And the band plays on… and on

If you’d like to take a nostalgic musical stroll down memory lane, allow maestro Dal Richards to be your guide. Scarcely missing a beat, Richards and his orchestra have been delighting Canadians with memorable dance music for more than 60 years. They’ve stayed true to the swinging sound of the big band era, and continue to entertain not only their older, faithful fans, but have captured a new generation entranced by the resurgence of the golden age of swing.

Today, show-biz legend Richards, who celebrated his 80th birthday on Jan. 5, is busier than ever before. He’s already scheduled performances at a variety of high-profile private and public engagements this year, changing pace from time to time by playing a cool tenor sax at clubs and restaurants. Richards is a veritable west coast institution, whose presence has graced some of the most important social events in Vancouver’s history. His remarkable list of “firsts” includes the opening ceremonies at the Empire Stadium in 1954, when Vancouver hosted the British Empire Games, and the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the Pacific Coliseum, and the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre at Canada Place.

Richards was musal director when the Variety Club hosted its first telethon in Vancouver in 1966, a position he held for 18 years. In 1993, the Variety Club of British Columbia recognized his many contributions helping children with special needs by presenting him with its highest honor, the Heart Award. At the same time, Variety International presented him with the Presidential Award “for using his celebrity status for the benefit of less fortunate people.”

In 1994, Richards received the Vancouver Civic Order of Merit for outstanding service to the community, and the following year was awarded the Order of Canada.

“Dal is, quite simply, the original Mr. Music,” says Art Jones, a close friend of Richards for almost 60 years. “Besides being a helluva’ guy, he’s a consummate professional.” The two have been involved in many projects and events together, and Jones continues to introduce Richards at special events. It’s been a remarkable run for someone who only got into music by accident — literally and figuratively. Richards was just nine years old when he lost an eye playing with a slingshot, resulting in his being confined to a darkened room for almost three months. The doctor treating the young Richards suggested music would be good therapy, so he learned to play the clarinet, little realizing it would lead to an exciting and rewarding musical career spanning six decades. “Talk about turning a negative into a positive,” shrugs Richards.

Radio was king during his formative years as a budding musician, and Richards listened enraptured as more and more dance music by stars like Artie Shaw, Count Basie and the Dorsey Brothers dominated the airwaves. After adding the sax to his repertoire of instruments, Richards led the band at Magee Secondary School in Vancouver, performing at special events at nearby golf clubs such as Marine Drive, Shaughnessy and Point Grey. Richards’ decision to turn pro after graduating came as no surprise to anyone. His first professional engagement was at Winter Garden, an entertainment pier that extended into English Bay near where the Sylvia Hotel stands, featuring a dance pavilion at the tip of the structure. The Palomar Ballroom in downtown Vancouver gave Richards the opportunity to increase his profile and a couple of years later, in 1940, he began his stint at The Roof. Initially engaged to play for eight weeks, his contract was extended — ultimately, Richards’ “gig” at The Roof stretched an incredible 25 years.

In fact, he ruled The Roof until it closed in September 1965, after 57 years as the favorite local spot for dining, dancing and romancing. His record of having the longest-running band engagement at a single venue still stands.

“I love reminiscing about those times,” says Richards. Those were the days when he was the acknowledged King of the Dance Bands, with his music carrying into the homes of Canadians from St. John to Victoria on CBC Radio. Listeners were told the band was broadcasting “from the Panorama Roof high atop Hotel Vancouver, overlooking the twinkling harbor lights of Canada’s gateway to the Pacific,” but that was stretching the truth. “All the windows were blacked out because of the war, and believe me, there sure weren’t any twinkling lights,” says Richards.

In the 1940s, the hotel was not permitted to sell liquor by the glass — the law was not changed until 1953 — so people brought their own and kept it under their table. The hotel supplied mixes and bowls of ice. “The police would raid us occasionally, but we were prepared,” laughs Richards. “They had to come up 16 floors in the elevator, and the staff downstairs always warned us when they were on their way. The band would immediately break into Roll Out The Barrel — a signal for the guests to hide their bottles.”

There were celebrities galore of course. “Stars like Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Lena Horne used to bring their entire cast to Vancouver to produce their radio shows, and we played backup for them,” says Richards. He made one of his best moves when he employed a well-known vocalist and entertainer from Montreal — Lorraine McAllister — to sing with his band. They soon married, and remained a perfectly matched pair for more than 32 years, until Lorraine passed away.

“They were always fun people to be around,” says Art Jones. “The evening didn’t always end once the band stopped playing. My wife, Mary, and I would drive to Seattle with Dal and Lorraine to catch another band and return in time to go to work in the morning. Dal (the lucky dog), of course, could sleep in.”

During this time Richards helped launch the career of a female vocalist who went on to gain national fame — Canada’s pet, Juliette. She was only 13 when she joined him on the Orpheum Theatre stage and sang a rendition of There’ll Always Be An England that brought the audience to their feet. After a couple of years she moved to Toronto and established herself as a performer of such stature on radio and television that she’s still recognized by her first name only.

“I never dreamed of having a career in music, I was going to be a hairdresser,” says Juliette. “For me, working with Dal was like Cinderella working for the Prince. He was a strict disciplinarian and all of us had to be on our best behavior.”

“What I love about it now is that Dal and I are still working together and I think that’s terrific,” she says. The Orpheum celebrated its 70th anniversary on Jan. 14, an event that saw Juliette and Richards perform together again on stage.

What does the future hold for Richards? His zest for life remains undiminished. In June he’ll be in Russia, hosting a 16-day Volga River cruise. Looking further ahead, the Dal Richards Orchestra will be helping revellers welcome in the new Millennium at the Westin Bayshore on New Year’s Eve, 1999. It should be quite a party. <!–