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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A History of Pantages Playhouse Theatre - Part 3

September 4, 1937, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1937, after sitting vacant for nearly four years, local promoter Don Irving Cameron reached a lease agreement with the city for the Playhouse Theatre. He would pay $450 per month for a two-year period, plus invest $1,400 into repairs. At the end of the term, he had the option to purchase the building for $35,000.

Cameron brought the theatre back to its origins by booking travelling vaudeville shows. It was the same mix of singers, comedians, jugglers, novelty and animal acts.

In November 1938, almost a year before the lease ended, the shows stopped. Cameron did not purchase the venue.

November 15, 1939, Winnipeg Tribune

In November 1939 a new group, Manitoba Amusement Corporation headed by Joseph and Max Freed, took out a two-year lease at  $400 per month. They invested in a new projection and sound system for the theatre that was used to play short comedy films during vaudeville shows. (The city wouldn't let the Playhouse be converted into a cinema as live stages were becoming harder to find due to such conversions or outright demolition of old theatres.)

This incarnation of vaudeville lasted only three months. At that point, the group stopped paying the city rent but continued to use the space for three years. The city never evicted them because the Freeds kept it in use and saved the city about $1,000 in annual heating bills and more in maintenance.


May 25, 1940, Winnipeg Free Press

During the "Freed years", a number of travelling shows used the Playhouse, but its main fare was homegrown. Groups such as the Metropolitan Choir, Winnipeg Dramatic League and the Winnipeg New Theatre used it, as did numerous local dance and music schools for their recitals. Service clubs held concerts and fundraising evening and, starting in October 1943, schools of the Winnipeg School Division used it for their plays and musical performances. productions.

During this period, another community group made its first appearance:. 

On June 11 - 12, 1940 the Winnipeg Ballet put on the first major ballet produced by a local company. They held annual shows in 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1944. In 1945 the group were filmed by the National Film Board at the Playhouse.

October 9, 1943, Winnipeg Free Press

In late 1943 city council had an important decision to make. An unnamed group from Eastern Canada approached the city for a three-year lease deal. Like the Freeds, they wanted to pay $400 per month with an option to purchase at the end of the lease. Despite pressure from some of the groups using it and the Freeds, the city agreed to the deal but the Wartime Prices and Trade Board rejected it in March 1944, not wanting to put another commercial theatre venue into the local market.

The rejection of the deal came as some councillors were having second thoughts about it. Many had come to recognize the need for a municipal theatre catering to charitable, non-profit and "patriotic" groups. Most other large theatres, aside from being privately owned, were being demolished or converted into cinemas or other uses where live stage no longer an option. The Auditorium, where council originally suggested that groups could go to as an alternative, turned out to be too big, busy and expensive to run, to allow community groups to use it at reduced rates.

In July 1944 council voted to take the Playhouse Theatre off of the the list of civic properties for sale. Their other theatre property, the Walker, remained on the list and was purchased by Henry A. Morton of Odeon-Morton Cinemas in September 1944 for $35,000. The low cost was due to the fact that the Walker sat vacant since the city acquired it in a 1936 tax sale and it was in need of a extensive repairs.

October 21, 1944, Winnipeg Free Press

In October 1944 a group called Hamilton Attractions, likely the same group that tried for a lease-to-purchase agreement in 1943, made a $75,000 offer to purchase the Playhouse. The company had been bringing musicals and dramas to the Auditorium throughout 1944 to great success and wanted a home of their own.

Council had a tough decision to make. Not only had they just decided to take the for sale sign down, but the number of local groups that now depended on the venue was growing, as did their backlash at the idea of a sale. The city rejected the offer.

March 2, 1945, Winnipeg Free Press

Hamilton made another offer in 1945, which was again turned down. Later that month the city announced that it would renovate the venue. 

The war was over and thousands of soldiers were retuning to growing families and wanted more from their city. Council was starting to spend millions of dollars to service new land for residential subdivision, create a  city-wide system of community centres, libraries and other amenities. A municipal theatre was part of that package.



As the 1940s continued, the theatre just got busier. Many of the fledgling groups matured and expanded the number of performances they offered. In January 1948, the popular Celebrity Concert Series, which relocated to the Auditorium in the early 1930s, returned. CKRC began using it for weekly game shows in 1944. In May 1946 it was home to the Western Canadian Drama Festival, then Manitoba Drama Festivals for decades after.

The city was no longer subsidizing the venue. In 1949 the Playhouse took in $18,975 and made a profit of over $3,000, compared to $1,900 the year before.

http://www.manitobaphotos.com/1950.htm
Lombard Avenue East (source: manitobaphotos)

In 1950 the theatre's run of good luck came to an end. During the flood of 1950 Market Avenue East flooded. On the night of May 4 water began coming into the basement during a performance of the Winnipeg Ballet. By the next morning the basement had filled up and the theatre was closed. There was fear that the auditorium could flood as the stage is actually four feet below grade, (apparently, it did not.)

A number of performances had to be cancelled or relocated, including a one-night only performance by Mel Torme. The Playhouse remained closed for much of the summer.

http://www.winnipegfiremuseum.ca/archives/hotel_across_from_cityhall02.jpg
Above: March 4, 1954, Winnipeg Free Press
Imperial Hotel fire (source: Winnipeg Fire Museum)

Another close call came in February 1954 when the neighbouring Imperial Hotel and Manitoba Hotel facing Main Street burned down. A performance by the Jewish Women's Musical Club had just started when smoke began entering the theatre. An usher interrupted the performance to tell people to evacuate. 

The theatre had minor smoke and water damage and the streets around it were covered in ice with debris frozen in place. It took about ten days before it could reopen. (The empty space left by the fire would become home to a expansion of the Playhouse 40 years later.)

http://umanitoba.ca/libraries/archives/tribune/photographs/display_photo.php?id=1658
Newly renovated interior, 1954 (source)

Coincidentally, that summer the Playhouse was set to undergo an $80,000 renovation. It included new floors throughout, 1,475 new chairs (that tilted), plaster repairs and a paint job throughout. The rose and tan colour scheme was chosen by Professor John A. Russell, head of the U of M's faculty of architecture.

October 14, 1950, Winnipeg Free Press

The 1950s was the greatest decade for the Playhouse in terms of visiting American recording artists. On October 19, 1950, for instance,  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 !

Through the 1950s a popular series of "Pop Concerts" were held, 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 larger concert at the Playhouse. One group, the Delta  Rhythm Boys, were so popular that  5,500 people lined Main from Portage to Market street to catch a glimpse of them. They ended up playing two pop concerts, one as a  European flood relief benefit, in February 1953. They returned again to Don Carlos' and the Playhouse in February 1954.

The Grand Old Opry came through a number of times bringing with it the likes of Marty Robbins, George Jones and Jim Reeves.

September 24, 1952, Winnipeg Free Press

It wasn't all entertainers at the Playhouse.

The Blue Bombers got in on the act with their "Quarterback Club". It started out as a couple of meetings per year, a chance for fans to hear directly from the players and coach at the start and end of the season. It grew into something much more, showing game film the each week following a Bomber game. There were also periodic contests and special events for children.

The Playhouse was used for political and religious speeches, union meetings and May Day events. On April 27, 1952 it was the scene of a remembrance service for J. S. Woodworth, the man who ran the All Peoples' Mission and a co-founder of the CCF, forerunner to the NDP. Tommy Douglas, then premier of Saskatchewan, and Stanley Knowles, M.P. for Winnipeg North Centre, both spoke. In June 1957 W.A.C. Bennett, B.C.'s first Social Credit Premier, came to lauch Manitoba's Socred Party.

 September 6, 1952, Winnipeg Free Press

On May 1, 1957 a long-time tenant of the Playhouse, the Winnipeg Little Theatre, announced that they were relocating to the Dominion Theatre off Portage and Main. Not only did they stage their plays there, their offices and studio were in the office section above the theatre.

The $120,000 price tag was steep for a small theatre company but an unnamed patron purchased it and gifted it to them, (it had been owned by the Richardson and Sons.) For the growing WLT, it represented a new era. The smaller theatre was more intimate, they could rehearse on a big stage as often as they wanted and run shows for more than just a couple of days at a time. They could also rent it out, in competition to the Playhouse, for extra income.

Perhaps sensing a weakness, Oldfield Kirby and Gardner, a real estate firm, offered to purchase the Playhouse a couple of days after the announcement. The city rejected the offer.

January 20, 1964

When the WLT left, there was no new company that called the Playhouse home. Theatre fare was usually limited to annual engagements of groups like Circle Moliere during the Manitoba Drama Festival, which continued through the 50s and 60s. Rainbow Stage did a spring children's concert they called a "Popsicle" in the 1960s, the U of M Glee Club and The Ukrainian Theatre had more than one show per year.

McNeill, Fardoe

Being a city-run facility for hire, little is mention is made of the men who ran the venue. It was usually members of council or the public buildings department that spoke for it. 

There was a separate manager for the Playhouse through the mid-1950s. In 1955 the supervisor of city buildings, J. W. McNeill, was appointed joint general manager for both the Auditorium and Playhouse. From 1951 to 1962 John “Jock” Bell was the resident manager, he and wife Mary lived in a suite above the theatre’s auditorium. 

In the 1960s Dudley Sturgeon was the dual general manager, replaced by John M. Hanson, formerly of Winnipeg Hydro, in 1969. Ronald Fardoe was the general manger of the Playhouse only from 1974 - 84.

http://umanitoba.ca/libraries/archives/tribune/photographs/display_photo.php?id=735
Concert Hall location, Playhouse to the right (source)

As the 1960s progressed, there were fewer big name performers at the Playhouse thanks to more competition. This was the era of the "supper club" with many venues large enough to to book a well-known act for a week a time and not need a large concert to offset the cost. 

In 1964 the provincial government announced that a $12 million arts centre and concert hall would be constructed across the street from the Playhouse. Initially, the Playhouse was a big part of the plan outlined by the Centennial Corporation's president Maitland Steinkopf. It called for an extension to the west end of the theatre, giving it a bigger lobby and more office space, not to mention a Main Street entrance.

RMTC site, Playhouse to the left

In 1968 it was announced that to the east of the Playhouse a new, regional theatre centre would be built. It, too, brought the promise of an extension to the Playhouse, this time to the east where an addition could house studio space for a theatre company or perhaps the RWB. All of the buildings in the arts district would be connected underground.

The Royal Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall opened in 1968 and the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1970. Neither project included an expansion of the Playhouse or tunnels. Steinkopf died in 1970, sadly before a lot of the projects he started were completed.


The year following the opening of the Centennial Concert Hall, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Playhouse's longest serving tenant, moved there, as did many other classical music and dance performances. Dance was still part of the theatre as the Contemporary Dancers were a new entrant in the late 1960s and stayed through the 70s.

Most of the fare at the Playhouse in the late 60s and early 70s involved the long-time users like the World Adventure Tours Travelogue movie series, which had been around since the early 1950s, The Ukrainian Theatre, the Manitoba Drama Festival, school plays and concert recitals, the annual barbershop quartet concert.

September 8, 1965

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

On the music scene, by 1975 Bruce Cockburn had appeared at the Playhouse four times, once as part of Flying Circus, in a series of rock concerts taped by CBC television that included the likes of Fludd and April Wine. Stompin' Tom Connors played his first Winnipeg gig here in November 1971.

August 9, 1974, Winnipeg Free Press

In the summer of 1972 the province inquired about purchasing the theatre for $1 so that they could again try to incorporate it into the arts district. The finance committee agreed, but mayor Juba and council as a whole differed.

Some felt that losing such a valuable venue for a measly $1 offer was an insult, (some were still stinging from the controversial sale of the old Auditorium to the provincial government back in 1970.) Juba pointed out that the last time the province had a grand plan for Pantages, the expansion west to Main Street, they ended up building a liquor mart on the vacant property. 

The city did not sell.

http://umanitoba.ca/libraries/archives/tribune/photographs/display_photo.php?id=5131
 ca 1978  (source)

After the Winnipeg Auditorium was sold off, the city put the Playhouse under the auspices of the Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation, which ran the stadium and arena. WEC made it clear that they did not want the venue as part of their portfolio. (In 1977 WEC got their wish and it became part of the civic properties department.)

 Despite being as popular as ever, with between 171 and 220 bookings per year in the late 70s and early 80s, it was losing money. The 1979 deficit $38,000 and dropped to $25,000 in 1982. This is because non-profit groups could appear before the civic buildings committee to receive a reduction of the already reasonable rent reduction of up to 50 per cent.

The theatre was also becoming an infrastructure issue. The city starved it for regular maintenance, the only major investment that appears to have been  a $20,000 facelift in the late 1970s.


In the 1980s the city turned its attention to the Playhouse.  

It was designated a Grade II Historical Building by the city of Winnipeg on January 5, 1981, a National Historic Site in 1986 a Provincial Heritage Site in 2004.

In the mid 1980s the city began buying up the properties along Main Street from Market Avenue to the Confederation Life Building with eye for a future expansion.

Pantages Playhouse Theatre, Winnipeg

The modernization and expansion project took place in 1992. The old theatre got an upgrade of mechanical systems, lighting and sound systems. Also, the addition of a fly-over provided access from stage left to right, (a long-standing complaint about the theatre is that it has no back stage.)

The addition, designed by Stechenson Katz Architects, almost doubled the size of the building, (from 24,850 sq ft to 44, 580 sq ft). It includes a 3,000 square foot lobby and reception area, washrooms, a new green room and dressing areas, (which used ot be located below the stage), and administrative and rehearsal spaces.Outside, a large foreyard extends to Main Street.

In 1997, Council approved a Management Agreement with non-profit organization, the Performance Arts Corporation of Winnipeg Inc., to manage the facility for an annual $100,000 management fee. When it came time to renew that fee in 2009, the city found that the new business plan submitted by the group did not show the long-term financial stability for the venue or their organization. It also noted that the organization was in default on some of the provisions of the previous agreement.

Possible expansion (source)

The city looked for a new option and in 2009 signed an interim agreement with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, housed in the Centennial Concert Hall across the street. They were to assess the current operations of the theatre and look at its long term viability. 

In 2010 the WSO and city reached a lease agreement. One possibility for the space is to built an extension that would create office and studio space for the WSO, though their concerts would continue to be held at the Concert Hall as the Playhouse stage is too small.

Most recently, True North Entertainment expressed interest in managing two historic venues, the Walker / Burton Cummings Theatre and the Playhouse. A deal was struck in May 2014 giving them management and operational control of the Walker. it is expected that a decision about the Playhouse will be announced shortly.


Related Links
Pantages Theatre Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
180 Market Avenue Historical Buildings Committee
History of Live Theatre in Winnipeg Manitoba History
January 18, 1926 program University of Iowa Library

©2014 Christian Cassidy

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

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