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Homage to Wonderland Gardens
by Christopher Doty

wonderland gardensAlthough a camping area known as Wonderland had been established in 1890 it wasn't until 1935 that this name became connected to this area on the western outskirts of London. In May of that year the Wonderland Summer Gardens opened and quickly became one of the city's hot spots. Over the years and enclosed dance area and a swimming pool were added. Prominent local bands that played at the Gardens included those led by Johnny Downs, Ted Pudney, Lionel Thornton and Neil McKay. Later local acts included the Hawthorne Good Times Band featuring John Hotson which played at 25 consecutive new year's eve celebrations.

ad 1948As entertainment styles changed, the renamed Wonderland Gardens became one of the last local reminders of the big band era. By 1956 the gravel driveway leading into the attraction off of Springbank Drive had evolved into Wonderland Side Road. Later acts which headlined at the Gardens included a legendary appearance by Frank Zappa, who indulged in some water skiing in the badly-polluted Thames River.

Following annexation of the area in 1961, the attraction was gradually enveloped by urban sprawl. The nature of Wonderland changed forever with the opening of the Guy Lombardo Bridge in November 1978.

Dismissed by its critics as "the bridge to nowhere" this four-lane span over the Thames River merged Wonderland into the former Hutton Side Road, creating one of the busiest north-south arteries in London. Twenty five years later, Wonderland Road is a major route through the suburbs of Medway Heights, Oakridge Acres, Berkshire Village and Westmount. It is directly responsible for much of the development in those areas.

Ironically, the decision to name the bridge after London's most famous musical son was based on the myth Lombardo and his band, The Royal Canadians, played many of their first engagements at Wonderland Gardens. In truth, Lombardo only performed at the Gardens twice - more than 30 years after he had achieved fame.

In recent years, Wonderland evolved from a dance hall into a convention and dining facility. Up-and-coming politicians who led rallies at the Gardens included Mike Harris and Jean Chretien.

A successful restaurant was added in 1983 which, ironically, proved to be the Gardens undoing. Owner Chuck Jones negotiated a twenty-year lease for the city owned land in order to build the Riverside Restaurant. When the lease came up for renewal in 2003, London City Hall insisted on a hefty increase in fees to reflect fair market value.

Jones balked and retired from the business, closing Wonderland in January 2004 and putting its contents up for auction. The facility sat empty until fire destroyed the enclosed dance area in August 2005. City officials are still undecided about the fate of the original 1935 bandshell and the former restaurant.

Gardens photo courtesy of Ted Marshall