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Music Mates: Johnny & Dorothy Downs
by Christopher Doty

johnny downs orchestra 1950It began with big band music and a confident teenager from Beck Collegiate. In the mid 1930s Johnny Downs ditched his violin and began taking saxophone lessons. After the birth of the swing era in 1935, he reasoned that few orchestra leaders would be able to be heard above the brass section with a string instrument.

His artistic inspiration was the reed section of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. His financial inspiration was London's Lombardo brothers, who were reaching the peak of their popularity with their band, The Royal Canadians.

"They were successful and showed up in London in their big cars and everything. That's what got me attracted to the idea of becoming involved with an orchestra and becoming an orchestra leader," says Downs.

However, Downs was smart enough to develop his own sound. He opted for a tight, swinging style that still sounds amazingly contemporary to this day. The band's theme song, Sophisticated Swing, neatly summed up their playing style, though Downs and his musicians did offer the odd novelty number like I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.

Spurred on by his high school teacher, musical legend Don Wright, Downs landed his first gig at the Highland Golf Club for New Year's Eve dance. The following summer the owner of the Kincardine Pavilion took a chance on the teenaged maestro and hired his group for the summer. Downs wasn't even old enough to drive yet.

At the height of the big band era the touring schedule of Johnny Downs Orchestra read like a history of Ontario dance palaces: Port Dover's Summer Garden, Leamington's Seacliff Park, London's Wonderland Gardens and the legendary Stork Club in Port Stanley. The band was asked to backup for the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Frankie Carle when they came to town.

For Downs the players and their wives were more like "a fraternity" than a musical group. Another member joined that fraternity a few months later. Dorothy Bearchill had known Downs all through high school but was too shy to speak to him. One rainy afternoon on Port Stanley's boardwalk they bumped into each other.

"He was looking for his piano player. I was looking for my sister. We both pretended to look for them but we didn't. We kind of ended up together, split a milkshake, then walked out on the pier," recalls Dorothy. "I never dated anyone else - even during the war years. After that, all Johnny could do was wave, smile and wink at all the other girls from the bandstand - there was no holding or anything."

The couple would be inseparable in both their professional and private lives. Dorothy took over the job of booking dates for the band and arranging contracts. When Johnny got a franchise to install oil burners, Dorothy drove the delivery truck.

tex ritter and johnny downs 1950When Johnny co-founded Capitol Records of Canada, Dorothy helped him decide what records should be issued, often test-marketing children's releases on their own kids. The couple would frequently play host to the label's key artists when they were on tour. The roster included Kay Starr, Nat King Cole and Tex Ritter.

"During the post war era we thought we were on top of the world," says Johnny. "We thought we were going to get rich."

But they didn't. When ownership of Capitol changed, the company decided not to renew its contract with the London entrepreneurs who had worked so hard to make the young Canadian company a success. Operations were moved to the Toronto area in 1954. Johnny had mixed feelings about the loss.

"The job (as sales manager) caused me to run from Halifax to Vancouver every week, all week long, and then I'd come back into London and be gone with the band on a Friday and Saturday night," he once recalled. "Dorothy missed me, so we thought it was only sensible that we get into something in London that would allow me to stay home."

In 1953 the couple purchased a 70-seat restaurant near the corner of Dufferin and Richmond. It had been called Le Jardin Gourmet until London's popular historian Orlo Miller, who lived above the place, suggested a name that honored the Italian community that had settled in the area: The Latin Quarter. It would remain a downtown landmark for five decades, surviving changing dining tastes, urban decay and even a kitchen fire in January 1970.

The restaurant cut across demographics, appealing to university students, lawyers and the Grand Theatre crowd. Children had their christening parties there, grew up, got married and then had their wedding receptions at the Latin Quarter.

The Downs were the first to have cocktail waitresses to serve up dry martinis and whisky sours to thirsty patrons. They servers were originally dubbed Les Girls, after a Gene Kelly musical. But soon everyone was calling them for what they were: the Latin Quarter bunnies.

"After nine at the Latin Quarter you'll find soft lights - pretty French maids and the strumming of a Latin guitar!" purred a 1959 advertisement.

"I was kind of the mother bunny. I trained all the bunnies," says Dorothy. "It was done tastefully and we didn't accept any funny business. In 37 years we only had to call the police twice." Even the couple's daughter, Jayne, donned fishnet stockings, bunny ears and a fluffy tail for the benefit of tired businessmen.

The restaurant's clientele was almost as interesting as its atmosphere. Customers included actor James Mason, who was annoyed he couldn't drink on the restaurant's patio. Dorothy compromised by sneaking him a beer in a teapot. Other guests included wrestler Whipper Billy Watson, Pierre Berton and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Often, celebrities came to stay. In addition to Orlo Miller, other residents of the restaurant's upstairs apartment included broadcast personalities Paul Soles, Morley Safer, Johnny Walters, Hugh Bremner and Pat Murray - though not all at once.

Even George, the family cat, became a member of the Latin Quarter's stock company of characters. When a touring company staged the comedy Bell, Book and Candle at the Grand Theatre, they cast the feline in the role of Pyewacket. George later ran away - presumably to seek a career on the stage.

Meanwhile, Johnny kept the band working on weekends and holidays. His band was a regular on television, radio and as the house band at The Stork Club "on the shores of beautiful Lake Erie."

Once, while driving back from Port Stanley in a November snowstorm, he narrowly escaped injury when a train broadsided his station wagon, totaling the band's instruments as its engine detoured through the car's back seat.

Johnny's orchestra continued to land important gigs well into the 1970s. The Downs even planned on building their own banquet hall and ballroom on five acres of land near Lambeth. But a police crackdown on drunk driving spelled an end to the couple's most ambitious plan.

"A lot of people began staying home because of television and the raids so we decided to sell the property because the investment was based on people being able to take their own bottle," Johnny explains. "There were 800 people on an average Saturday night at the Stork Club and after the raids, we were lucky to be able to draw 400."

By the early 1980s most lakeside dance resorts had become memories. An aging dance crowd was staying home. Though stalwarts like Wonderland Gardens hung on, it was obvious that dance resorts couldn't coast along on nostalgia anymore.

Johnny stepped down from the bandstand in 1988 and neither of his children had any interest in carrying on the family restaurant. His son Tom had become a medical doctor in New Hampshire while Jayne served as a flight attendant for Air Ontario.

On the evening of August 26, 1990 the Latin Quarter hosted its final wedding reception and then its doors closed for good. A small green space nestled next to an office building now marks the site where the building once stood.

In its prime The Latin Quarter had a simple motto: "London's nicest restaurant." Many former customers argue it was - but only because Johnny and Dorothy Downs are London's nicest couple.