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“Finest Playhouse in the Dominion” — C.P. Walker said “town deserved a better theatre.”
Sep 11, 2009

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

In the spring of 1905, rumours were spreading throughout Winnipeg’s theatre-going public that impresario C.P. Walker was planning to build a new playhouse. The rumours were fueled by Walker’s earlier two-month tour of theatres in the United States, particularly in California where he was allegedly vacationing. When  he returned to Winnipeg, Walker was questioned by reporters about the truth of the rumours circulating that he intended to build a new theatre.

While Walker said he had no information to divulge on the subject, he mentioned examining a number of theatres, “especially as to their interior structural arrangements and consulted with many managers on theatrical subjects.”

He did promise to “make some interesting announcements,” although not on a new theatre, but on “a few engagements I booked while away.”

Corliss Powers (C.P.) Walker came to Winnipeg in 1897 from Fargo, North Dakota, with his wife Harriet, a former musical comedy actress on the New York stage. 

Walker was born at Poultney, Vermont, on September 19, 1853. His Episcopalian minister father, J. Walker, in the early 1860s moved the family to Rochester, Minnesota. 

To learn a trade, Walker was apprenticed to a Winona, Minnesota, printer who edited and published the town newspaper. It was while an apprentice printer that Walker received his first taste of the theatre. A stranger in a long black cape walked into the print shop and announced to the lad, “I am Professor Illuso, the magician, and I am giving a performance in your beautiful city this evening,” wrote Walker’s daughter, Ruth Harvey, in her book, Curtain Time.

Walker edited the copy on the magician’s hand bill, and became his assistant that evening for an honorarium of $1. The young lad quickly learned the tricks required of an assistant to an illusionist, and after the show, Professor Illuso rewarded him by adding a dime to his $1 honorarium. 

From Minnesota, Walker moved to Fargo and with his brothers started a highly-successful printing business. But he never forgot the thrill of the theatre, so he soon took over the management of the Fargo Opera House, acquiring further theatres in Grafton and Grand Forks, North Dakota, as well as Crookston and Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

Walker came to Winnipeg at the urging of his friend, James J, Hill. Over lunch in St. Paul, Hill talked about the wonderful towns opening up across the Canadian border. When Walker asked about Winnipeg, Hill told the theatre owner and manager, “Winnipeg will some day be the Chicago of the West.”

Walker leased the Bijou Theatre on the corner of Notre Dame and Adelaide, remodeled it and renamed it the Winnipeg Theatre. Plays were staged in the theatre’s 1,000-seat auditorium on the second floor, with the ground floor devoted to stores.

“Walker saw potential,” wrote Kevin Longfield in From Fire to Flood: A History of Theatre in Manitoba. “Like a baker who visits a town that does not have fresh bread, he realized there was money to be made.”

Harvey said her father loved Winnipeg, telling her, “It’s got a feeling of growing.”

On the other hand, his wife Harriet, or “Hattie” as she was nicknamed, had only known the West as a touring actress and her home was the bustling metropolis of New York. Harvey said it was a big step for Hattie “to leave the stage and and settle down to domesticity — especially in this far away spot. And to her eastern eyes Winnipeg looked ramshackle and raw.”

“‘There certainly ought to be room for a good theatre here,’ papa said, his mind on his plans.

“‘Lord yes,’ mamma squinted down Portage (then a wide and near-empty thoroughfare heading west) and grinned, “I don’t believe I ever saw so much room before.’”

As a Winnipeg resident, Walker created the Red River Valley (or “Bread Basket”) mini-circuit of theatres, located along the Northern Pacific Railway route from Fargo to Winnipeg. In her book, Hardy explained that her father called it the Bread Basket Circuit because the Red River Valley produced more No. 1 hard wheat suitable for bread-making  than any other area of its size in the world.

She wrote that Winnipeg was different than other American towns on the circuit, “... because it was much older and larger, and was Canadian. It had a character all its own. With its mixture of races, its old traditions and boisterous western vigor, Winnipeg was a city of contrasts. An exciting place to grow up in.”

In addition, she said, “Winnipeg was full of people who had come from cities where they had gone to plays, to concerts, to the opera.”

Yet, one of the first productions Walker brought to the city was a troupe of bloomer-clad female cyclists, who whizzed around, entrancing spectators.

When the Theatre Syndicate was established in New York in 1895, Walker took advantage of the comprehensive touring system of artists and shows set up by the syndicate.

In her book, Harvey relates an amusing story of Walker arriving in New York for the first time and suggesting to a “Big Apple” manager that he send his theatre company to Winnipeg. It seems the manager had little knowledge of Winnipeg, believing it was somewhere in the snow-bound Far North.

“‘Winnipeg!’ The manager said ... with disbelief and derision. ‘How do they get there — by dog sled? What do they play in — an igloo?’”

With a string of theatres under his control, Walker attracted the top entertainment of the day, including Broadway shows. When New York stage actors were not performing at his theatres, Walker booked repertory companies, minstrel shows, amateur theatricals, locally-written musicals, concert artists, military bands and symphony orchestras to ensure seats remained filled for 12 months of the year.

He was a tour de force in theatrical circles, becoming the chief booking agent throughout the northwestern U.S. and Canada.

In the era before moving pictures began to make inroads, theatres offered the only opportunity for the public to see the top entertainers of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt from France, and Henry Irving, Ellen Terry from Britain and Lillian Russell from the U.S. When actors weren’t on the stage, Winnipeggers could take in lectures by such famous authors as American Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling from Britain via India.

As the manager of the Winnipeg Theatre, Walker was continually exposed to criticism about the safety of the brick veneered wooden theatre, especially in the aftermath of the disastrous Iroquois Theater Fire on December 30, 1903, in Chicago. Flames claimed 571 lives within 20 minutes, and another 31 died while in hospital. 

In 1904, the city and province commissioned reports on local theatre safety, which resulted in new laws meant to mitigate the potential for disaster. A city council bylaw specified a number of conditions had to be met before any theatre had its licence renewed. Yet, the laws were not be made retroactive in the case of the Winnipeg Theatre. Newspaper editorials urged that the theatre be closed or the law changed.

Walker received a new licence for the Winnipeg Theatre in 1904 only after promising improvements to safeguard the public, including new exits on the north side of the building opening directly to Adelaide Street, and a large exit from the theatre balcony to Notre Dame Avenue. A store operated by a tobacco merchant on the ground floor was removed and a large staircase leading to a new exit was built.

“The expenditure ($3,000) to diminish the danger in case of fire will surely be heartedly appreciated by the theatre-going people of Winnipeg,” commented the Telegram.

Even with the alterations, the Winnipeg Theatre did not fully comply with the new city bylaw on two major points. First, the auditorium was on the second floor and not a maximum of seven feet from the ground as called for in the bylaw. Second, the theatre was a wooden structure with a brick veneer and not of solid brick or stone as specified in the city ordinance.

In a letter to city council, Walker said to fully comply with the ordinance, he would have to spend $100,000 and this would not be approved by investors which would force the theatre to close.

Although council still granted the theatre a new licence, the alterations did not silence Walker’s sternest critics.

A year after Walker received a 1905 licence for a performance of Ben Hur — with a cast of 300 and a spectacular chariot race — in the second-floor auditorium of the Winnipeg Theatre, city building inspector E.H. Rodgers told the Winnipeg Telegram, it was  done without his knowledge. “The building does not comply with the building bylaw which requires that for a theatre licence it must be of solid brick or stone,” said the building inspector.

Since the building didn’t follow the code, Rodgers said he would not support a licence for the the proposed staging of Camille by Sarah Bernhardt.

“I have taken precaution against such a repetition and have put the new licence inspector, Mr. Kerr, on his guard.”

As Camille was being brought to Winnipeg by A.E. Fulljames, another booking agent, Walker was accused of working against granting the licence.

“Why I have leased the theatre for dramatic performances during the summer beginning in May 24,” Walker told the Telegram (April 27, 1906), “and a refusal to grant a licence for the coming performance would mean that I could not use it (the auditorium) this season. It would be against my own interests to see the licence refused. The allegation is unfounded.”

While newspapers questioned the safety of the Winnipeg Theatre, Walker began touring other theatres in New York and other eastern cities with the desire to investigate novel features and use them in the construction of a fireproof theatre in Winnipeg, although he didn’t reveal his true plans to the printed media until the appropriate time.

It’s somewhat of a mystery how  Walker managed to keep his plans a secret from the press, as Harvey said her father counted several journalists as his closest friends. At the time, members of the press — reporters, editors, publishers, printers and business staff — gathered in Miriaggi’s restaurant, forming a sort of social club. Among Walker’s “special group of close friends” joining him at their table were journalists and people involved in the theatre such as George Saults, Charles Lindsay, Ted Barley and Charles Handscomb, an Englishman from London, who “wrote with an urbanity that was new to the West ... and with a sharp satirical slant on politics, and all the life of the town,” according to Harvey.

Harvey wrote that her father said there was only one thing wrong with the Winnipeg Theatre. “It was far too small, inadequate in every way. The town deserved a better theatre, better shows ...

“‘I’d like to build a theatre like that,’ papa said.

“‘A really good one!’

“‘With a large auditorium —’

“‘And a roomy stage —’

“‘Some office space —’

“‘And don’t forget the actors,’ mamma reminded him, ‘put in plenty of dressing rooms.’

“‘It would cost a pile of money,’ papa said.

“‘Yes,’ mamma agreed, ‘it would be a gamble.’

“Papa nodded pleasurably. ‘But we’ll have something we’ll be proud of, that the town will be proud of ... And we’ll bring them good shows. No more (Alfred) Carson (described as a stormy actor)! No more bicycle girls!’”

In January 17, 1906, the law firm of Fisher, Wilson & Ewart on behalf of Walker approached city council asking for the passage of a bylaw to sell the theatre impresario the eastern five feet of the existing lane between Knox Church property and lots he had acquired on the west side of Smith Street between Ellice Avenue and Princess Street.

In July 1905, Walker had purchased 285 feet of property fronting Smith Street. “As these lots were only 120 feet deep,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on December 18, 1906, in an article explaining the history of the theatre planning and construction, “it was necessary to use the rear 80 feet of three of them for the theatre proper, giving a length of practically 150 feet from the auditorium and the stage.” 

The Telegram said the reason for the request “is that Walker intends during the coming summer to erect a theatre upon the westerly part of the property mentioned with an entrance extending from the building itself easterly to Smith Street at the northern extremity of the buildings.

“It is claimed that with the additional five feet the architects will be able to plan a much more desirable building (Telegram, January 17, 1906). Without the five feet, there would be a space of forty feet between the building and Smith Street, south of the entrance above mentioned.”

It was further said Walker needed the additional space to later erect a hotel as well as office space on the property, which never came to pass.

The Free Press said Walker had been approached by the owners of the Winnipeg Theatre — Confederation Life — asking him to purchase their facility for $50,000, but Walker turned down the offer, preferring to meet the public’s demand for a modern and fireproof playhouse.

The Free Press said Winnipeggers  for years had waited impatiently for wealthy entrepreneurs to fulfill their promises of building an elegant and safe theatre, only to have “the glowing promise fade away.”

“It remained for Mr. C.P. Walker, former lessee of the Winnipeg Theatre, to meet the public necessity for a larger and finer theatre than Winnipeg had ever known ...

“During all the reports of new theatres to be erected here Mr. Walker remained quiet, simply continuing to furnish his patrons with the best theatrical entertainment available. But he knew that the city would soon require something safer, more pretentious and modern in the way of a playhouse, owing to the crushing population, and to his intimates he frankly said that when the time was ripe for such a theatre ... he would put it up.”

The newspaper said the public saw the building beginning to emerge from a steel cage “into four great blank and massive walls ... They had grown to appreciate the fact that the theatre is larger than any other ever built in Winnipeg.”

Walker’s Huge Building Wonder of Winnipeg, was the headline in the Telegram on May 31, 1906, as the theatre began to take shape.

Architect Howard C. Stone designed the 1,738-seat theatre in the Edwardian style. The Canadian White Company had the contract for the masonry and steel-frame construction under the direction of S.I. Ackin Jr., which was said to be “absolutely fireproof.”

On Labour Day in 1906, Walker opened the new theatre for public inspection as construction was halted for the holiday. “As this is the only absolutely fireproof theatre in the Dominion of Canada, its construction should be of great interest to theatre-goers, and there is no better time not to realize how thoroughly uninflammable (sic) is the material used and how massive is the framework,” announced the September 1 Telegram.

Prior to its official opening, Walker held a vote of Winnipeggers to determine the name of the new facility with prizes awarded to charities selected by the voters. In early December, Walker announced the votes were tallied and the majority favoured naming the theatre after its founder. “Therefore the beautiful new fireproof playhouse on Smith Street, so soon to be opened to the public, may be referred to in the future as The Walker,” wrote the Telegram, “a name which has for the past ten seasons been most prominently identified with matters theatrical in this city.”

The $150 prizes awarded to charities from the name-the-theatre contest were the use of the facility for a brief entertainment by the Children’s Home and Children’s Aid, $50 to the Winnipeg General Hospital, $40 to the St. Boniface Hospital and the Home for the Friendless, $30 to the Home for Convalescents, and  $10 for the Grace Hospital, as well as an additional $10 each to the Free Kindergarten and the Humane Society “as the voting was so close.”

Although the official opening was not scheduled until the New Year, the Walker opened its doors for a show by Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Co. The popular Australian “kiddies,” performed a production of In Town, starting on December 17, 1906 and running for three days, including a Wednesday matinee. Fifty “clever juvenile artists” made up the cast, all of whom were well-known to Winnipeg theatre-goers due to their frequent appearances on city stages.

To the strains of Canada’s national song, the Maple Leaf Forever, and then the Empire’s anthem of God Save the King, the Walker Theatre opened on Monday, December 17, before an audience at which “all of Winnipeg” was present, according to the Manitoba Free Press report the next day.

 

(Next week: part 2)