IF you needed a sign that there’s a new boss at the Burton Cummings Theatre, you only had to visit the basement washroom at the George Thorogood concert over the weekend.
"Nobody has used it in five decades. Water was flowing," said Kevin Donnelly, senior vicepresident of venues and entertainment at True North Sports & Entertainment.
Turning on the taps in the long-abandoned loo is one of the first changes Donnelly and his team have made since quietly getting the keys to the 107-year-old theatre a few weeks ago.
It’s all official now that True North has signed a two-year lease, plus an option to renew, with the Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group, which continues to own the historic building.
The move comes after several months of negotiations and should result in significantly more concerts and other shows coming to the 1,638-seat venue. The Burt typically has between 40 and 50 bookings a year.
"We are leasing the building to commercially activate it," he said.
"We will be executing and living up to the commitments of the previous regime," he said. "It gives us an opportunity to learn the ropes before... the rest of the calendar unfolds."
Donnelly said about two dozen of the 50 or 60 employees of the Burt have been hired by True North.
Since the theatre was christened as a roadhouse back in March, 1991 — The Skydiggers opened for Blue Rodeo that night — it has scraped by with a minimal budget for capital upgrades and maintenance.
Now, when the electrical or plumbing needs to be addressed, Donnelly can quickly summon members of the True North team to fix the problem.
He said True North has set aside a significant budget for upgrading the building, but the financial commitment won’t be made public.
"We’re going to start immediately. The real challenge will be to be really strategic with the money, to sprinkle it throughout the building so everybody will notice it and benefit from it," he said.
Donnelly said it’s also important the building was never shut down during the transition. The Met Theatre down the street, he noted, was shuttered for 23 years in between gigs.
"Hopefully we can push it along into a more productive and more active entity," he said.
The first step is going to be cleaning out many truckloads worth of garbage — dilapidated seats, plumbing fixtures and other "unnecessary assets" — that have built up over the decades. Donnelly said some of it dates back to when an up-and-coming act called the Marx Brothers played at the Walker.
"There is stuff from the Odeon Theatre languishing in the cellar. The third-level dressing rooms have broken doors and didn’t get the uplift when it went from a live theatre to a movie house or when it went from a movie house (back) to the Walker," he said.
"It’s still in the broken-down state of 70 years ago. It’s cool in a haunted and decrepit sort of way."
Blue Rodeo front man Jim Cuddy is a big fan of the building he still calls "The Walker" and said he thought Donnelly’s plans were "great."
"The Walker-slash-Burton Cummings Theatre is a great building to play in and it’s a great building to watch a concert in. That’s a special place," he said.
Injecting money into it is important because to be a successful entertainment city, you need venues of all sizes, not just arenas, he said.
"You’ve got to have a rock ’n’ roll theatre," he said. "The Walker is about 1,500, that’s a very important size. When you move out of the bars, you move into a theatre of about 1,500. It’s perfect."
Cuddy said he believes historical theatres can still be a vital part of the community.
"In this day and age, if you renovate something and make it attractive, you don’t even have to put a lot of money in it, all of a sudden there’s a renewed interest in it," he said.
When Donnelly first told the Free Press in December he was looking to take over the management of the Burt, he was also considering doing the same with the Pantages Playhouse Theatre.
Since then he said all of his efforts have been focused on closing the Burt deal and nothing has progressed with Pantages.
Trudy Schroeder, executive director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, which has been managing the 100-year-old, 1,475-seat heritage building for the past three years, hopes her situation can now be put on the front burner.
The Pantages is in a similar situation to the Burt, needing millions of dollars in capital upgrades and a fuller calendar to make it operationally profitable.
Schroeder said there used to be 75 Pantages theatres throughout North America, all of which were designed and built between 1910 and 1918, but many of them fell into disrepair and were torn down.
"They’re an important part of a city’s history. You won’t get them again.
It would be a credit to us to make it fully functional and have another 100 years of great life at it," she said.
The Pantages will celebrate its centennial on June 29 with an evening of musical theatre, vaudeville, a WSO performance, as well as some dance and Gilbert and Sullivan numbers. Tickets are $10.