had to go and handed me back to Ken, and we set off on a tour of the building. Ken first took me into a large multi-purpose room on the Western side of the building which houses a variety of plaques and sports jerseys. This is where most of the social functions are held, and occasionally the room is also used for indoor lawn bowling. Ken indicated that the Balmy Beach Football team won the Grey Cup twice in 1927 and 1930. Several wooden plaques highlight the Canadian champions in canoeing / kayaking, lawn bowling and football/rugby that came out of the Balmy Beach Club. The long lists are impressive.
One plaque in particular honours the Olympians that emerged from this club. One person that appears four times on this plaque is a gentleman by the name of Jim Mossmann, who, as Ken explained, was the Canadian Olympic Canoe Coach in four different Olympic games. In addition to paddling sports, curling is another sport offered by the Balmy Beach Club. The club fields twelve teams that all play in their own league at the East York Curling Club.
Lifetime club members also get honoured here, and some active members have been with the club for 60 or more years. The Balmy Beach Club truly provides social and recreational opportunities for an entire lifetime, and its members have a deeply felt loyalty to this institution. Many a courtship was started at the Balmy Beach Club, and I bet that scores of Beachers were born as a result of a romantic connection that started at the Balmy Beach Club.
Just outside the multi-purpose room is an area full of plaques, the Balmy Beach Club Hall of Fame, honouring some of the distinguished athletes from the club. In a hallway just to the left of the entrance hall there are a number of certificates, including original certificates from the 1920 Olympic Games in Paris, the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the 1952 Games in Helsinki as well as the 1960 Olympic Games in London, all donated by Balmy Beach Club members who were actual participants in these historic competitions.
Ken pointed out a picture on the opposite side of the wall showing a group of lawn bowlers on opening day in 1905. A picture of hockey players dating back to 1913 also illustrates the long history of this institution. Ken explains that the original sports at the Balmy Beach Club were lawn bowling and canoeing, and all the other sports were added gradually over the years. We then headed downstairs where Ken showed me two squash courts as well as the well-equipped fitness room that is available to the fitness members. Wherever you look, walls are adorned with historical pictures, certificates, medals and plaques; there simply is not enough wall space at the Balmy Beach Club to display all the significant mementos that have accumulated over the years.
Our official tour had concluded and Ken took me back upstairs. In addition to the club’s history I was also interested in some of the individuals that make this club run. I had already talked to the president, Chris Buckley, and I thought I’d find out a bit more about the historian himself. Ken Bingham was born right in the area and spent 25 years of his life living on Fernwood Park. He joined the Balmy Beach Club in 1950 and is also one of the lifetime members. Prior to his retirement he used to work at Inco’s head office, a company that also generously sponsored some of the trophy cases, a big TV screen and several filing cabinets for the club.
Ken introduced me to two long-term Balmy Beach Club members and handed me over to his colleagues as he had to go. The famous Jim Mossmann, four-time Canadian Olympic coach, has been a member for an unbelievable 72 years. Naturally he was also inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame for his athletic achievements. Today he says he lives in a condo close by and mainly comes down here to socialize.
Another long-term member, John McCullough, was just inducted as a lifetime member last night. He has been a member since 1943. His friends were joking and referred to him as a walking encyclopedia. John says that today he spends much of his time golfing, lawn-bowling and curling. He has been retired for 23 years, and the Balmy Beach Club has become an important anchor for his social life.
The friendly face behind the bar is Jamie Reynolds, also a Balmy Beach Club member and the maintenance manager. Jamie is also responsible for ordering the supplies, the drinks and snacks for the bar. The Balmy Beach Club is a licensed establishment and serves quick snacks and pre-made sandwiches. Jamie has been a member since 1964, started off paddling, then played rugby from 1967 to 1987. Today Jamie is a talented lawn bowler. He explains that the natural sequence of sports at the Balmy Beach Club starts with paddling, then moves on to rugby and hockey, and finally ends with lawn bowling in people’s later years. An entire lifetime of sports and social activities is available at the Balmy Beach Club.
Another true fixture at the Balmy Beach Club is Barb Kelly, who works part-time in the club’s administration since she retired from her long-term job with a paper mill. Barb Kelly is also a life-time member and joined the club in the mid 1970s. She has been on the Board of Directors for the last 12 years and was the first female on the board. Originally the Balmy Beach Club was closed to women as there were no lockers or showers for females, and finally opened its doors to females in the 1970s.
Barb has been paddling since she was a child, and on May 4, 2007 she will be inducted in the Balmy Beach Sports Hall of Fame as an athlete (she is an outstanding lawn bowler) and a major contributor of the club. Barb explained that eight times a year she runs a “Euchre Meat Roll” which is basically a fundraiser for her lawn-bowling team that involves a vacuum-packed piece of meat as a prize giveaway. Barb has participated in many dances and social events at the Balmy Beach Club since she was a young girl.
Last but not least I got a chance to meet the person who really runs the Balmy Beach Club: Charlene Provan is the General Manager of the club and is in charge of all operational matters which include staffing issues, facility rentals, administration, maintenance, volunteer coordination, security and well as set-ups and tear-downs for special events. Charlene mentioned that insurance costs in particular have risen incredibly over the last few years. Insurance now adds up to about $130.00 per player on the competitive rugby team. Canoeing/kayaking, on the other hand, requires expensive marine insurance. Charlene has worked here for eight years, and since she started insurance costs have actually tripled.
Charlene adds that the club is financially self-sufficient and has never asked for any funds from the city, who officially owns the land that the club is built on. She adds that the Balmy Beach Club is an important focal point for the community, a beautiful place to get away from it all, right here in the city. Charlene herself grew up in the Beach, attended local schools such as Williamson Road, Glen Ames and Malvern Collegiate Institute. She has raised her daughters here and for a number of years she worked at “Lido’s in the Beach”, a restaurant formerly owned by Lido Chilelli, founder of the Beaches Jazz Festival.
One of the things that Charlene has instituted at the club is a more inclusive policy. More than 30 years ago, the club was open to men only. After shower and locker facilities were installed for women, the club opened its doors to both genders. Things have changed substantially, and since Charlene arrived on the scene, she has introduced many family-friendly events such as Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts and Halloween events. Charlene has actively been working on broadening the appeal of the Balmy Beach Club and on making it accessible to a wider range of people. She has even added a wireless Internet connection to the club so members can come in and use their laptops from the comfort of their social club.
Considering all this history and the people behind it, the club is definitely the ‘Legend by the Lake”, and in Charlene’s words it is the “best kept secret in Toronto”.