Grease Paint on the Prairies: An Account of the Theatres, the Plays, and the Players of Winnipeg from 1866 to 1921
by Irene Craig
MHS Transactions Series 3, 1946-47 Season, April 1947
The earliest record we have of grease paint on the Canadian prairies is that of an Amateur Dramatic Society in the 1860s. This Society was formed by a group of enthusiastic young men in the Red River Settlement.
It appears that through Alexander Begg, these amateurs leased an upstairs room over a store in what was called, “McDermot’s Row.” This was situated on the east side of Main Street and south of the present City Hall, between the first Post Office and the Portage Road. At the north end of the row, on the corner of Post Office Street (which is now Lombard) was the old Merchant’s Bank. Today the Lombard Building occupies this site. These landmarks help us place the activities of those early Thespians in the Red River Valley.
The lease signed, hardly waiting to roll up their sleeves, the prairie actors dragged in benches for seats, fitted up stage-space and called their new quarters Red River Hall. Wood stoves heated the place. The Hall was about 40 feet long, 20 feet wide and not over 8 feet high. The informal dressing rooms were downstairs in a store. At first there were no tickets nor programmes. Each item was announced.
The people crowded to the shows, so much so, that W. H. Lyon (the storekeeper below) spent many anxious evenings while the prairie audiences above stamped their approval of the efforts of their first Amateur Dramatic Society.
Mr. Lyon in his store underneath began to fear for the safety of his select stock of stationery and fancy goods. So, armed with poplar firewood poles, he and his friend Alexander Begg spent night after night whenever the plays were on, anxiously propping up the ceiling of the stationery store. When the store was sold to H. S. Donaldson, he decided that no more entertainments would be held in the hall overhead; but before it “folded”, the upstairs prairie playhouse provided many a rollicking evening for the settlers, who wholeheartedly supported this Amateur Dramatic Society of the sixties.
Across the road from the Red River Hall was the Settlement’s principal hotel. The first play put on by the Amateur Dramatic Society was about this early inn. George Emmerling was the proprietor - “Dutch George” from Dakota, who had come with a tent, two barrels of apples, and a barrel of whisky to set up shop in the Red River Settlement. At the first performance in the Red River Hall the dramatic society celebrated the opening of this new hotel. It was a big night. W. J. O’Connor and Colin Inkster made speeches. The whole town was what you might call “lit up”, or as J. J. Hargrave records, “on the alert.”
And not to be outdone, with candles blazing in every window, the hotel manfully played its part-a part which might have proved a tragic role. Of course the whole Settlement was across the road at the show and everyone excited about the big theatrical event. Luckily the quick action of a lone individual, who was late for the performance, saved the day. One of the candles had set fire to the new hotel draperies and had the late comer not acted in time when action was needed, the wooden buildings being all so near to each other, the whole village might have gone up in smoke.
Meanwhile, all unconscious of what had occurred, the actors and audience in the Red River Hall over the way, were thoroughly enjoying themselves. The performance was in full swing! In the play, a traveller from away North was supposed to arrive at the new Emmerling Hotel. He was told that all he had to do was to state his wants and the management was at his service.
He wanted a bedroom. Right! He was shown to one, the best in the house. As the boys played it in the farce, the best bedroom was a subterranean vault, very dampish in spots. The traveller, enraged, shouted for the landlord. The walls of the hall reverberated, but the actor who played “Dutch George” took his time. Meanwhile the tired traveller’s language (and remarks in general) were anything but complimentary, especially what one man in writing of it called, the “bull’s whisper” asides. As the actor-landlord took so long to appear, these remarks became so highly colored, vigorous and personal that the audience literally was alarmed for fear the real landlord would rush up from the back row and slay someone.
However, the players got on with it and the traveller was handed his candle. Of course, when he attempted to light it, Wshtt! it exploded in all directions and illuminated the whole place.
Next, the guest’s boots disappeared mysteriously. As they wiggled in opposite directions across the stage, the bewildered traveller nearly twisting his neck off, kept popping his eyes from side to side, trying to follow the shenanigans of the animated jack-boots. This brought the house down.
After several more such riotous experiences the man from the North sank on to his bed which, of course, collapsed spectacularly as the curtain dropped with a bang! Applause rocked the building. For safety’s sake this had to be repressed. Between “Shush-eshes!” the proud stage manager announced another performance for the following week.
Later, Emmerling’s hotel became the Davis House: today we can only picture the candles shining from the windows on the opening night exactly where the south end of the McIntyre Block on Main Street now stands. Several years later (in 1874) McDermot’s Row across from the hotel was burned down.
During this play-acting period in 1866-1867 Red River Hall served a double purpose. The Rev. George Bryce performed a marriage ceremony there. To go to worship all the way down to St. John’s Cathedral was a long way, especially for the ladies, and the popular Red River Hall seemed so much more convenient.
But upstairs? ... for a church? Well, why not? It seemed sensible; so Mr. Lyon’s Sunday evenings were busy too, as well as the nights of the shows. Regularly he and Mr. Begg together, spent a goodly part of the Sabbath propping up those cordwood poles. Happily, Archdeacon McLean’s congregations grew and grew, but not the prospective owner’s generosity. Mr. Donaldson had said, “no gatherings” and Mr. Donaldson was adamant. No gatherings or no sale.
The Court Room at Fort Garry was then used for the services, and the rollicking Red River Hall became the meeting place of the men who were thinking of forming the Manitoba Club. Much more respectable!
On 17 December 1870 the two months old Weekly Manitoban stated that, “Winnipeg is going ahead! It now has a brand new theatre and a talented company made up from the ranks of the Ontario Rifles.”
As we all know, it was just a few months before, that this particular province was made into a province and this Northwest Canada was very much in the limelight of Canadian history. Arguments as to how to conduct their affairs had arrived at such a stage that for precautionary measures the Government felt it was wise to place Canadian troops in this prairie region ... so during this unsettled period the men of the Ontario and Quebec Rifles were stationed here.
Whatever the feeling politically may have been at the start, the men of these battalions soon made good friends all round, and who knows? - their mutual love of theatre dramatics may have helped to foster that good fellowship; for certainly only a few years after the first Amateur Dramatic Society disbanded because of the rickety flooring in their Red River Hall, when the community was suffering from lack of theatre entertainment, the men of the Ontario Rifles happily solved the problem.
On their arrival here, these theatre-minded volunteers from Eastern Canada got busy and rented a building belonging to A. G. B. Bannatyne. This they decorated, and with the seating and the stage trappings the cost ran up to $1,000, but the Ontario boys paid it. At each performance given by The Ontario Musical and Dramatic Association their efforts were greeted with crowds and cheers.
And how the ladies of 1870 must have looked forward to their first entertainment!
For that thrilling Friday evening, 16 December ... a very “posh” affair was announced, “under the distinguished patronage of His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor and Lady.” At this time, large paper currency, locally called “Hudson’s Bay Blankets” was in use. The people forked out two shillings’ worth for a box seat; and for the pit, one shilling. The census at the time showed 215 persons in the Settlement.
This Theatre Royal as they named it, was actually the rear of a store on McDermot Street east. Later it was a blacksmith shop, used by Jack Benson, and was not torn down till late in the 1890s.
Their first show, “The Child of Circumstance” or “The Long Lost Father” was such a success that the troops began to spread themselves. A couple of weeks later a great Theatre Royal ad in the Manitoban announced: “Tonight they give us a Grand Christmas Pantomime, which has been highly spoken of, and the attractions of which are immensely enhanced by the arrival of a renowned Clown, who has been expressly engaged, and will play tonight in the first Pantomime ever placed on the boards here! Bringing a clever artist like Mr. Sloan 600 miles across the prairie amid ice and snow of this northern latitude, is an expensive and risky undertaking, but we have no doubt it will result well for himself and those who bring him here.”
It all sounds pretty exciting, but it is to be hoped that the lads of the village weren’t squandering all their money on clowns and such, because in print, right beside that Christmas Pantomime splurge, in a private notice, Mr. Emmerling the hotel keeper becomes quite emphatic! “Attention:- I hereby request all those indebted to me in Manitoba to come forward and pay up promptly. I can be found any day in the store next to Mr. Drever’s. Signed. Geo. Emmerling.” Drever’s store was where the C.P.R. offices are today - a few hundred feet south of the old Red River Hall. Mr. Emmerling had been running that same notice for six weeks!
Further on in the files is another advertisement. “Theatre Royal. The Music and Dramatic Association of the 1st Ontario Rifles. On the 5th Night of the Season will be performed a new and original Three Act Comedy entitled ‘Toodles in Red River’. Entirely new and elaborate scenery. See small ads.”
Lower Fort Theatre
In those days theatricals seemed to get plenty of newspaper space. Here’s another write-up. “February 18, 1871. Theatricals at The Lower Fort. The Variety Club of the 2nd Batt. (Quebec Rifles) gave another of their charming entertainments at the Lower Fort on Tuesday evening last, on which occasion the celebrated drama of “The Gypsy Farmer” and the side-splitting farce of “Barney and the Baron” were produced. The little theatre was crowded to excess, quite a number being present from the Upper Fort and its vicinity. The acting was all that could be desired and we could not help noticing the admirable manner in which Isaacson, Pringle, Robinson, Bedson and Jones went through the parts allotted to them. The female characters were well sustained by Frank Clarke, Hewledd and Kennedy.”
Later on some of those Quebec Rifles players became professionals. Louis de Plainval went to the United States. This good musician with the magnificent bass voice returned to Winnipeg later, with a professional company. Pat Sullivan joined the “Babes in Toyland” Opera company.
Presently the papers began to refer to the disbanding of the Canadian troops. On 22 April 1871, the newspaper urged that everyone be ready for what would happen two days later. It stated . “Amateur Theatricals in Winnipeg. The Dramatic and Musical Corps of the Ontario Rifles announces their last public performance for the 24th inst., and will, we are sure, be greeted with a bumper house. Regarded as a means of amusement and instruction for the men themselves, these theatrical performances have served their purpose well, and have helped to pass away pleasantly a winter which would otherwise be specially tiresome and monotonous to the troops. But at the same time, these entertainments have been a benefit to the public generally ... It is felt that this amateur theatrical troupe have placed the public under many obligations ... ”
On another page, appeared a special notice for this performance too, featuring (it said) “One of the best bones performers on the continent, Mr. J. Clarke (late of the 2nd Batt. Quebec Rifles) will perform at the Theatre Royal on Monday evening next.”
How sorry the theatre patrons must have been to read three days later the final advertisement about the popular Theatre Royal, saying that on Saturday, 29 April, “The entire property, consisting of scenery, clothing, stores, shirts, stovepipes, candles, curtains, flannels, fringes, etc., will be sold by public or by private sale.”
The Opera House
By the time the next New Year came around the settlers were enjoying the fruits of their own dramatic talent. New hall and everything! On 3 January 1872, “Box and Cox” was played to a well filled house by the Manitoba Variety Club ... “Convulsing their audience with their eccentricities” the newspaper reported, so the citizens must have liked it.
For this performance the old Manitoba Hall was now grandly named The Opera House. It was on the north side of Bannatyne Avenue, about a hundred yards east of Main Street. The building was owned by Bernard Ross. The upper storey was divided into dwelling apartments. The space downstairs was used for dances and public entertainments. People came to these from the Lower Fort and the outlying Red River Settlement by dog-train. At the dances the men danced in moccasins.
When “Box and Cox” was played it was reported that “Notwithstanding stormy weather the house was a full one, particularly in the reserved benches.” The melodrama “Robert McCair” was also acted. The seating equipment referred to consisted of planks laid on trestles. These were without backs but built with a gradual rise.
The Free Press of 22 February 1873 says that “The dearth of amusement in our city this year has stirred the members of the Provisional Battalion Band, and we are to have a minstrel performance on Monday evening next. The new immigrant buildings have been fitted up for the purpose, the partitions taken down, a commodious stage with movable scenery erected, and the whole warmed by means of six large stoves.” This building was just below the Hudson’s Bay Company’s mill, on the point of land at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine. Lieut.-Col. Thomas Scott took part in several performances given here. He said it was an unfinished frame affair but the boys did a good job on it. For seats they dragged in planks which they placed on trestles.
Fort Osborne Barracks was in course of construction for the soldiers here at the time. To the theatre-loving public, troops in a barracks of course spelled “troupers” ... and sure enough this Fort Osborne Barracks ran true to form with its Garrison Theatre.
General Ketchen, G.O.C. M.D. 10 for many years, gave the writer the following description of this new barracks. “The site of Fort Osborne, at Broadway and Osborne,” he said “was donated by the Hudson’s Bay Company, to be used for military purposes. The name Osborne was given the fort in honour of Colonel Osborne Smith, C.M.G., the first D.O.C. of M.D. 10. The buildings were wooden hutments erected in 1871-1872. The Garrison Theatre was in one of these hutments.”
The late John McDiarmid, a Winnipeg contractor of long standing told this writer he recalled those wooden buildings. He said the old huts (about eight in all) were one-storey buildings heated by stoves. Also, instead of crossing a bridge on Osborne Street in the early days, Mr. McDiarmid said people were ferried across by an old man with a boat.
The troops must have been pretty busy with their entertainments, for there were five concerts that first winter. In one month the next season they did three shows. On 7 February 1874, a full two-column letter addressed to the Editor of the Free Press appeared. It stated that: “Public amusements occupy at present a conspicuous position in moral recreation.” Then followed a review of the play, “Boots at the Swan” ... the first Garrison Theatre offering for their second season. This play had taken place a week earlier.
From this interesting letter we read more of the performance: “The Garrison Theatre doors were thrown open a little after eight o’clock, and a steady stream of soldiers and civilians came in, anxious to see the birth of infant theatricals. The curtain rose at 9.00. The Band played ‘The British Grenadiers’, expectation was at its fullest height.” On it goes, and the Gentle Reader (who is called “Gentle Reader” ever so many times) is treated to two full columns describing the characters portrayed by the soldier players.
A week after this the troops rang up the curtain again. The review this time was a little more critical. Here it is: “February 14, 1874 - The second performance of the Garrison Theatre troupe came off at the handsome little theatre of the new barracks on Tuesday evening. The house was full to overflowing. Extra seats were procured and still some could hardly find standing room. The opening farce, ‘Poor Pillicoddy’ was well put on, the only drawback being an evident desire on the part of one or two of the stage people to ‘wing it’ in the neighborhood of the prompter’s box ... Messrs. Jones, Davis and French represented the fair sex in as praiseworthy a manner as could be expected under the untoward circumstances of their having been heretofore considered as belonging to the other sex; and what they lacked in feminine grace and beauty was balanced in their favor by good acting.”
However, Captain Scott seems to have made a hit. Of him the reviewer states: “In ‘Poor Pillicoddy’ there is no cod about it when we say he brought down the house.” He must have been good, as later on, Messrs. Begg and Nursey tell us that “Lieut.-Col. Scott, our member, was one of the finest performers in the Nor’West. In 1873 he appeared in ‘Poor Pillicoddy’. It was his last appearance in that sublime character.”
The Garrison Theatre review goes on to say that the closing farce “The Area Belle” was the cream of the evening. Praise for everyone ... the show an unqualified success, but a critic has to uphold his own reputation so, after great compliments as to the appearance of the Garrison Theatre he continues: “It would scarcely do if we could not find some fault, no matter how small an one, and while we know it is not generally considered the thing to criticise too closely the performance of amateurs, we may say to a member or two of this so near approaching professional, excellent company, that continually coming in at a door and going out through a fireplace or a dead wall savors of the pantomime.”
But such criticisms didn’t seem to worry those Old Troupers because a week later it was announced: “Her Majesty’s servants will give their third performance on Monday evening next. ‘The Double-Bedded Room’ and ‘The Irish Tiger’ being a portion of the bill of fare.”
The daily paper of 1874 describes it thus: “A difficult matter Monday night to have crowded another person into the Garrison Theatre without producing an uncomfortable strain upon the walls of the building. A number of local gags in the play tickled the audience immensely.” And further ... “In the ‘Irish Tiger’ Langton made a very pretty Miss Marrowfat!”
Just three weeks later, in the “Artful Dodger,” the critic tells us Long was capital as “Susan Smudge”. What names! Marrowfat and Smudge ... And how the audience loved the men playing the women’s parts.
The remark about the prompter’s box must have taken effect as we read: “The repeat performance of ‘The Area Belle’, a great improvement. Everybody seemed to be well up on their lines. Having praised so far, we may be pardoned for insinuating that walking about in fields and other outdoor places without a hat, does not look strikingly natural.” Times change! Only fifteen years later, a news item appeared pleading with people not to wear silk hats at picnics.
The officers liked play-acting too, for in the same review the comment reads “In ‘The Artful Dodger’, Captain Herchmer made his first appearance on any stage in a walking gentleman character with a name too long to be accurately remembered and his efforts were greeted with deserved applause.” Evidently the Captain as the Hon. Frederick Flamwell Fitz-Fudge didn’t get any lines. Big joke!
In the Garrison Theatre performances, Corporal C. N. Bell - later president of the Manitoba Historical Society - many times played the “leading lady”.
The men still played the women’s parts, and because of his finely chiselled features Charlie Bell was often chosen to play the “devastating beauty”. On one occasion not a wig was to be found, but two fine switches were available. Two, yes ... but one was dark and one was fair! This did not faze the garrison players. The golden curls were fetchingly arranged on the downstage side of the beauty’s head and the brunette ones carefully tucked under a fascinating feather which curled round her small straw bonnet. So far, so good! Everyone was bursting with curiosity.
To complete the costume, frilly pink pantalettes were to be worn. These proved a delusion and a snare. The ruffles round the ankles were perfect but the pantalettes ended abruptly just over the knees. They were fastened with a drawstring. Men never can tie bows. During the performance down came the pantalettes.
Three original Garrison Theatre programmes are now in the files of the Manitoba Historical Society. A long yellow one dated 27 March 1873; a long blue one, when “Boots at the Swan,” the first performance of the season on 26 January 1874 was billed; and still another presenting the “Artful Dodger”. Sergt. Long was Susan Smudge in this you remember, and also, this repeat performance was when Capt. Herchmer played Fitz-Fudge. This special repeat performance was “by particular request” and was played on 7 May 1874.
Regarding entertainment for the next season, i.e., 1875, competition was evidently in the air. The contemporary account tells us: “A citizen is making preparations to open a large music hall in the city in the spring, where an imported company will amuse the playgoers of the city. The preparation of the building is to be commenced almost immediately.”
But the Garrison Theatre was still going strong, and the women were acting too, Mrs. Collins as Mrs. Fizgig, and Mrs. Harnett as Mrs. Crummy.
The Collins family evidently was superb. The newspaper vouches for it. This is what it says: “Too many people went to the Garrison Theatre on Friday evening. Standing room got scarce long before the advertised time for commencement and scores were turned away from the door. Great as was the success in point of attendance, the performance itself was quite in keeping. In ‘The Irish Lion’ Mrs. Collins, who made her debut on the occasion, was excellent as Mrs. Fizgig.
How’s that for Manitoba in 1875? Seventy years ago they seemed to get so much for their money too, because that same evening an “olio interlude” was followed by a “musical burlesque”.
The review doesn’t say what the olio was that evening but specially mentions the musical burlesque, “Villikins and his Dinah” played by Messrs. Collins, Gribbon, French and Long. We are told it was “well dressed and well put on.”
This “Villikins and his Dinah” was always a particular favorite with the Red River soldiers and at good burlesque the Garrison Theatre lads were tops. Truly enough, someone has said, “Manitoba drama was cradled in the sentry box and nurtured on pipeclay.”
Second Theatre Royal
On the prairie, drama was in the air!
Prompted by happy memories the Red River citizens also put on their own plays. The Lorne House, which had been built by William Hespeler as the Mennonite Hotel, was converted into a second Theatre Royal.
Mr. Begg tells us: “In this temple of art a series of performances was given by a local troupe during the winter of ‘75 and ‘76.” “Ten nights in a Bar Room” was one.
The late Col. C. G. Porter told the writer this second Theatre Royal was a one-storey log building with a false front on Main Street just south of the present Empire Hotel, and that when it had been the Lorne House, rooms there were a shilling a night. Later, when it became the Theatre Royal the place was advertised as “fireproof” as it had a mud floor to stamp on. It was really only a great barn or lean-to at this time, and beside it was a shack where stray horses were kept. Sometimes during the tense, hushed passages the horses squealed and the mules brayed. The play would be held up indefinitely while the audience shrieked with joy at the nonsense of the whole thing.
In the following autumn the Winnipeg Amateur Literary and Dramatic Association was formed. According to Mr. Begg, for the use of its members this dramatic committee secured what was left of the original Trinity Church the one that was destroyed by the cyclone in 1868 before it was finished. This building was being used as a warehouse at the time, but it was reconverted by the dramatic committee and rechristened Dufferin Hall. Their first play was “The New Footman” by Charles Selby - a great success. Others followed. Hugh Gordon, one of the male characters in this play, was played by C. N. Bell.
This opening performance of the new local company took place on 4 January 1877. The first rush for seats carried away the doormen and the ushers. A lot of money had to be returned as the house was oversold. The popular Dufferin Hall was on the northeast corner of Albert Street and McDermot Avenue, where later the Free Press was situated for a time.
Incidentally, sketches of three of these early playhouses appeared not long ago in the Winnipeg Tribune. These sketches were shown originally in the opening Walker Theatre programme. There it is stated they were “drawn from memory by the late Mr. Andrew Strang.” Mr. Strang’s son, Walter and also his daughter, Mrs. R. R. Swan both say this must be an error. They think perhaps their father donated them and that the sketches may have been drawn by their uncle, Colin Strang who designed the City of Winnipeg coat of arms.
A peculiar horseshoe that hung over the Dufferin Hall entrance from 1878 till 1881 is now in the Historical Society archives. For many years this souvenir was treasured by L. H. Fitzgerald who rescued it and sent it to Walter Fogg of whom we shall hear later. A letter from Mr. Fitzgerald tells the story of the horseshoe. The writer of the letter is the father of the well-known Winnipeg artist L. Lemoine Fitzgerald.
In this new Dufferin Hall set-up several of the local women took part in the plays.
City Hall Theatre
During this period the City Hall Theatre was a popular place with everyone. On 14 March 1876 it had been formally opened with a concert in aid of the General Hospital. This auditorium held five hundred people and boasted a gallery across one end. It was over the City Council Chamber. The building was on the site of the present City Hall, on the west side of Main Street. This site is described in the City Hall records as being “immediately north of Brown’s bridge, the only drawback being the necessity of filling up certain gullies which occupy a large portion of the grounds.”
At a gala performance in 1877 during the visit of Lord and Lady Dufferin, their Excellencies were entertained at the City Hall Theatre.
Cool Burgess was the first professional actor to appear in Winnipeg. This was on 24 July 1877. Before that most of the entertainment had been home talent. The Free Press tells us, “The visit of the first professional troupe to this province will long be remembered as an interesting era in the social history of Winnipeg.”
On 16 March 1878 a gentleman who styled himself, “The Great Illusionist of the World” was booked to appear for a week at the City Hall. This selfstyled “King of Musicians ... the Wonder of the Nineteenth Century” was severely criticised for unpunctuality. We quote the critics: “Though Winnipeggers are notoriously unpunctual individually, collectively they resent being kept waiting.”
The first theatrical advance agent came to the prairie in the spring of 1878. This gentleman from New York wore a silk hat and velvet ear-muffs. This was too much! A well-aimed snowball knocked off the high hat. The agent waved his hand good-naturedly and shouted out, “All right, gentlemen!” as he recovered it. The culprits recognized a good sport when they saw one and took the visitor in hand. The “boys” knew a way to make amends.
Many fine entertainments were given in the hall over the Council Chamber, but at the beginning of 1883 it appears the City Hall began to “bulge frightfully” at the sides. It had to be propped up and was considered unsafe. Also, this theatre on the second floor of the City Hall was heated by hot air, and had oil lamps to light it. Judging by records of the time it was “entirely devoid of emergency exits or even ordinary safeguards against fire.”
It should be recorded that during the boom days of the early eighties beside the City Hall there were a number of so-called “Variety Theatres”. These were not strictly “legitimate” as theatrical enterprises, but were mainly auxiliaries to the bars or saloons to which they were attached. One, The Pride of the West Saloon, was proud of its piano, and supported a “high-class” vaudeville show! Another was the Opera Comique, under the management of Dan Rogers. Mr. Rogers was always in difficulties, and at one time paid a fine at the police court regularly every morning.
On 4 May 1883, the Hammond and Sheldon Company gave the closing performance at the City Hall Theatre. Meanwhile it had earned for the civic treasury the sum of $4,746.00 in rentals, chiefly from theatrical entertainments.
We should mention that during its hey-day, a stock company arrived. In 1880 this Eugene A. McDowell Company from Montreal was already in its second season. It was Canadian and people liked it. A big event took place when Mrs. McDowell (Fanny Reeves) played “Juliet”. The company could put on any Shakespearian play and be sure of a crowded house. Always front page news, a full column, and often from the audiences at the City Hall Theatre where they played, came cheer after cheer.
When the McDowells played at Emerson, chairs had to be placed outside the theatre windows to accommodate the crowds. Admission prices were charged for their use. Also, the Emerson people paid to stand on piled up boxes to be able to see through the windows that were placed too high to be able to see the stage from a chair.
Though essentially this paper deals with amateur entertainment, these professional players are included to show how deep-rooted was the love of drama on the prairies. Even in July it seems that Winnipeg could take its “Othello” and “Macbeth” and like it.
“Hamlet” on the other hand, must have been extra hot ... we find that during the noble tragedy somebody got drunk ! In fact, everybody got drunk and raised Ned! But this was at Emerson, and we have said how crowded it was ...
In one of T. W. Robertson’s plays called “School”, several Winnipeg ladies and some children appeared with the stock professionals in the examination scene. They were paid, too - 25 cents for the children and 50 cents for the grown-ups.
Things theatrical were looking up. But there’s always something to take the joy out of life. Regularly, at this time, a most unpleasant young man attended the theatre every evening. Sported a moustache and talked all the time, so the papers commented. People were indignant. Had this happened a year later, the buzzing of the whole 47 new telephones in Winnipeg would have added to the censure. Meanwhile it was felt by one columnist that “the young man’s father should take him across his knee”... moustache and all ... “as he disturbs everyone within half a dozen rows.”
In 1884 the Icelandic Company gave a good account of themselves in an Icelandic amateur skit called “The Outlaws”. Also, in the early eighties, the Natal Professional Opera Company opened here on the plains with “The Chimes of Normandy” ... Season tickets were $8.00 for ten performances at the City Hall Theatre, but “The Chimes” was cancelled as the train was so uncertain. Most disappointing for the ladies all done up for a first night in their new leg o’ mutton sleeves that were considered so becoming. This company was organized by the Louis de Plainval who had been with the 2nd Quebec Rifles. This same gentleman earlier had been the second Chief of Provincial Police in Winnipeg.
Reluctantly we relate that about this time, two fellows, Jim Ormond and Frank Sicotte, who were considered leading lights in what was known as the “Winnipeg Comedy Company”, skipped out with $200 ... also they omitted paying the rent of the hall. Getting theatre properties returned has ever been a problem.
An announcement for 13 December 1880 was reassuring. It stated that there would be “an Amateur Theatrical Exhibition at the City Hall.” We may not like the sound of the word Exhibition ... but the notice went on to say it was “local talent and therefore to be depended upon.”
In all fairness we hasten to add that most of the professional Old Troupers on the plains were absolutely reliable.
Princess Opera House
In recalling the better known professional artists we should mention Augustus Thomas, the famous American dramatist, because he and his company played in Winnipeg in the Princess Opera House. According to the late Hector Charlesworth, the noted drama critic, it appears the Augustus Thomas American tour in 1883 had not been financially successful, and the company felt that Winnipeg with its reputation for real appreciation of “good theatre” would receive them with open arms. However, at the moment Winnipeg had other fish to fry.
On the opening night the Thomas company had a poor reception. There was a counter attraction. A mob was out after the Lieutenant-Governor. These indignant people thought His Honour had ordered the flogging of a prisoner who had escaped from the gaol and had been recaptured.
Now, His Honour had no authority to do such a thing. He hadn’t done it, and the crowd was mistaken. But mobs will not be argued with, and when the actors went to their hotel after the performance that night, they found the place surrounded by angry citizens who were sure His Honour was being entertained at a banquet there in the hotel.
He wasn’t, as he had been quietly escorted out the back entrance. But here was a chance, the chance of a lifetime for an actor to get publicity. Conscious of the fact that now 18,000 people lived in Winnipeg, Mr. Augustus Thomas stepped gaily out on to the balcony and began ...
The speech didn’t come off. The street lights, though adequate, were not overly bright and Mr. Thomas was mistaken for the Lieutenant-Governor.
Those November missiles and catcalls made front page news next day. And how the tongues wagged! But ice-covered snowballs and smashed windows were not the kind of publicity the leading professional actor, aged 26, had hoped for. After sizing up the populace of Winnipeg, he and his company hurriedly decided to change the show for the next evening’s performance.
For hours they rehearsed like mad, preparing an Irish play called “Muldoon’s Picnic”. They had to make it up from what they could remember of the scenes. Their main worry was to find a donkey. They just had to have a donkey. The company managed to corral one, but this particular donkey wasn’t possessed with the artistic spirit; it didn’t hold with acting. When the time came, it refused to be taken up the spiral stairway that led from the stage-door to the stage.
That second night the audience had some entertainment gratis. As they were on their way to their seats the temperamental donkey was ushered through the front door of the Princess Opera House and boosted up the main stairway, right down the main aisle of the theatre, up over the footlights and on to the stage.
In the spring of that year the Princess Opera House had opened with “Iolanthe” played by the Hess Opera Company on 14 May 1883.
This fine theatre was built by Messrs. Cowan and Rutledge. Later, Robert Gerrie became the proprietor. On the ground floor there were stores and on the second storey was the auditorium which seated 1,300 people. Despite the fine appearance of this building on the southwest corner of Princess and Ross, the heating system left much to be desired. Between the acts the patrons warmed up round the immense heating drums which surrounded the stoves, the only means of heat provided for the three-storey building.
Here the Winnipeg Operatic Society scored a great success with “The Chimes of Normandy” on 8 February 1887. J. W. Rigby as Gaspard, was outstanding. F. H. Persse, the Free Press tells us, returned from New York expressly to play the part of the fisherman and was excellent. Mrs. A. G. Wade’s acting was “free and sparkling”. Joseph Tees was in charge of the stage arrangements.
On 19 April 1891, the Winnipeg Operatic Society played “The Gondoliers” in the Princess Opera House. According to the Tribune critic: “The Overture was begun at twenty to nine but only about one third of the audience was in their places. Not until half-past nine did the clanging of seats and the rustling of latecomers cease.” The opera was conducted by A. J. Tuckwell, the choirmaster of Holy Trinity Church. Some of the costumes came from New York. Eric Hamber, whose charming tenor voice is well remembered, played Luiz. For many years he was organist and choir leader at St. John’s Cathedral. In 1884 he became a Master at St. John’s College School. At the time of his sudden death in 1913 he was Deputy Head Master.
Capt. T. H. Billman, who danced, commanded “C” Company of the 90th Rifles. For years he was drill instructor of the regiment and also trained the school cadets. His sonorous voice was famous. Walter Burman tells us that literally four blocks away he could hear it booming out commands.
The name of Dr. Peter Maclagan, one-time organist at Holy Trinity Church, must also be included. He too, made a fine contribution to the cultural side of the early days. Many of the young soloists of the time were trained by Dr. Maclagan. Miss Madge Barrett was one. Mrs. Hugh Sutherland also took part in his operas. His talented son sang at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Mr. E. R. Coleman tells the writer he remembers being in a children’s Gilbert and Sullivan opera directed by Dr. Maclagan. Others who took part in this “Iolanthe” were Chas. Wolfe, Cecil Parr, Sidney Woods, Edith Harvey, Belle Conklin and Mousie Maclagan.
Charles Gerrie tells the writer that on 1 May 1899, after an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” show the Princess Opera House went up in flames. It seems Eva going up to heaven needed extra equipment and this resulted in a form of short circuit which was not discovered until too late.
After 1883 the City Hall Theatre where so much of the entertainment had taken place was no longer available.
But of course there were other theatres by now-real ones. We have mentioned the Princess Opera House Another one was Victoria Hall. With its fine stage, dressing rooms and box office it had been built in 1882 by Thomas McCrossan. It was on the northwest corner of Notre Dame and Adelaide. In 1889, on Thanksgiving Day of all times, a free fight and much disorder occurred in Victoria Hall when a minstrel show was taking place. For some years in the early 1890s, this theatre was also called The Bijou. The drop curtain there really dropped. At the conclusion of every act, the curtain came down with a thump that shook the house.
About this time interest in dramatics lagged. The students of St. Boniface College played a comedy by Moliere in 1891 but on the whole, entertainment ran more to music and the professional offerings in the larger theatres.
In February 1895, “Robin Hood” was performed by the Winnipeg Operatic Society in what was then The Bijou where most of their work was staged. Maid Marion, the lead, was played by Miss Madge Barrett. Mrs. T. H. Verner, another outstanding soloist, took part. Eric Hamber played in this one too, also Alex Logan and Major Harry Arnold. Mrs. Stanley Adams was another who took part, and Mrs. McKercher.
Stanley Adams, the Honourable Secretary of the Winnipeg Operatic Society, rates many references. His new play, “Merciful Powers” is mentioned in Town Topics, but his best one evidently was called “Quits”. The Topic’s editor felt, “The Adams Amateur Company should get support despite Mr. Wheeler, the Tribune critic”. The editor continues: “Mr. Adams writes, stages, and plays. He makes a good bluff as a comedian.” When Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Adams left for England in 1901 there were many festivities in honor of this popular pair.
In Town Topics, Mrs. Verner is described as “a soloist of rare ability,” and Miss Madge Barrett “one of Winnipeg’s most popular vocalists” of the time. Miss Barrett tells the writer that “Dublin Dan”, her favorite cabby, always drove her back and forth to the theatre. On the nights of the performances he invariably insisted on carrying her from the cab to the stage door for fear she would get her feet damp.
In 1899 this Victoria Hall or The Bijou was rebuilt as the Winnipeg Theatre. This was to accommodate stock. According to the original Walker Theatre programme, already mentioned, an article written “by an Old Timer” states that earlier the old building had come into the possession of the Confederation Life Association. C. P. Walker, who had lately come to Winnipeg, became the theatre manager. Many changes were made. In 1904 all over America a demand for safer theatre accommodation arose. The Winnipeg Theatre was condemned by the local press. Said the Winnipeg Tribune: “Is a theatre, nonfireproof, located over stores, a safe place for thousands of citizens to assemble in from time to time?” The Free Press of 13 June 1904 wished the City Council to act. “The Winnipeg Theatre is not a suitable building for the purpose to which it is put. It is a made-over structure which is far from satisfactory.” As might be expected, this hastened Mr. Walker’s plans for a suitable playhouse.
On 16 and 17 February 1899 the Brandon Operatic Society presented “The Geisha” in Winnipeg. Chas. Blackburne, a successful London music hall artist was one of the company. Alex. Irwin, Mrs. Archie Douglas, Miss Bertha Pilling and Miss Jessie Lee also played. Over a hundred people were at the box office at the Winnipeg Theatre trying to reserve seats even before the plan was opened.
The review tells us that fulfilling all expectations “The Geisha” was a success. The clever amateurs from Brandon played twice to a bumper house ... “the ladies of the chorus are all prepossessing in appearance and graceful in action. The Brandon Operatic Society is to be congratulated on the excellence of its chorus.” Winnipeg’s Alderman Hilda Hesson was one of them.
Some years later, the popular Winnipeg Theatre itself became a fire victim.
Many remember the disastrous fire which took place on Christmas Eve 1926 when it was destroyed and four firemen lost their lives.
There was still another, the Grand Theatre. Another fire victim, it ran less than a year in 1896-1897. Earlier, this theatre had been Wesley Hall, an old church property on Main Street east, just south of Water Avenue.
After the burning of the Grand Theatre on Main Street, the owners, Messrs. Seach and Sharp secured a brick veneered building on McDermot Street. This was on the north side of McDermot between Albert and Main. It was the first theatre in Winnipeg with the main auditorium on the ground floor. Though the entrance was poor the place seated about 800 people. There was a large gallery. However, this was not a profitable venture. The managers could not book really good attractions. People now were not interested in drama.
After standing vacant for a time the building was purchased by The Tribune, which it housed from 1901 until 1913.
With the coming of the new century some people in Winnipeg must have had faith in drama as a form of entertainment, as several theatres were built. The Dominion Theatre on Portage Avenue east was the first of these new ventures. It opened on 12 December 1904 for vaudeville. Through the years it has housed many amateur performances. Stock companies, too, played there. Today it is the moving pictures that draw the people to the old home of the legitimate stage. It was built for Messrs. G. A. and V. C. Kobold and seats 1,100 people.
The Walker Theatre
Then, The Walker Theatre ... what memories that recalls! On 18 February 1907, thirty seven years after the Ontario Rifles Theatre Royal opened with such splendour, once more a Lieut.-Governor did the honours. This time it was Sir Daniel McMillan. The occasion was the grand opening of the splendid Walker Theatre. Winnipeg now had a population of 70,000 instead of 215.
It was a memorable event. Puccini’s new opera, “Madame Butterfly”, presented by the Henry W. Savage English Grand Opera Company enthralled the brilliant audience. Several columns in the daily paper described the ladies’ grandeur. Mrs. Walker’s beautiful black sequin gown was noted particularly. Her long pale blue kid gloves added to the striking effect.
In the splendid programme prepared especially for the occasion appeared the story of “The Early Playhouses of Winnipeg” which earlier have been referred to. This interesting record is signed “By an Old Timer”. Mr. Fred M. Gee thought the nom de plume was one often used by Mr. Walker.
February appears to be a fateful theatre month. On another February day twenty-nine years later, in 1936, the sad news was published that the Walker Theatre had been sold for taxes. For years it was dark except for special occasions. Happily the old familiar building is with us still. But different.
On 3 November 1945, a moving picture “Blood on the Sun” welcomed us to this reconverted theatre, which is now the up-to-date Odeon. Another sign of the times.
The Orpheum at 283 Fort Street also has played its part. Its opening occurred on 14 February 1911. Thirty-five years later to the day, its final performance was played. Recently when it was being torn down Ted Schrader of the Winnipeg Tribune described the dismantled interior as a “hideous spectre, far from the glittering spectacle of February, 1911.”
Another popular theatre was the Pantages on Market Street east. It was managed for about ten years by Walter Fogg. Mr. Fogg tells the writer the Pantages was opened on 8 February 1914 as one of their many vaudeville houses.
During the second week the Pantages was open, the usual vaudeville animal act was on the bill. In the early hours of the morning, when the nightwatchman was making his rounds, suddenly he encountered a lion sauntering down the aisle. It was the old lion’s time for his exercise and we are told that as the heels of the horrified night-watchman disappeared in the shadows “the lion looked surprised.”
After nine years as a vaudeville house the Pantages closed in June 1923, opening in the fall again as the Playhouse for stock.
Our one remaining theatre, at present, it is managed by the City of Winnipeg as a place for public meetings and for school productions. A change indeed from the lavish entertainment that flourished in the early part of the century.
So much for the theatres. What of the actors?
For instance in the gay nineties, apparently even with the professional entertainers, all was not well. An aquatic performer “Odiva” complained bitterly when playing at the Orpheum because the alkali in the Winnipeg water killed her goldfish.
This lack of artistic appreciation was also reflected in C. H. Wheeler’s criticisms in The Tribune. For years this delightful dramatic critic charmed us all with his comments, but about this time he too became saddened. In one review he said, “It takes a Winnipegger to appreciate artistic excellence whether at home or abroad. Unfortunately we have little chance to admire anything lately.” That was in 1891.
Then he makes the comment: “We are very dull, very much so, in nearly all our amusements. Even a nigger minstrel show would change the monotony so prevalent. One is sick and tired of listening to amateur ‘would-be’s if they could’.” And further ... “music is at its lowest in Winnipeg. Nothing is doing, and nothing appears in sight; dull, dull as a mud pond.”
Then, thoroughly fed up ... “we’ve had a surfeit of comic opera.” And again, “The friendly encore is much in vogue at amateur entertainments and is usually given because the performer has ‘worked hard’ or is a ‘jolly good fellow’ or is ‘so nice and agreeable’. Occasionally talent may receive this encore but it is generally reserved for ‘social lights’.”
Surely Mr. Wheeler was pleased when Winnipeg won the Earl Grey Trophy in 1907. In fact, everyone was elated on 2 February, when the following telegram was received by the Lieut.-Governor, Sir Daniel McMillan: “I have much pleasure in informing you that my Trophy has been adjudged to Winnipeg. Major Divine’s company well deserve their success. The acting of Mr. Beaufort and Miss Crawley was very fine. (Signed) Grey.”
“The Release of Allan Danvers” was specially written for the competition by Dr. James Divine and Mr. Ernest Beaufort. It was a popular win, with Hamilton placed just five points behind it. Players from Newfoundland, Quebec and several other cities also competed. On their return they played at the Walker. The two-act play was short and Miss Edna Sutherland contributed two recitations. The review in Town Topics tells us that Percy Skuse played the “silly ass”, Danvers said “damn”, and the reporter wondered why Leydon Shiller as Sir William, should wear dancing pumps in the office?
Again in April 1910, Winnipeg won the trophy. This time the Winnipeg Operatic Society played the third act of the “Chimes of Normandy” under the direction of Mrs. C. P. Walker. The judges were Ernest Beaufort of the Winnipeg Free Press, Hector Charlesworth, and B. K. Sandwell. At a supper party at the Toronto Club, His Excellency stated that the competition would be held in Winnipeg the following year. He felt convinced that in the prairie cities of the West such as Brandon, Regina, Prince Albert and others there was much dramatic and musical talent.
In the Winnipeg Theatre on 21 April 1910, “Miss Pepple of New York” was presented. This was a “made in Winnipeg” modern musical comedy written by William Dichmont and C. Stewart Blanchard. In it Edgar Smith and D. K. Horne were an example “as far as enunciation was concerned.” W. D. Love sang in excellent style. W. K. Chandler played the pale young curate. Seventeen year old Margaret le Grand, who led the chorus, in time became Margaret Bannerman. Miss Dorothy Castle, Miss Anna Bogart, and H. M. Marsden all were mentioned.
Later Mr. Wheeler does give a word of encouragement. “We do not hear so many remarks made in this city against the stage as of yore. The churches are continually copying stage tricks and devices in the way of entertainments both by children and adults, some of them quite dramatic in form. More than one of the Colleges produce farces and a day or so ago a clergyman was noticed in attendance on the French comedy ‘A Scrap of Paper’.”
Even so, it seems difficult for the Tribune critic to emerge from the throes. We leave him moodily bemoaning, “The most artistic renderings do not prove the most successful as a financial success. All of which disheartens a manager.”
Winnipeg Little Theatre
In the face of all this one wonders how a group of Winnipeg citizens had the temerity to start a Little Theatre. But they did.
Following this indifference of the 1890s, after the turn of the century, when the new Little Theatre movement was sweeping the Continent and America, Winnipeg was caught up on the wave.
To discuss the trend in Winnipeg, a meeting was held in the Arts Building of the University of Manitoba. Those present were: M. C. Walston, Miss E. L. Jones, Mrs. C. C. Field, Prof. A. L. Phelps, Miss Thomas, Mrs. Phelps, Prof. Brady, Prof. Thomas, John Craig, M. F. Wardhaugh, Mrs. C. A. Crawley, Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Matheson, Mr. and Mrs. H. A. V. Green, Miss Helen Baird, Mrs. Fred Bell, Miss Carolyn Cornell, Miss Rowena Brownstone, Dr. Fred A. Young, Prof. J. H. Heinzelman and C. Alan Crawley.
It was decided to hold an organization meeting with the idea of forming a Winnipeg Little Theatre. This meeting took place a week later on 4 November 1921.
Fifty-five years after the first Red River drama took place in Winnipeg, once more a group of enthusiasts rolled up their sleeves. This time they set out to play their part in “developing a Canadian drama.”
This time they called themselves The Community Players of Winnipeg ... but that is another story.
Page revised: 23 October 2015Back to top of page