Legends by the lake inspire film

This has been a golden summer of sports in Toronto. In celebration of the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games the Toronto Reference Library (Yonge and Bloor) is hosting a wonderfully nostalgic exhibit looking back at sport and recreation in a simpler time. Toronto’s Sporting Past includes early photos of the Balmy Beach Club and Toronto Hunt Club and runs until Sept. 5.

The Library is presenting screenings of films that exemplify the spirit of competition: The Boy in Blue, Chariots of Fire, The Rocket, and 42, the courageous story of Jackie Robinson (Aug. 26, 2 p.m.).

The Boy in Blue (1986) stars Nicolas Cage as Toronto’s first sporting hero, Ned Hanlan (1855-1908), the world-champion sculler in the 1880s, “the fastest man who ever sat in a boat.” The film is less than accurate, but does feature the 1887 steamship RMS Segwun in Gravenhurst.

Ned Hanlan
Ned Hanlan

Before television came along, big crowds turned out to watch local sporting events like rowing, lacrosse, football, cycling and baseball. Since its early days as a summer resort, the Beach has had a long tradition of athletic excellence, including horse racing at Woodbine (1875), the third oldest golf club in North America (Toronto Golf, 1876) and the many achievements of the Balmy Beach Club, the “Legend by the Lake.”

Sport has always been a favourite topic for movies. The very first feature film ever made in the Beach included scenes from an exhibition rugby football match (no forward passing) played on Dec. 5, 1914.

The Toronto Daily Star reported, “On Saturday afternoon at Scarboro Beach rugby fans will have an opportunity of again seeing Parkdale Canoe Club and Balmy Beach in action with the added interest of moving picture films of the game being taken.”

Women paddle a war canoe from the Balmy Beach Club circa 1909. PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives
Women paddle a war canoe from the Balmy Beach Club circa 1909.
PHOTO: City of Toronto Archives

The short-lived Conness-Till Film Co. promised the clubs souvenir medals and 1,000 feet of film to be shown as fundraisers in local theatres. Dramatic scenes with actors were also shot in front of the 2,000 cheering spectators at Toronto Athletic Field beside the Scarboro Beach Amusement Park. Motion pictures had been shown at the park as early as 1907 when it opened, but this was something new and exciting.

The stadium included a covered grandstand, clubhouse, bleachers and a track for cycling races. Author Morley Callaghan was impressed: “There was no lovelier field in North America than Scarboro Beach with its stands facing the lake and the grass in the sunlight always appearing greener there than any other place.”

By 1915 cinema emerged as an art form in its own right and movie-going became respectable, but it would be more than half a century before another feature film would be made in the Beach. The football footage was included in a patriotic military film, Canada in Peace and War, released as a “three-reeler” in February 1915. It combined newsreels with a fictional storyline to present “the most interesting moving picture shown in Toronto” (Sunday World).

Canadian soldiers were shown marching and a mock battle scene “created a big sensation both in public and press.” It is doubtful if any copies of these silent films survive.

In January 1916 the entire Balmy Beach football team enlisted. The club had almost 100 men in khaki and many would not return. Long ago, First Nations used lacrosse to resolve conflicts between tribes as an alternative to war. Lacrosse was believed to be a gift from the Creator. Wouldn’t it be great if athletes competed just on sporting fields instead of battlefields and the only shooting was done by cameras?

This week marks the 110th anniversary of the official opening of the Balmy Beach Club on Aug. 25, 1905. To learn more, check out Kevin McConnell’s beautifully-illustrated The History of the Balmy Beach Club (2012), available at Beaches Library.

The gold and blue Balmy Beach “Beachers” went on to win the Grey Cup in 1927 and 1930. Club heroes include Roy Nurse (canoeing wins at the 1924 Olympics), Ab Box (football) and the great “Moaner” himself, Ted Reeve (football, lacrosse).

Ted Reeve
Ted Reeve

A classic theme for sports films is the triumph of an individual or team in overcoming adversity. The Balmy Beach Club has survived two devastating fires, in 1936 and 1963. In the muddy 1930 Grey Cup game, an injured Ted Reeve came back on the field to block a punt and ensure an 11-6 victory. Reeve later wrote:

“When I was young and in my prime

I used to block kicks all the time

But now that I am old and grey

I only block them once a day.

Sport brings Canadians together. Go Jays Go! Win one for the Moaner. If we lose, remember, “there’s no crying in baseball!”


Note: For “snapshots” of “Ontario’s Sport Heritage” and some terrific photos of athletes like Ned Hanlan and Tom Longboat, look for Heritage Matters at libraries or at heritagetrust.on.ca. The free publication includes an article (“Sport matters: The value of sport to society”) by that great runner from the Beach, Professor Bruce Kidd.

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