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Timeless beauty

At 100, Pantages Playhouse Theatre is a still-grand reminder of Winnipeg's glory days

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One of the dressing rooms that still has the old sink.The Pantages Theatre turns 100 years old.


One of the dressing rooms that still has the old sink.The Pantages Theatre turns 100 years old. Photo Store

A century ago, Winnipeg was one of the most optimistic places on the continent.

Thanks to the railway boom, Manitoba's capital had grown from a village of 1,869 people when it was incorporated in 1873 to a city of nearly 150,000 in 1914.

The population boom attracted all manner of entrepreneurs, visionaries and racketeers to Winnipeg, which benefited and suffered from the rapid growth.

One of the most colourful was Alexander Pantages, a Greek immigrant to the U.S. West Coast who made a fortune in the Klondike gold rush and built a network of vaudeville theatres across North America.

At the height of Pantages' theatre empire, he owned 30 venues and controlled another 40, according to Winnipeg historian George Siamandas.

One of those was Winnipeg's Pantages Playhouse Theatre, completed in 1914 at a cost of $250,000, or $5.9 million in 2014 dollars.

The neo-classical structure, designed by architects George Northwood and B. Marcus Priteca, was one of the most elaborate theatres ever built in Canada at the time, according to federal heritage documents.

The Pantages had a steel frame, which was a relatively new form of construction technology at the time. It had an Edwardian baroque facade, decorated with brick and terra cotta. The decoration inside and out included columns, friezes, marble and plaster.

It also was Winnipeg's first air-conditioned building, which allowed it to attract an upper-crust clientele, Siamandas noted. Early performers included Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel of Laurel & Hardy fame and Will Rogers, the cowboy satirist.

While Winnipeg had other expensive venues -- the Walker Theatre opened in 1907 -- the Pantages upped the ante with the sheer audacity of its decor.

Unfortunately for Alexander Pantages, 1914 was a lousy year to open anything in Winnipeg. In many ways, 1914 was the year this city started off on a path of slow growth and developmental stagnation that has only started to reverse over the past 15 years.

Mere months after the Pantages Playhouse opened in Winnipeg in February 1914, the cargo ship SS Ancon sailed through the Panama Canal, a waterway that immediately undercut the economic benefits of cross-continental rail travel.

But that wasn't all that hampered Winnipeg. Precisely 100 years ago today, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, creating the critical spark for the First World War, which began in July 1914.

Many young men left Winnipeg for the war, sapping the city's already receding economy. And when the soldiers returned home, many found there wasn't enough work and an urban environment that was growing tense.

The social situation contributed to the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, whose lack of resolution further undermined Winnipeg's economic vitality.

In 1923, Pantages sold the theatre, which wound up in financial trouble by the time the Great Depression hit and ended up in the city's hands. It has remained under the stewardship of the city ever since, struggling to remain open and solvent while hosting performances by the likes of Elvis Costello, Ella Fitzgerald, Steve Martin, Brian Wilson and Duran Duran, not to mention events from countless city organizations, from Rainbow Stage and Royal Winnipeg Ballet productions to concerts by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

The WSO is marking the theatre's 100th birthday on Sunday night with a special concert, hosted by Ron Robinson, that will include classical music, performances of Gilbert & Sullivan classics by Sarah Kirsch, Fred Cross and Trudy Schroeder, as well as appearances by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Band, jazz pianist Ron Paley, past Rainbow Stage performers like Jennifer Lyon, Lisa Bell and Colleen Furlan and jazz singer Anna-Lisa Kirby.

Today, most of Winnipeg's railway-era live theatres and movie houses are no longer with us.

The Walker Theatre still stands on Smith Street, now under the management of True North Sports & Entertainment, graced with the name the Burton Cummings Theatre following a previous attempt at financial solvency.

The Canad Inns hotel chain restored Donald Street's Metropolitan Theatre, which originally opened as the Allen Theatre in 1919.

The Pantages Playhouse also remains, awaiting a full restoration to its original grandeur, but still reminding Winnipeggers of the optimism and folly and general weirdness of that brief moment in 1914 where everything was going to be OK.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 G1

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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