It’s not a stretch to suggest The Bella Vista has become an iconic St. John’s landmark.
Over the years, by allowing the business model to evolve and enduring the sluggish times, generations of townies and baymen alike who have walked through the doors of the big burgundy barn on the Kenna’s Hill overlooking Pleasantville and Quidi Vidi have a memory or story to tell of a night at the Bella Vista, still nostalgically known to many as the Stanley’s Steamer.
Maybe you would go there with your grandfather to bet on the horses, even though Nan told you not to let him.
Maybe you donned your best silk and velour one-piece pantsuit, bright purple, and danced the night away on the disco floor.
Maybe you are a karaoke legend, belting out Bob Seger hits in the downstairs pub.
Or maybe you attended a wedding reception or company dinner and dance there, the Bella Vista’s bread and butter over the many years.
This year marks a pair of milestone anniversaries for the storied entertainment venue; it’s the 40th anniversary of the Steamer and the 65th of the Bella Vista under the ownership of the Young family, both of which were marked with a two-night celebration of the memories and the music.
When William Young purchased the building and land in 1952, it was already established as the Bella Vista Country Club, Spanish for “beautiful view.”
“You could see right out through the Narrows, right up through the valley,” says William’s son Dave who co-owns the business and the accompanying Young Group of Companies with his younger brother Rick.
“You can’t anymore from the ground floor… but when you get up on the top floor, the view is there.”
At the time, the property consisted of a stately house, a trotting park for horse cart races, stables and the country club itself, which housed the stag room, popular among locals and American servicemen still stationed at nearby Fort Pepperrell.
“People came for the horse races, to eat and of course have a few beer. It was quite the happening place back in those days,” recounts Dave.
As the city encroached, however, the horse track was forced out to Goulds and in 1960 tragedy struck when a fire destroyed a chunk of the property.
The rebuild turned into a rebrand.
“They rebuilt it with the Coral Room, which was our private party room and the Sky Room, which was the dance floor and the area open to the public,” says Dave. “We had a kitchen. We catered to a lot of weddings and dinners and dances and private functions and things like that.”
Even after the departure of the Americans from lakeside in 1961, business was still good for a number of years. It was during this time that Fred Walsh, originally from Marystown but having made a name for himself managing a club on the military base in Argentia, was brought on board.
‘You’ve got to have a program’
“He loved entertaining people and he loved thinking up something unique and different to interest people and give them an enjoyable time,” says Linda Doody, Walsh’s daughter.
“Dad always had a program on the go because he said ‘you’ve got to have a program to be successful.’”
Walsh’s included a variety of theme nights, dances, and live bands, including Joan Morrissey, Garrison Hill, the Midsounds, the Du-Cats, as well as come-from-away artists like Bobby Curtola and Jerry Lewis and the Playboys.
For a short time, they even operated a fine-dining restaurant called The Spanish Room downstairs in what is now Stanley’s Pub.
But one of his lasting legacies is the role he played in the inventing the Screech-in.
With the help of Morrissey and Joe Murphy, of the Beachcombers, and a variation on the initiation ceremonies Walsh witnessed performed by American servicemen over the years, they established what became known as the Screech Club.
“He went up to the arts and culture centre and got a costume like a governor and costumes for a couple of other attendants and made up this little ceremony.”
(Myrle Vokey later established his own Screech-In that more closely resembles the style of ceremony conducted nowadays.)
“Great guy, fabulous operator,” says Dave. “He would take all these projects and ideas and run with them and make them the success they were.”
As can happen with any business, things started to slow down over a period of years. As the city grew, so did the number of entertainment options drawing more customers away.
“We had to come up with something else and re-invent the Bella Vista,” says Dave.
“In 1976, I happened to be up in Montreal on business and we saw something new called a discotheque. It was in a church that had been converted to a disco and it was quite the operation. I’d never seen anything like it before.”
Dave returned to St. John’s, recounted to Walsh what he’d witnessed and even brought him to Montreal to see it first hand.
“I used Fred as a sounding board because he was a few years older than me and I asked his opinion of disco and he thought it was a great idea. He was a really big influence in me putting the Steamer together.”
Back in St. John’s, Dave borrowed close to $330,000 from the bank — an incredible sum at the time — with $80,000 towards the sound and lighting system alone.
“They told me it was about 25 miles of wire went in the building,” says Dave.
None of this was undertaken without hesitation, of course. Dave says people were skeptical that anyone would want to dance to recorded music, and that doubt crept into his mind.
“We were ready to open our doors on Monday, Oct. 24, 1977 and that morning I thought, ‘I hope this works because if it doesn’t I’m in big trouble.’”
When he returned to the Bella Vista to prepare for an 8 p.m. opening, the line outside stretched down the road to the top of Kenna’s Hill.
Inside the Bella Vista was no more. In its place was the kind of place that anyone who laid eyes on it would never forget.
In concert with the Stanley’s Steamer name, the mainland design firm’s strange tribute to the 1920s steam-powered vehicle of the same name, the walls were adorned with bright orange and red metal plates with rivets and drill holes.
People loved it.
With DJ Sud Rao spinning tracks and Walsh delivering a six-night program, the Steamer became the place to go in St. John’s in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“Everybody who came to the disco would dress to kill,” says Dave. “Back then, half of it was to be seen, so the ladies would all be dressed in their finery and the guys would be dressed in their big suits with the collars.”
“It was just like being in Saturday Night Fever,” adds Doody.
“It was so different than anything else you had experienced with the light show and the sound and the DJs. It was so different than anything else you would see around the city.”
And it was a non-stop party. Live music, ladies night, friendship night, champagne night, and dance marathons that would last two days.
“I’d go home, go to bed, come back the next morning and they’re still dancing. We had big door prizes back then,” recalls Dave.
But the biggest night of all was Halloween.
“The costumes would be unreal and we’d be sold out months in advance,” Dave says. “People would be fighting to get in there.”
Walsh, unfortunately, was forced into early retirement in 1983 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the Steamer was retired four years later as the disco craze came to a definite close and George Street became the new St. John’s party destination.
“We got about an eight- to 10-year run out of it, which was great. Nothing is forever and we knew disco wouldn’t last forever, but it certainly worked out well for us and gave us the run that we were looking for,” Dave says.
The ’90s to today
After disco died, the upstairs of the Bella Vista was renovated again to be home to a dinner theatre. When that didn’t work out, it became a popular bingo hall for a number of years. Around the same time, Stanley’s Pub opened downstairs and started to gain popularity for its weekly karaoke nights.
When the bingo lease was surrendered in the late 1990s, the Youngs got back into the private function business and launched a catering company out of the venue.
These days, the Bella Vista is under the guidance Rick’s son Jonathan, someone who grew up around the club and has worn countless hats over the years, his preferred being karaoke host DJ Jonny Fever, a homage to the disco-era slogan “Stanley’s Steamer: Catch the Fever.”
“I can remember standing on milk crates playing Moon Patrol in 1983 when we’d go in during the daytime and walk around in the dark,” he says.
It’s his connection to the building, the business and the patrons that have kept him involved for over 20 years and that fuel his desire to keep the Bella Vista around for another 65.
“That’s why I’ve started doing these events and I’m hoping to pump it up more and get it to where it’s the talk of the town,” says the 42-year-old.
Part of that plan involves bringing more live music back to the venue which can seat accommodate 500 and is acoustically designed for use as a performance venue.
“I’m not interested in competing with downtown,” Jonathan insists. “I’m about supporting the local community in our area and giving everyone a good time and making them all walk away with a smile.”
Keeping the Bella Vista tradition alive.