From Big Band Dance Hall to Lakeside Musical Landmark: A History of Muskoka’s The Kee to Bala
July 07, 2019
Picture this: a sultry summer night, circa early-to-mid 1990s. The exact date is not important. It’s all part of the magic and the lore. Joey Ramone, with his trademark black leather jacket and tight blue jeans slinks out of a rented white van. Sweat drips from his furrowed brow. He gazes at the tall pines and the beauty of this ever-changing Group of Seven painting come to life as he takes the last drag of his cigarette. The place: a tiny Muskoka town. The venue: The Kee to Bala. Far from his New York home, the skinny punk rocker is definitely out of place. No matter. He is here to spread his punk-rock gospel to Canadian cottagers. He steps into the club, removes his jacket, and hangs it on a rack in the cramped backstage area. A couple of hours later, Ramone steps onto that storied stage. With his trademark 1-2-3-4, the band launch into a spirited evening that added to the already legendary status of this venue.
This Ramones moment is just one of hundreds of snapshots in time that have played out in Ontario cottage country at The Kee — the big wooden barn structure on Lake Muskoka that is a summer tradition equal to barbecues and road trips for many Southern Ontario music lovers.
Sue McCallum, who was doing publicity for MCA Records at the time, recalls this memorable gig. Her beat-up Honda was decorated with stickers of this seminal New York punk band. She was a fan before she got into the business, so doing publicity for them was a dream come true. “They didn’t even know what cottage country meant,” says McCallum of this event. “I also remember Johnny [Ramone] asking me that day, and it has haunted me for the rest of my life, ‘what is it about our music that you like?’ I froze and stammered out, ‘it’s the songs.’”
Long before there were roads to Bala, it was a whistle stop for Big Bands to perform their songs. Everyone travelled by steamship in the early days; later, they arrived by train. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Guy Lombardo and Tommy Dorsey all played in Bala at The Kee’s predecessor Dunn’s Pavilion where you could fetch a ticket for $2.50.
Flash back to 1929. That’s when Gerry Dunn purchased the property with the idea to build a venue that would attract small orchestras to the area. Dunn hoped to capitalize on the increased tourist traffic expected with the completion of rail service right to the village of Bala. One of the earliest slogans for the new venue was “Where All of Muskoka Dances.” And, dance they did six days a week. Before the first decade of operation finished, the place was so jammed a new venue was needed. So, in 1942, Dunn’s Pavilion opened. Dunn operated the dance hall for the next 21 years, before selling to Ray Cockburn in 1963, who renamed the venue The Kee to Bala. In the ensuing years, there have been several ownership changes, but the structure and the spirit have remained relatively unchanged.
Today, The Kee to Bala is still the place “where all of Muskoka dances”; it exists in Dunn’s original building and is one of Muskoka’s iconic landmarks. Over the years everyone from Crowbar and Lighthouse; the Tragically Hip and Rough Trade, to The Fabulous Thunderbirds and even Snoop Dogg, have played this historic venue. Cottagers and city folk alike make the trek to this hallowed hall most summer weekends. Some travel by boat, others hitchhike for miles. That is part of the mystique and what makes seeing a show at this venue so unique. Many artists rent or stay in cottages in the area with their families and make it a mini-vacation.
This year, the venue celebrates its 78th anniversary. The Sheepdogs have already played a pair of sold-out shows there in early July. Still to come: Alan Doyle, Steve Earle & The Dukes, David Wilcox, The Arkells, 54-40, Kim Mitchell and more.
Mitchell has been making The Kee a regular stop on his summer schedule for decades. Flash back to 1989. He and his band arrived, along with truckloads of gear, to capture a MuchMusic Big Ticket Special. You can see a glimpse here from the Rockland Wonderland DVD produced from this concert. Later, Mitchell returned to film parts of his “I Am a Wild Party” video at The Kee. Doug McClement via his LiveWire Remote Recorders captured the Big Ticket Special 30 years ago. What he recalls the most is some songs used three drummers, which made it difficult to get the sound on tape just right. “It was tricky to fit it all on 24 analog tracks,” McClement explains.
Speaking of drummers, Bazil Donovan, Blue Rodeo’s bassist, has a tale to share that involves their former keeper of the beat Cleave Anderson. The beloved Canadian band has played The Kee for a long time. The first time they performed at the Muskoka venue was definitely the most interesting. “Our drummer’s wife was pregnant and she ended up having the baby the day we played The Kee,” says Donovan. “We thought we would have to sub him out, but he ended up making the gig. We didn’t go on until 10:30 p.m. and his wife gave birth earlier in the day so it gave him time to get there.”
“It is such a fun place to play,” Donovan adds. “Most times we would do two nights and stay at a cottage down the road.”
It’s also a room where you have to let loose since the audience is so loud, making it a hard stage to play, unless you turn up the amps. “It’s definitely a good rock room!” Donovan concludes. “If you are going to be sensitive and quiet, they will drown you out.”
To learn more about Muskoka, Ontario’s famed The Kee to Bala or for information on upcoming shows visit: thekee.com