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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)










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