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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 roots of Alexander Pantages' Winnipeg theatre go back to 1911 and a man named W. B. Lawrence. A long-time theatre man 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 amongst rival vaudeville circuits see here.) 

In 1911 the company Lawrence was working for at the time, 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 absorb to some of the theatres and other infrastructure that would allow him to expand beyond the North American west coast. He approached Lawrence to help him with this 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 investors that incorporated themselves as the Unit Ownership Co..  They purchased the Market Avenue property and in July 1913 took out a $180,000 building permit for "Unit Property No. 1", the legal name of the theatre. Pantages, in turn, signed a 20-year exclusive lease on the building 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 others that operated in the same way. It was the 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. It was located on Market Avenue east of Main Street, across the street from city hall. It was an area known more for warehouses and industrial facilities 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 contractors was remarkably 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 may have meant that there were a number of Winnipeggers that 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 becasue she serenaded crowds from a crexecent 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, "talkies" were becoming the 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 movie 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 is when it was announced that Pantages' theatre would go 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 are not clear. It appears as if  Pantages' company owned the building, not the third party that built it.

The assumption was that Pantages would continue to lease the building, but it appears taht those in Winnipeg's business community didn't seem to think so. Two attempts at auctioning it off 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 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. Former Pantages manager Walter Fogg went to run it.

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

THOSE WHO PLAhose who played Pantages ....

 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 and anecdotes related to them. Sometimes, though, the advertisements don't bear it out. (See my post about the Bob Hope golfed in Winnipeg urban legend.) To be fair, sometimes famous performers had bit roles in ensemble casts and passed through without mention.

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 along with 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 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 a star.

The final Pantages show at Pantages Theatre, June 1923

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