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Friday 27 June 2014

A History of Pantages Playhouse Theatre - Part 1

Pantages Playhouse Theatre, Winnipeg
Place: Pantages Theatre / Playhouse Theatre
Address: 180 Market Street East (Map)
Architect: B. Marcus Priteca, George Northwood
Contractor: James McDiarmid Co.
Cost: $180,000
Opened: February 9, 1914

The Pantages Years

The roots of Alexander Pantages' Winnipeg theatre go back to 1911 and a man named W. B. Lawrence. A long-time theatre manager from Detroit, he came to Winnipeg in 1906 to manage theatres and produce independent vaudeville productions. (For the ins and outs of his involvement in Winnipeg's early theatre scene and the politics among rival vaudeville circuits see here.) 

In 1911, the company Lawrence was working for, the William Morris Talent Agency - now William Morris Endeavor, got out of the vaudeville business and Alexander Pantages swooped in to pick up many of the acts that had been cut loose and to absorb some of the theatres that would allow him to expand beyond his base, which was the west coast of North America.

Pantages approached Lawrence to assist him and to find him a Winnipeg theatre.

Top: May 17, 1913, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: May 19, 1913, Winnipeg Tribune

Lawrence brought together a group of local investors that incorporated themselves as the Unit Ownership Company.  They purchased property on Market Avenue and took out a $180,000 building permit for "Unit Property No. 1", the legal name of the theatre in July 1931.

Pantages, in turn, signed a 20-year exclusive lease on the building that was backed by a $50,000 surety bond.

The lease-back was not uncommon for Pantages. Some accounts say that there were at least a dozen other theatres that he operated in the same way. It he only way Pantages could grow his theaters chain as widely and quickly as he did. 

As for the number Pantages theatres, according to newspaper articles around the time of  the Winnipeg construction, there were a dozen in operation in the western U.S. and Canada, (see the above ad for a list).

A 1919 Free Press article lists the 56 theatres that made up the Pantages circuit at that time time, with ten more expected to be added in the year ahead. In more modern accounts of Panatages and his company, though, claims of the size of his empire vary wildly, some claiming as many as 200 or even 600 theatres !

January 24, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

Winnipeg's Pantages Theatre was designed by B. Marcus Priteca, a Scottish-born architect who had met Pantages soon after arriving in Seattle in 1909.

His first major commission in North America was the Pantages Theater, San Francisco, built in 1910-11. He would go on to design at least a dozen theatres for Pantages and at least that number for other companies, (for a partial list of his works.) George Northwood was the local architect who oversaw the project.

The theatre contained 1,763 seats: 897 on main floor; 200 in loges; 14 private boxes; and 676 in the balcony. It also boasted the the largest theatre lobby in the city. 

Like most theatres of the day, safety was a concern. The building was considered "virtually" fireproof as only the floors, the seats and doors were made of wood. Architect Charles Wheeler noted in a Winnipeg Tribune review of the building that "...a series of perforated pipes called sprinklers has been put in throughout the edifice."

January 24, 1914, Winnipeg Free Press

The building had a good, though unique, location. Market Avenue east of Main Street, across the street from city hall, was known more for warehouses and factories than theatre-going. To help combat this, Pantages invested $2,500 in new streetlights to create a "great, white way" along Market Street East.

One item that may have been a factor in the choice of location was that a spur rail line ran through the lane behind the theatre. It allowed for the more elaborate sets and cargo, including exotic animals, to be loaded and unloaded directly to and from trains.

It also gave the theatre extra space to put things like the building's boiler system and coal storage, which was contained in a vault built 20 feet below the tracks.

January 24, 1914, Winnipeg Free Press

The contractor was James McDiarmid Co., a prominent local builder and architect. He bragged in ads that the mere seven months it took to complete the project was a record for a theatre of that size in Western Canada. He also noted that, unlike the Walker and other prominent city theatres, the building was completed in every detail prior to opening night.

The list of sub-contractors was short, as the go-to company for much of the work was the Winnipeg Paint and Glass Co., (which McDiarmid co-founded in 1902 and still had a financial interest in.) They took care of the paint, hardware fittings, tile and marble, lumber and woodworking as well as the plate and art glass. 

The luxurious carpets and draperies were imported from England by the by the HBC.

J. E. Dolan Co. was contracted to do the painting and decorating, Cowan and Levvy installed the electrical and lighting, J. A. McTaggart did the heating and ventilation.

December 27, 1923, Winnipeg Free Press

Sadly, one workman lost his life on the project.

William Coulbourn of 225 Poplar Street was a plasterer working for McDiarmid. On December 9, 1913, he was on scaffolding forty-feet up when he fell though a gap in the boards. He died of head injuries at General Hospital on Boxing Day leaving a wife and five children.

A coroner's inquest found that his death was …caused presumably by the removal of a plank or planks from the scaffolding by persons to us unknown.” There was no foul play suspected. It was just that in the hustle and bustle of a busy work site filled with scaffolding, someone had moved a board to another section and Coulbourn did not notice.

January 24, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

The first performance took place on the afternoon of February 9, 1915, but it was the 7:20 p.m. show that was chosen as the official opening performance. The gala night included Alexander Pantages, Premier Roblin and Mayor Deacon and many of the city's business and arts elite.

After a brief address by the mayor and Pantages, it was on with the show,  which was typical vaudeville.

The Howard Brothers, who played - and juggled - banjos, Milton and Dolly Nobles presented a short drama, Phil La Tosca juggled plates and pool cues while doing a comedy monologue, Frank Richards and Louise Montrose did a song and dance routine and the grand finale was lion tamer Miss Adgie (Costello) who danced in a steel cage full of lions. (Tragedy struck Miss Adgie months later when some of her lions ate her fiancee.)

Thus began the relentless weekly process of shows coming in, playing for a week, then moving on.

January 24 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

Most notable about the Winnipeg theatre was its place in the Pantages empire.

Due to its geography and easy rail access to the rest of Canada and via St. Paul to Chicago and other U.S. centres, the Winnipeg theatre became the starting point for the Pantages circuit. Acts would be booked from offices in Chicago, New York and Paris, (most were old William Morris offices), and gathered in Winnipeg where shows would be put together. Lawrence had the ability to tweak shows and their lineups before they hit the road.

This likely meant that many Winnipeggers got jobs in the casts and crews of shows, but it doesn't seem to have translated into many headline acts. Only a couple of locals seem to have cracked the Pantages Vaudeville "starting lineup". (See below for a list of some of the Pantages performers !)

It is unclear how long Winnipeg remained the focal point. A 1923 ad noted that shows had been originating in the U.S. for some years and would be changing to Toronto.

One reason for the shift away from Winnipeg may have been the loss of Pantages' right hand man here. W. B. Lawrence suffered a stroke in 1916 and never quite recovered. He died in 1918 and his body was sent back to Detroit for burial.

Walter Fogg, who came to Pantages with Lawrence, as the resident manager of the theatre, continued as theatre manager.

 Public Meeting Places Ordered Closed
 October 18, 1918, Winnipeg Free Press

Another blow for Pantages in 1918 was the closure of all theatres, churches, schools and other gathering places in the province in an attempt to  slow the spread of the so-called "Spanish" influenza that was killing hundreds in Manitoba and millions around the world.

Jennie McLaughlin, called The Girl in the Moon because she serenaded crowds from a crescent-shaped prop suspended over the audience, had to cool her heels in Winnipeg for nearly six weeks until the ban was lifted.

Pantages reopened on November 28, 1918 with a seat sale for "show starved" Winnipeggers.

April 19, 1922, Winnipeg Tribune

In the early 1920s vaudeville was in trouble. Commercial radio was keeping people at home and when they did go out, "talkie" movies were becoming their entertainment of choice. The strange and sometimes corny mixture of vaudeville shows were becoming passe.

Alexander Pantages tried to change with the times.

In January 1923, he announced that a number of long-feature musical comedies and concerts would be inserted into the lineup, replacing or reducing the number of vaudeville acts some weeks. In 1925, he tried to create a chain of cinemas which didn't take off and were sold off to movie companies.

May 12, 1923, Winnipeg Tribune

In Winnipeg, the cracks began to appear in April 1923.

That year, Pantages' theatre went up for auction sale for a minimum reserve bid for $90,000 to cover the remainder of the mortgage and some other outstanding expenses. The newspapers did not make a big deal about it, so the details as to why it was being sold are not clear.

At this point, it appears that Pantages' company owned the building, not the third party that originally built it. It was hinted at in the ads that Pantages would lease the facility from the new owners.

Two attempts at auctioning off the theatre in April and early May were called off as no reserved bids were received. It finally went on the block on May 23 but, again, nobody bid.

Days later, James McDiarmid, the man whose company built the theatre back in 1913 - 14, announced that he had made an arrangement to purchase it for around $100,000.

August 4, 1923, Winnipeg Tribune

Pantages' run at the Pantages Theatre came to an end without without prior announcement on June 22, 1923.

It turns out that he had been working on a deal with Famous Players to insert his shows into the existing Capitol Theatre. His circuit bypassed Winnipeg for nearly 6 weeks as the Capitol underwent $50,000 worth of renovations. It reopened on August 6th as a combination cinema/live theatre venue with former Pantages manager Walter Fogg as manager.

The Pantages Theatre was now without a tenant just as vaudeville's fortunes were on the downslide.


 March 20, 1919

Over the course of nearly a decade, thousands of performers, both human and animal, graced the stage. 

Each theatre has its lore about what famous people once played there. Sometimes, though, the advertisements don't bear it out. (See my post about the Bob Hope first golfed in Winnipeg urban legend.) Of course, some famous people may have played the theatres on their way up the vaudeville ladder under different names or in performing groups without credit.

February 17, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune - Opening Lineup

Going back through Pantages playbills published in the newspapers, most of the acts ranged from the forgettable to the bizarre.

There were a few rather famous acts, however: singer Isabella Patricola (1917 and 1918); magician Hardeen, brother of Houdini, (1916); actor Harry Bulger; volinist Vera Berliner; drag queen, (female impersonator), Bothwell Browne (1915); Swedish violinist and composer  Jan Rubini (1920); opera singer Jeanne Jomelli (1916); cowgirl Lucille Mulhall (1914); clown Joe Jackson (1919); minstrel George Primrose (1916); magician and acrobat Long Tak Sam (1916); ventriloquist  The Great Lester (1916); comedian Charlie Murray; minstrel "Black Face" Eddie Ross (1919).

January 16, 1923, Winnipeg Free Press

There were a few performers who went on to achieve legendary status.

Before Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel's long-time comedy partner was Mae Dahlberg and they performed as "Mae and Stan Laurel" in 1921. The Three Keatons, "Fun's Funniest Family", in October 1916 included son Buster.

Canadian singer Eva Tanguay (1923) with her wild songs and sexy outfits has been likened to the Madonna of her era. Will Rogers is said to have appeared uncredited as part of an ensemble Wild West show, which could be the case as Pantages hosted a number of them.

Boxer Jack Dempsey, while still world champion, was to appear in 1921 as part of a boxing show, but he never made it. After just a couple of U.S. gigs, he bailed on the tour. Pantages sued for breach of contract. Something must have been worked out between the two because Dempsey did show up later in the year.

May 30, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

One thing relatively absent from the circuit was Canadian talent as the bookings were done in the U.S. and Paris.

The few references of Canadians I could find were of people who had already become famous in the U.S., such as Eva Tanguay and actor Alexander Gaden (1918). Two locals that cracked the lineup were Charlie Reilly, who performed Irish-themed skits that included traditional Irish songs, and actor Fred Woodward.

Some of the filler acts may have been Canadian or local, but vaudeville did not make them stars.

The final Pantages show at Pantages Theatre, June 1923


Unknown said...

The final Pantage's show at Pantages Theatre, June 1923

Hi my great grandfather, was Robert Jewett, he was in the last production at the theater :). His stage name was actually Robert Mungiven, and he used Robert Jewett rarely, as he usually went by Bobby Jewett. I came across your page during a family gathering, (me and my mother lol), and have some pictures to show you of him in that performance of Babes in Toyland or the like, I can post here if you want to use them, I will put them on a URL, and you can use them freely on your blog :)

My hopes if I can get the crowd source funding is to do a documentary on he and others in that era, and as you know its few and far between as most of the articles and the like during that era are long gone and never preserved.

Kenneth Jewett

Unknown said...

I believe this was the troupe he had at that time when he was 'touring' with his Dancing Dolls.


On a day off, in Canada this shot? http://imgbox.com/0KUSQtgV

...and a disgustingly small article, the original clipping, from someone who reviewed the act in Winnipeg; I am trying to find the other reviews at many of the Vaudeville era theaters all across Canada, as I have several of the original clipping, in storage.


Sherimb said...

I am trying to find where my grandfather performed in the Pantages circuit. All I have is an article written about him in 1951 where he stated "after a post-war lull hit the films, he took off for the vaudville circiut with a Chic Sale skit. he traveled the Pantages circuit out of Chicago for two years. His name was Abe Kemble. I believe the time frame was sometime between 1919/20 and 1923. This is all the informaiton I have on his time during his vaudeville days. When I asked my mother about this, before she passed away, she referred me to this newspaper article. If anyone has any information where I could find more information, please contact me at sheribethard@gmail.com

Thanks, Sheri