Manitoba by the Book: Behind the Curtain at the Walker Theatre

Manitoba by the Book: an occasional series of introductions to writings about our city and province, with an emphasis on the strange, obscure or forgotten fragments of our past.

Curtain Time, (1947) by Ruth Harvey

On the outside it’s Winnipeg’s original Cube, on the inside visitors appreciate the Walker’s giant stage in 2016. /PHOTO: Greg Petzold

There were always the two houses.  “At the house” or “cleaning the house” – that was the house we lived in. “The house will be dark next week” – that was our theatre.

Ruth Harvey wrote those lines. She was seven years old when the Walker Theatre opened, more than 110 years ago.

Ruth grew up in the theatre. Her father, Corliss (C.P.) Walker, had come to Winnipeg in 1897 from Fargo, already managing a circuit of Red River Valley theatres. He leased a theatre at Notre Dame and Adelaide that he renovated and re-branded as the Winnipeg Theatre. Ruth’s mother, Harriet (a former actress), was extremely active in the business, most notably functioning as press agent.

That success allowed Corliss to build a grandiose new 1,800-seat theatre in 1906 – the Walker (today listed as 1638 seats). It was an ambitious project that reflected the belief in Winnipeg as the “next Chicago”.

It was a privileged Winnipeg childhood for Ruth. Her mother would come back from theatre binges in New York with her luggage stuffed with gifts from Macy’s. Ruth would later study in Italy. Eventually, the family would tour Europe, seeing classic productions on their home turf.

In 1947, Harvey published this nostalgic memoir while living in the U.S. Ruth was the proverbial fly on the wall (or more accurately, the child in the wings), giving us some memorable vignettes of Winnipeg before the Great War.

On the official opening night of the Walker on February 18th 1907:

In front of the theatre the street was crowded with carriages and cars. Every once in a while there would be a fine jingle of sleigh bells and a carriole would drive up. Even years after cars were practical in a Manitoba winter some people still kept these charming sleighs. They were open, low hung, and nearly always painted red. The coachman, on a raised seat in front, looked enormous in a long buffalo coat and hat like a shako, and the passengers in the back were wrapped in buffalo robes.

On that night, before the inaugural performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, there was a full court press of speeches by Lieutenant Governor Sir Daniel MacMillan, Mayor James Ashdown and Premier Rodmond Roblin. They rained down praises on the new enterprise.

The Walker stage would be dominated by British and American touring companies. There was plenty of opera, musicals and serious theatre with international stars, as well as some of the melodrama of the period. From being a lonely northern outpost, the theatre eventually became the anchor for extended Western tours.

Shakespeare, Chaliapin, Peter Pan, Winston Churchill and Nellie McClung’s Women’s Parliament all came to the Walker.

In 1909, the famous performance of Ben Hur wowed audiences with its stagecraft, much like contemporary mega-shows Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera:

The background was an enormous cyclorama, painted to represent the rows of spectators around the arena, and arranged, like a scroll, on rollers out of sight of the audience. In front of that were the chariots. Each chariot, with its real horses, was set on a separate treadmill so that one team might be made to gain on and pass another. As the chariots moved across the stage the cyclorama was rolled in the opposite direction, so that one had the effect of moving along with the racers past a blur of faces, while the horses’ hooves pounded thunderously.

It’s hard to believe, but three four-horse teams were onstage to re-enact the classic chariot race. The huge Walker stage allowed it to host even the most elaborate productions of the era.

After the performance, the Mariaggi Hotel was just up the street for theatre people:

It was the only good café in the sprawling, windswept town, and it stayed open at night. It was near the theatre, and theatre goers came in after the show for sandwiches and oyster stews. After the hockey matches people arrived stamping their chilled feet, and warmed their hands on the thick coffee cups.  Skaters and curlers with ruddy cheeks came in from the rinks. And actors and actresses, their eyebrows and lashes still shiny from the cold cream, came in, hungry and tired, to order ham and eggs and pie. And later still, poker players who had counted their chips and settled up.

Today, Frank Mariaggi’s name lives on as the Mariaggi Theme Suite Hotel.

Mariaggi Hotel still standing proud on McDermot Avenue today. /PHOTO: Greg Petzold

Harvey’s book has been called prim. At times, it piles on the detail. Practically an entire chapter is devoted to a stroll through the Hudson’s Bay store at Christmastime while she waxes eloquently about cheeses and marmalades.

Still, the book is a window on a life that at times seems impossibly distant. When writing in the 1940s, she observed:

Even now Winnipeg allows no Sunday entertainments for which an admission is charged: no organized sports, no theatres, no movies.  But there was a time in this city of two hundred thousand, no streetcars ran on Sunday. You walked to church, walked home, ate a big dinner and gave the afternoon to the solemn digestion of it. The sun, blissfully ignorant of John Knox, might shine bright and warm and high in the heavens, but down below, through the streets of the town, the breath of Calvinism blew grim and chill of a Sunday. Little girls did not commit the indecorum of skipping rope on the sidewalk.  Little boys might gaze mournfully at their bicycles, it was heresy to ride them.

Descending from “the gods” in the second balcony; these classic cheap seats were originally 25 cents. /PHOTO: Greg Petzold

At the theatre, when the Lieutenant Governor attended, his box was covered with flags and the orchestra played “God Save the King”.

No thought of global warming in those days. When winter came, Winnipeggers …had furs and we needed them…we were proud that no other city had a winter quite like ours – proud that our winter was a whopper! And we festooned the river with lights and skated there and swooped down the long toboggan slides. And one day every winter the whole town gathered on Main Street to watch the finish of the great annual dog-sled races. It was then – as the winning team came barking in from Le Pas – it was then we remembered that despite our new place as the gateway to the West, Winnipeg was still the great southern outpost of the North.

In the 1920s, things began to change for the Walker. Competition from radio and movies, rising costs, and then the Depression meant less and less touring. Theatres on the Prairie circuit closed one by one. As Harvey puts it, “the Road had died.”

The Burton Cummings Theatre, at least in 2017. /PHOTO: Greg Petzold

The Walker closed in 1933 and was seized by the City in 1936 to pay back taxes. It sat vacant for years. C.P. Walker died in 1942 at the age of 89.

Winnipeg would not be the Paris of the Prairies, at least in this century.

The theatre re-opened as a movie theatre, the Odeon, in 1945. It would enjoy a near half-century run before closing. Generations of movie-goers didn’t even realize there was a second balcony hidden above the false ceiling.

In 1991, the theatre was re-invented as a performing arts venue and the name reverted to the Walker. It was re-named yet again in 2002 as the Burton Cummings Theatre after Winnipeg’s favourite son.  True North Sports & Entertainment took over management of the theatre in 2014 and purchased the building in 2016.

Still, tradition dies hard.  For many people, it remains the Walker. On the other hand, at least they haven’t sold the naming rights to a bank.

FOR: serious theatre history buffs or people that need deep background for the era. Must love detail.

FINDING: relatively available at the library. And I just spied a copy on the shelf at Burton Lysecki Books.

About

Photographer and local historian in spare time. Hiked Sinai, kayaked Superior, capsized on the Nahanni. Tracing (slowly) the Trans-Canada Trail across Manitoba by bike.

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