Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Bay Downtown's "Great Beacon"

January 14, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

There seems to be no end of interesting historical tidbits about the Bay Downtown. I recently stumbled across something called the "Great Beacon", the strongest light in the British Empire, which shone from atop the store in the early 1930s. It was equal parts advertizing gimmick and practical safety device.

 March 3, 1930, Winnipeg Free Press

The first airmail flights to and from Western Canada were set to take place at Stevenson Field on March 8, 1930. It was a big deal for not only the budding airline industry, but the the city of Winnipeg, which would be a hub for western mail going east and to points international, and for anyone who mailed letters or packages to or from the west.

The British Government, readying itself in 1929 for its first regularly scheduled commercial flights to and from Europe, experimented with giant beacons or "aerial lighthouses" near the coast that would point pilots in the direction of the nearest airport, especially useful in case of fog. The trials were a success and the largest permanent installation was established at Croydon, London in November 1929, throwing off more than  one-million candle-watts of light.

January 16, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

Crossing the sparsely populated Canadian prairie at night would be similar to crossing the ocean. Dark and featureless and at times foggy or snowy. It appears that the Hudson's Bay Company took the initiative to create a similar beacon atop their Portage Avenue store in Winnipeg in time for the first airmail flight.

They approached C. Gibson Ford, manager of the Western Division of French multinational Claude Neon Lightning Ltd. “Though perseverance and efficient work due primarily to civic pride...” he assembled the necessary components to create the beacon.

The light fixture and six 11,500-volt transformers were built by Canadian General Electric. Claude Neon supplied the spotlight bulb and 24 neon bulbs, each 32 mm in diameter, which formed a hexagon shape around the central spire. The 60-foot steel spire required to hold it all was designed by  Carter, Halls and Aldinger, engineers and built by Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works Ltd.

Because the beacon wasn't actually at the airport, which itself was outfitted with a new but smaller beacon for the occasion, the Bay's beacon included a powerful spotlight that shone in the direction of Stevenson Field for pilots to follow.

When it was lit, the beacon created 2,000,000 candle-watts of light that could be seen for 100 miles on a clear day. It was 20 per cent stronger than Croydon's light, making it the brightest light in the British Empire.

March 2, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

With the beacon in place, it was now a matter of planning the weekend-long celebration to go with it.

The postmaster general had planned an inaugural ceremony of his own, but was persuaded to collapse his in with the Bay's. On Saturday, March 1st, Leigh Britnell, a pilot and operations manager of Western Canadian Airways, dropped circulars from his plane over the city, each containing a lottery number. These could be brought to the store on the Tuesday following the lighting to be eligible for prizes. Most had an aviation theme, such as goggles, helmets and scarves.

Also on Saturday, the store drew back the curtains on its store windows to show displays documenting the history of transportation in Manitoba, from the Red River cart to the modern airplane.

On Monday, the night of the lighting, there was a VIP dinner held at the Bay which was also broadcast live on CKY radio, (at the time owned by MTS.) There were speeches by aviation pioneer James Richardson, C. Gibson Ford of Claude Neon, and W. Martin, head of the young men’s section of the Board of Trade. Postmaster Veniet made the formal announcement that inaugurated the service.

Top: Leech at the beacon. March 4, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune
Below: Postcard of beacon in action (source unknown - eBay?)

At 8:30 p.m. acting mayor Leech lit the beacon. Fifteen minutes later, the first flight from Regina arrived and at 9:00 p.m. the first flight left Winnipeg to Calgary with a load of mail.

The HBC relished the attention. They positioned themselves as a company not just of the past but of the future by supporting the airline industry. Later that year they erected similar beacons on their Calgary and Vancouver stores. Annual "Beacon Day" sales were held to remind people of the structure.

September 8, 1930, Winnipeg Free Press

What of the Bay's chief rival, the Timothy Eaton Company ? They, too, did their part for airline navigation. 

In September 1930 they allowed a concrete arrow to be installed on the roof of their store. Little fuss was made, I could find only one small article about its installation with no mention if this was a store initiative or that of an aviation group or authority. (The concrete arrow as a wayfinding device seems to be more of an American thing than a Canadian one.)

What is believed to have been the strongest beacon in the world was installed atop the Palmolive Building in Chicago in August 1930, said to have been 2,000,000,000 candle-watts in strength. It is still there to this day. Recent attempts to relight it as a landmark have failed.

February 25, 1932, Winnipeg Tribune

What became of the Bay's beacon ? For all of the fuss and expense, it was only in operation, nighttime only,  until the end of March 1932. Airmail service was cut as a Depression-era cost-saving measure and the need for the lights eliminated.

Airmail began moving again after 1937 when Trans Canada Airlines began operations. They used larger, more sophisticated planes that did not need such wayfinding devices.

I could find no mention in subsequent years of the beacon ever being used again, or when it was dismantled.


This article from a 1939 edition of Popular Aviation talks about early Western Canadian airmail service, including the beacons. Also see this story from the Winnipeg Real Estate News.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Radio Edition - July 20, 2014 *Podcast*

Ellice Avenue Icelandic Mural

On tonight's West End Dumplings - The Radio Edition, join me and Katie Seymour at 7 p.m. on 101.5 UMFM or go here for the podcast !


My guest is Sasha Ostowski, the West End Biz's mural tour guide. We'll talk about the tours and what's new on West End walls this year. 

Show Links

For more information about some of the items I mention during the show:

- West End Biz mural tours and upcoming restaurant tours

- The William Stephenson / James Bond connection

- A bio of Piercy Haynes

- The murder of Sgt. John Verne of the St. Boniface Police

- The "Gimli Glider", which is still for sale. (Also see this episode of Mayday !) 

- Marshall McLuhan's time at the U of M

- The Trial of Louis Riel

The Play List

The Rockford Files by Mike Post

Champ de Bataille by Oh My Darling (lyrics by Louis Riel)

The Metis by Ray St. Germain

Marshall McLuhan Remix  by DJ Spooky

The Ballad of Marshall McLuhan by Radio Free Vestibule

Painting Pictures by Adele

McLuhan interviewed by Edwin Newman (excerpt)

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Scott Furniture Block's last hurrah ? UPDATE

On Thursday, July 17, 2014, the Historical Buildings and Resources Committee of council will hear an application to de-list the Scott Furniture Company Building with an eye to demolishing it. It's a huge twist in the history of a building that just received a multi-million dollar restoration.

The ca. 1904 building has had a heck of a history. It survived two huge fires and over 30 years with one of the fugliest metal coverings ever put on a heritage building. (For more about its history, see my Winnipeg Downtown Places post.)

In 2010 a company called Space2Work, owned by Mark and Shelley Buleziuk, purchased it and began a multi-million dollar restoration, bringing the building and its façade back to its former glory. After it reopened in 2012, it was listed as a Heritage Property by the city and won a Heritage Winnipeg Preservation Award.

Since that time, however, it has sat empty. In May 2014 the 272Main.com leasing website was taken down and it has disappeared from Space2Work's site as well. 

At the June 19, 2014 Historical Buildings and Resources Committee meeting, the owners applied to have the building de-listed, which is the first step in demolishing a heritage property. The matter was held over to the July 17, 2014 meeting, (this Thursday at 3 pm).

Former Scott Block

So, what went wrong ? I contacted Space2Work to confirm stories that I'd heard, but they did not repsond. Presumably they will all come up at Thursday's hearing.

What I have heard from a couple of different people is that the major issue is an error made during renovations. Too much concrete was poured on each floor making them too heavy. (Whether this is a fatal flaw or just one that will cost a lot of money to repair and the owners would prefer to demolish than fix is what I was hoping to ask them.)

The time would be right for someone with vacant property on that stretch of Main to act. In early July CentreVenture announced that they want to perform a makeover to the area.

UPDATE - JULY 17 2014

Late this afternoon, the Historical Buildings and Resources Committee met to discuss the owner's request to remove 272 Main Street from the city's Historical Resources List.

The item was introduced by a city staffer who said that during the renovations the reinforcement strategy for the building's floors failed due to "faulty workmanship" that made the building "currently unsafe to occupy." The owners are unable to sell the building with the current heritage listing, so are requesting that it be removed. (Note that the "d" word - demolish - was not used, though once de-listed the owners would be free to do what they wanted.)

The owners, who were not in attendance, provided the committee with two engineering reports to support their claims about the condition of the building and what needed to be done to make it safe again. Reports that members of the public could not hear about.


Despite this being the newly revamped heritage committee that now meets in public in order to be more "open and transparent", as chairman Jenny Gerbasi noted in her welcoming remarks, the gallery was cleared so that the reports could be discussed in-camera. When pressed, Gerbasi said that this was at the request of the owner, as the content of the reports are part of a legal action. She also noted the clause in the in-camera bylaw that allows for this when legal action is underway. 

The gallery was pretty thin. A reporter, me and two representatives from Heritage Winnipeg, who were against the de-listing. To paraphrase HW's Executive Director Cindy Tugwell, there is nothing that has happened in the two years since the building was listed to lessen its heritage or architectural significance. Items such as an owner's cash flow, botched repairs etc. should not have any impact on a building's status.

After readmission, the committee discussed the application. They were in agreement that regardless of the renovation problems, the architectural significance or character defining elements that led to the building being added to the list in 2012 have not changed, nor would they be changed if the necessary repairs are made.

In the end, they voted unanimously to keep the building on the list of historical resources.

This does not mean the end for this application. The Historical Buildings and Resources Committee is a subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Downtown Development, Heritage and Riverbank Management, to which the owners can appeal.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Radio Edition: Celebrating Pantages Theatre Part 2 *PODCAST*

Podcast for this episode now available ! 

On tonight's West End Dumplings - The Radio Edition, my celebration of the 100th anniversary of Pantages Playhouse Theatre continues. In part one, I played songs from those who graced its stage during the Pantages Years from 1914 - 1923. This week, it is the Playhouse Years from 1923 to present. 


L'amour est un oiseau rebelle (Habañera) from Carmen - Sigrid Onegin
Ol' Man River - Paul Robeson
Dream a Little Dream of Me - The Mills Brothers
Dem Dry Bones - Delta Rhythm Boys
I'm Movin' On - Hank Snow
El Paso - Marty Robbins
Borderline - Chris de Burgh 
Farmer's Song - Murray McLaughlin
I Remember You/A Child Is Born/Tenderly (medley) - Oscar Peterson

To read more about the history of Pantages Playhouse Theatre, check out my series:

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A History of Pantages Playhouse Theatre - The Performers

This is part four of a four part history of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg.


This list isn't complete by any means. I spent a couple of weeks combing through thousands of ads and articles and Googling hundreds of names to put it together. I could have carried on for another couple of weeks to fill it out more and and include multiple visits, but had to cut it somewhere !

Some artist notes include more details than others.  This is because I did further research for a two-part series for my radio show about performers who graced the Pantages / Playhouse stage. (The podcasts of these shows will be available by the end of July). 


Every theatre has a list of famous people who once played there, though not all are necessarily true. In the case of Pantages Playhouse, it's a mixture of true and false.

Generally speaking, it seems that most of the already famous acts (i.e. Houdini) or acts that would go on to be stars (i.e. Bob Hope) came through the Orpheum Circuit, rather than Pantages. This could be due to reach -  for most of its time, Pantages was a regional chain centred in western North America. Also, the Orpheum blossomed into Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO), which included a movie studio and record label. Its stars could cross over into other media as they became popular or as vaudeville began to fade, ensuring that they would live on.

There are a few very famous names that come up often in relation to Pantages Theatre. Here is what my reseach has shown:

Charlie Chaplin: No. I can't find any playbill or article to support this.

Houdini: No. He played the Orpheum twice.

Buster Keaton: True. As part of his parents' show The Three Keatons.

The Three Stooges: Yes, but not THE Three Stooges. (See below !)

Ella Fitzgerald: True. She played on the same bill as Oscar Peterson in a show called the Greatest Jazz concert of all time in 1950.

Laurel and Hardy: Not true. Stan Laurel played as part of the Stan and Mae Laurel comedy duo. The only reference I can find to him and Hardy playing together there is on film.

THE PANTAGES YEARS (1913 - 1923)

Charlie Reilly was a local who made it big on the vaudeville scene, which was a rarity. He often performed with a  group called Reilly and Co. that did short skits featuring Irish humour and music or on his own as an Irish tenor. This is a skit and song recorded in 1923 called A Visit to Reilly's.

Eva Tanguay turned what it was to be a female singer on its head with her revealing costumes, fun attitude and suggestive lyrics. Originally from Quebec, she headline at theatres in places like Chicago for a month at a time. She played Winnipeg numerous times, for Pantages as a stand-alone act in 1923. (Also see here and here. )  Her signature song was I Don't Care. Here is a 1923 recording as well as a modern cover by Mary Lorson, who has a unique connection to the singer.

Isabella Patricola was also a big star in her day. Unlike Tanguay, she was classically trained and her outfits and demeanor were very "proper" and classy. Her recording career meant that she remained popular well after vaudeville ended. Here are three songs recorded in 1922 and 1923: Momma Goes Where Poppa Goes; Runnin’ Wild and Somebody Loves Me. 

Eddie Ross was a talented banjo player and ragtime musician. Unfortunately, he was part of a genre of American music: black-face minstrels. Popularized in the 1840s, full minstrel shows had petered out by World War I, though many singers and musicians continued to perform in into the 1930s. Here is Ross' Double Shu from 1922.

Stan Laurel's long time comedy partner in the 19-teens and early 20s was an Australian woman named Mae Dahleberg. They appeared at Pantages in 1921. I could not find audio of them, but here's a song Laurel did with his next long-term comedy partner, Oliver Hardy. Dance of the Cukoos. (Also see.)

Buster Keaton appeared in 1916 with his mother and father in an act called The Three Keatons, billed as "Fun's Funniest Family". The following year Keaton began making short films and go on to become a cinema legend. His conversion to talkies went badly and he ended up signing with MGM who tried to make him a song and dance comedian. (Also see.)

In the 1920s boxing was a major draw and at the time there was nobody bigger than Jack Dempsey. Pantages had a contract with Dempsey to travel the circuit to do boxing demonstrations in the late teens, but after one show he pulled out and began touring with a rival company. Pantages took him to court for a $100,000 breach of contract suit. Dempsey must have blinked because he came for a week starting October 31, 1921.


The1931-32 Celebrity Concert Series brought in a number of well-known classical performers. They included the likes of: tenor Roland Hayes; opera singer Lawrence Tibbett; violinist Albert Spalding; pianist Vladimir Horowitz; opera singer Sigrid Onegin; opera singer Richard Crooks and singer Paul Robeson who then went on to become a noted civil rights activist.  In 1933, the popular series moved to the Auditorium.

In 1933 theatre made a return as the Winnipeg Little Theatre, a forerunner to Manitoba Theatre Centre, moved in. Their guest producer Jacob Ben-Ami, also staged a number of Jewish theatre productions.

In the late 1930s some notable names that came through were: actress Patsy O'Connor (1937); jazz guitarist and singer Nick Lucas (Mar 1938);  actor Jimmy Dunn (Mar 1938); actress Lena Basquette (Mar 1938); actor Henry Mollison (April 1938) and comedienne, singer and impressionist Mildred Harris (1937),  who was also the estranged wife of Charlie Chaplin.

The week of January 23, 1938 the Three Stooges were the main attraction, though they are likely NOT the Three Stooges you might be thinking of. The original Three Stooges, Larry Fine, Moe Howard and Curly Howard, were brought together by a man named Ted Healey. They had success appearing together on stage and made some films until 1931 when the original Stooges broke with Healey due to a contract dispute.

The "breakaway" Three Stooges were allowed to use the name as the copyright holder, the vaudeville company they were created for, allowed it. Healy recreated the group with new performers and was also allowed to use the group name, but referred to as the "Original" or "Ted Healy's" Three Stooge. The lineup of the latter Stooges changed often. According to a Tribune story, the ones who played that night were Richard "Dick" Hakins, Sammy Glasser (Wolf), and Paul "Mousie" Garner. (They were minus Healy who was beaten to death in Los Angeles a month earlier.)

A Tribune Entertainment columnist wrote that some people called in to complain about the switch but he confirmed that these were Healy's Three Stooges and that he had the right to promote them that way. They did get a positive review for their maniac style of comedy !

On June 11 - 12, 1940 the Winnipeg Ballet, (they didn't become Royal until 1953), staged the first major ballet produced by a local company. They held annual shows here until around 1945 then began doing multiple productions per season. Dancers that graced the stage included Gweneth Lloyd and Paddy Stone.

The RWB performed at the Playhouse until the Centennial Concert Hall opened in 1968.

In January 1948 the popular Celebrity Concert Series, which relocated to the Auditorium in 1933, returned. With it came Lady Rosalind Iden and Sir David Wolfit and their Shakespearean troupe in February 1948 and opera singer Maggie Teyte (Mar 1947).

Others that appeared in the 1940s include, ballet's Dame Alicia Markova and Sir Anton Dolin together in December 1947,dancer Talley Beatty (Nov 1949); dancer and comedienne Iva Kitchell (Mar 1946, Jan 1948 and Feb 1951) Iva Kitchell (Mar 1946); singer Ivory Joe Hunter (October 1949), actor Frank Crawhsaw (Sep 1948); actor Menasha Skulnik (May 1947); actor Carl Benton Reid  (Dec 1944) and actor John Hubbard (Nov 1944).

In May 1946 Pantages hosted the Western Canadian Drama Festival, in which Conrad Bain directed the Alberta entry. The Manitoba Drama Festival was an annual feature into the 1950s.

The 1950s was a great decade for the Playhouse in terms of visiting American recording artists. On October 19, 1950 a touring show called the World's Greatest Jazz Concert brought Ella Fitzgerald (who had just cut her first album), Buddy Rich, Flip Phillips, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Bill Harris, Harry Edison, Ray Brown, Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson !

A Free Press review of the show said that the group gave it their all "technically and emotionally" for the 2,500 in attendance. Fitzgerald's voice left  left the audience in "a state of semi-hypnosis, clamoring for more". Peterson, the only Canadian in the group, impressed with songs like Tenderly, Move, and Little White Lies. (One year later the tour returned and played the Auditorium.)

A jazz-themed show in 1958 called Stars of Birdland included Count Basie, Sara Vaughn and Billy Eckstine.

Through the 1950s the Pantages hosted a series of "Pop Concerts", thanks to a partnership with Rancho Don Carlos' supper club. The club would bring an act in to play for a week and one night they would do a concert at the Playhouse. Acts that came through were: the Ames Brothers (Jan 1954); the Mills Brothers (Apr 1954); the Ink Spots  (Nov 1954) and The Gaylords who played the theatre's reopening concert on September 30, 1954.

One group brought in by Don Carlos', the Delta  Rhythm Boys, were so popular that 5,500 people lined Main Street from Portage Avenue to Market Avenue to catch a glimpse of them. They ended up playing two concerts, one as a  European flood relief benefit, in February 1953. They returned to Don Carlos' and the Playhouse in February 1954.

The Grand Ole Opry came through at least four times in the late 50s and early 60s. Their shows brought entertainers such as Ray Price, Jim Reeves, Johnny Horton, George Jones, Johnny Mathis, Roy Acuff, Slim Whitman and Marty Robbins.

Others who played the Playhouse in the 1950s and early 60s include singer Hank Snow (Apr 1959); dancer Angna Enters (Mar 1950); actor Murray Matheson; signer and comedienne Hildegarde (Oct 1950); baritone George London (Jan 1951); singer Anna Russell (Mar 1953 and Feb 1961); guitarist Carlos Montoya (Nov 6) and Pete Seeger (Feb 1967). 

As for spoken word, in April 1961 actor Hal Holbrook brought his one-man show Mark Twain TonightCandid Camera producer Allen Funt came for two nights in Jan 1964 and actor Franchot Tone (May 1965).

The classics were also on tap with the National Company of the Metropolitan Opera (Mar 1965); Munich Boys Choir (1975), chamber music by the Festival Quartet of Canada (June 1975); and opera singer George Hamilton IV (Dec 1974).

There was also a strong Canadian showing in the 1960s and early 70s, with people like playwright Gratien Gelinas (Jan and Dec 1966) and the legendary duo Wayne and Shuster, who came September 14 - 22, 1965 as part of their first Canadian tour since WWII.

Comedian Dave Broadfoot appeared in February 1965 with Barbara Hamilton and returned in 1970 to tape an episode of the CBC radio show Funny You Should Say That.  Our own Monty Hall drew the Western Canada lottery Corporation winning lottery numbers in a live broadcast in November 1974.

The 1970s were full of Canadian music. 

In May 1973 a country concert brought local favourites Ray. St. Germain along with Rick Neufeld and Dennis Olson

In April 1973 a series of rock concerts was sponsored by CBC television and recorded for broadcast at a later date. April Wine and Downchild Blues Band kicked off the week, which included Flying Circus, (an early Bruce Cockburn band - by 1975 he had played the Playhouse four times), Scrubaloe Cane, Fludd, Greaseball Boogie Band and Manitoba groups Crawford and Mood Jga Jga.

Canadian rock bands continued through the 1970s, most of them playing here multiple times. This included: The Stampeders (Aug 1973); The Guess Who (Apr 1975); April Wine (Apr 1975); Trooper (Oct 1976, Nov 1977); Streetheart (1978 and March 1979); Goddo played four times between 1978-80 and Chilliwack with Harlequin took to the stage in January 1976.

International rock acts of the 1970s included the "oldies" of  Fats Domino, who came in October 1972, to the controversial Boomtown Rats in March 1980. Others included: Climax Blues Band (Jun 1974); Blood, Sweat and Tears (Sep 1976); Elvis Costello and the Attractions (Nov 1978). Likely the most anticipated concert of the decade was Supertramp who played two shows in March 1976.

Country music was also a big draw in the early 1970s with Tom T Hall (May 1974); Merle Haggard; Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn, who played two shows on April 4, 1974. The second show was running late and it was near midnight before she reached the stage. She played for just 20 minutes, apologizing to the audience and vowing to return. She didn't.

Canadian country acts (or considered country in their early years) during the 1970s included: Stompin' Tom Connors (Nov. 1971); Anne Murray (Jun 1978) and Brandon's Bill and Sue On Hillman (Nov 1979).

The jazz highlight of this era was a concert featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Joe Farrell in April 1975. Blues was covered off by Muddy Waters (Mar 1976), Long John Baldry (Jun 1979) and Chicago bluesman James Cotton in August 1979. Leon Redbone had a foot in both camps when he came in January 1976.

Some popular singer-songwriters also graced the stage in the 1970s: Chris de Burgh (Nov 1977); ( Leo Sayer (Jun 1978); Murray McLaughlin (Apr 1979); Don McLean (April 1979, April 1980); The McGarrigle Sisters (Nov 1978); Gordon Lightfoot (1978, 1981); Daniel Lavoie (Apr 1980). Valdy came numerous times, including March 1976.

The decade wasn't all singing. Sesame Street's Bob McGrath held a children's show in November 1973, magician Brian Glow performed in May 1979. Comedy acts included Nestor Pistor (Jan 1977), Maclean and Maclean (Dec 1979) and Cheech and Chong (Feb 1976).

Note: I had to leave this in 1980 for the main reason that the Free Press Archives has been having more and more technical glitches of late making these searches pretty much impossible. if the site ever recovers, I may pick this up again !





1923 - Last Concert as Pantages


1930 (not today's WSO, which formed in 1947)