Kenney, Mart (1910-2006)
If any one person could be chosen to represent pioneer performers in Canadian radio broadcasting, none could be better qualified than Mart Kenney.
He began his professional career in 1928 as a saxophonist with Len Chamberlain’s orchestra at the original Hotel Vancouver and broadcasting with a number of Vancouver dance bands on local radio stations. It was the booking for the summer of 1934 at the Pavilion at Waterton Park, BC, of a band he had organized that led to Mart becoming the premier Canadian dance band leader of the 20th century. The name of the band – “Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen”.
About this time, Horace Stovin, a pioneer broadcaster from Regina, who had been appointed the program director in western Canda for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC) network, had begun auditioning talent for programs that would originate in virtually every city in the west where there was a radio station. After hearing the band performing in Calgary, Stovin booked the “seven western gentlemen” for a weekly half-hour program from Waterton Park. The program was keyed to the CRBC network via CJOC Lethbridge, and radio listeners soon became familiar with the band’s theme, “The West, a Nest and You”, on a program titled “Rocky Mountain Melody Time”.
Mart’s second “big break” came at the end of the summer when Herbert Mathews, President of Canadian Pacific’s hotel chain, offered him a contract for the winter season at Regina’s Hotel Saskatchewan two nights-a-week. Mart’s band had been recommended to Mathews by George Whitmore, a CPR director living in Regina who had heard the band on the radio from Waterton Park. The engagement would not have been practical economically, had not Horace Stovin come forward with a mid-week half-hour program titled “A Tribute to a Song” which would originate in the studios of CJRM Regina. Thus began a relationship with CPR Hotels and the CRBC/CBC which continued for many years.
Following the Regina booking, in 1935 Herbert Mathews signed Mart for a summer engagement at the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta, and for the winter in the Spanish Grill of the Hotel Vancouver. Coincidentally, Horace Stovin created a half-hour program of “popular music” for a Sunday called “Sweet and Low”, to be fed by the CRBC Vancouver station (then CRCV) to the coast-to-coast network. This program continued for 13 years. The summer of 1936 found the band (now enlarged to ten men and a female vocalist) at the C.P.’s baronial Banff Springs Hotel. For the summer of 1937, and for two successive years, the band was booked to play the Roof Garden and the Imperial Room of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. Mart’s winter seasons at the Hotel Vancouver continued to April 1939.
While on his tours of Eastern Canada, Mart made several 78 rpm records for RCA Victor. Throughout all of these years, the Mart Kenney band was never absent from the radio airwaves, performing “live” at least once a week – sometimes three times, and occasionally connected to the NBC network in the United States. No Canadian dance orchestra had more air-time than Mart Kenney.
In the fall of 1940, the Mart Kenney orchestra worked its way east and became based in Toronto. It was booked two-days-a-week to play the Brant Inn in Burlington – internationally famous for its Lido Deck and its Sky Club. Purity Flour signed the band to a 30-minute commercial program on the CBC network. Meanwhile, there were several new faces in the band. It had been enlarged and some of the original members (perhaps weary from the years of constant travelling) had decided to settle down and raise their families.
But more traveling was in the offing. During WW II, The Coca Cola Company of Canada bought two half-hours a-week on the CBC network to present “Victory Parade of Canada’s Spotlight Band”. Beginning in February 1943, and ending in December 1944 an unbroken run of 200 programs were broadcast from virtually every army, navy and air force base from Tickle Cove to Tofino as well as industrial establishments, as the Kenney band entertained 400,000 war workers and the men and women in Canada’s armed services. Traveling from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a “private” railway coach, the band also made stops in towns and cities between Coca-Cola broadcasts to play for the public. Following the end of the tour, Coca-Cola presented a new radio show under the title “The Coca-Cola Club, starring Mart Kenney and his Western Gentlemen”.
1945 saw the band settled in what could be considered a normal life – doing radio shows, playing in popular ballrooms, booked for private parties and taking on some barnstorming tours. In 1949, Mart bought 108 acres of land at Woodbridge, 20 miles from Toronto City Hall, and built “Mart Kenney’s Ranch” – with a dance floor that could accommodate one-thousand people. The “Ranch” proved successful, but Mart sold it in May 1969, and with his wife, Norma Locke, who was the featured vocalist with the band from February 4, 1944, settled in Mission, BC.
After a stint in real estate, and with the encouragement of his friends, Mart resumed his musical career and each year traveled to selected cities across Canada where he appeared as the feature attraction with local orchestras.
In 1980, on reaching his 70th birthday, Mart took-time out to write his autobiography – “Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen” – in which he interwove an affectionate glance back at the Canada of the depression and war years. Recalled in prose and in pictures are the men and women who performed with the band as it grew from the original seven musicians – many of whom became stars in their own right.
In 2000, at the age of 90, Mart recorded a CD with top west coast musicians, which included two new songs of his own composition.
Wherever he lived or worked in Canada, Mart took part in community and humanitarian activities. One highlight was his participation beginning in 1948 with the annual “Timmy’s Annual Parade of Stars” of which he was its first Vice-Chairman, and later Chairman. For their good works after they had settled in Mission, Mart and Norma were named “Citizens of the Year”. In 1980, Mart received his country’s highest honour when, with the approval of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, he was appointed to the Order of Canada.
Mart Kenney died after a long illnes on February 9th, 2006 in Mission B. C.
Mart Kenney Associates
Written by J. Lyman Potts – November, 2001