Tara Supper Club. (City of Surrey Archives / SM.518)

HISTORY: Surrey’s high school graduations are timeless celebrations

Sixty years later, South Surrey and White Rock grads recall fashion, food and fun

It’s high school graduation time again. Limousines, flowing gowns and tuxedos can be seen around the local streets, sparking memories of those who celebrated their own graduations decades ago.

Nearly 60 years have passed since Marilyn Buchannon, Ellen Edwards and Kathleen Moore attended their graduation celebrations in the 1950s, and yet the memories are as fresh as they were yesterday.

It was a time of great change. The lean years of the Second World War had passed and rationing was merely a memory. Improvements in healthcare, agriculture and economy, along with having more schools in better locations, enabled more students to stay in school and graduate, a choice many of their parents or even their older siblings did not have.

The graduation dinner and dances were often held in the Tara Supper Club in South Surrey or the Panda Supper Club in White Rock. As the graduation class was usually no more than 30 students, the classmates knew one another well and these were close-knit celebrations.

The Tara Supper Club opened in 1946, by Pete Simpson, a returning member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his wife Myrtle. The Simpsons dreamed of making a place where people could go to celebrate.

They cleared a site at the corner of King George Highway and Crescent Road, and used the harvested timber to build the club. It was perched on a slight hill, and had large windows across the dining area and dance floor, allowing for a remarkable view of the mountains to the north and the valley.

The other venue many remember was the Panda Supper Club, located down by the beach in White Rock. It was originally opened as the Palladium, which boasted the largest dance floor in the Fraser Valley. The club had a special dust-proof spring floor and it was the first in the area to use coloured spotlights to shine upon the dancers.

At one time, as local legend has it, the Palladium also had a rainbow coloured fountain on its roof that spewed water 40 feet into the air.

The Palladium was briefly renamed Dante’s Inferno before becoming the Panda Supper Club in 1957. It remained as such until it was torn down in 1963 for a new A&W Drive-In restaurant.

Grad night was a night to remember for all. The era of big band swing and jazz was in full force, with the Claud Logan Trio playing nightly at the Tara, and the Tommy Symington Band well known at the Panda.

This exciting era of change, music and dance showed in iconic, elegant dresses the graduates donned to embark on their new journey, one that promised better days ahead.

The girls wore their best finery, and some travelled as far as Seattle to get their special dress. Purple, pink and yellow dresses made of taffeta, organza and tulle, with crinoline-lined, full skirts were the order of the day. Shoulders were mostly covered, however, some of the very fashion-conscious girls, such as Marilyn Buchannon, graduate of Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary’s Class of 1953, were able secure strapless gowns.

Kathleen Moore, who graduated from Semiahmoo Secondary in 1955, remembers her dress was long, yellow and quite formal compared to the shorter, cocktail-length hemlines of her fellow graduates. She was, however, able to reuse her dress for a special occasion later on, when she cut the skirt and wore it again for a celebration with her nursing class.

Ellen Edwards, who graduated from Princess Margaret Secondary’s Class of 1958, fondly remembers dancing to the strains of the Penguins singing “Earth Angel” and the Five Satins “In the Still of the Night” in her purple tea-length tulle dress, kindly given to her by a friend.

Edwards still remembers the butterflies in her stomach as she practiced walking in her new heels, trying not to slip on the steps as she made her way to the Panda Supper Club with her date, her sister and her sister’s date to make memories that would last a lifetime.

After a grand meal and dancing, it was time to go on yet another adventure all the way to Stanley Park and back – the girls’ crinolines and taffeta left little room in the car left for the boys. It was a late night, and they arrive home much past curfew, but it was worth every moment.

Nearly 60 years later, and the graduation dinner and dances are much larger, including hundreds of students, but not much else has changed. The enthusiasm of the graduating classes of the ‘50s can be seen in today’s excited teenagers as they begin their own adventure into the world beyond high school.

Sue Bryant is an oral historian and a member of the Surrey Historical Society. She is also a digital photo restoration artist, genealogist and volunteers at the Surrey Museum and Surrey Archives.

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