Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/3/2016 (361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When True North Sports & Entertainment took over the operations at the Burton Cummings Theatre two years ago, I felt relieved. As both a music writer and a fan, the Burt has always been among my favourite places to see a concert — and I’ve seen my share. It’s a beautiful room, one artists can often be caught admiring from the stage. With True North’s involvement, it felt like the theatre would be spared a fate it’s been threatened with before.
So when I read in this paper Tuesday True North had decided to buy the historic, iconic Winnipeg venue, I didn’t just feel relieved — I felt excited. This announcement didn’t feel like a stay of execution. It felt like a new lease on life.
Formerly known — or still known, depending on who you talk to — as the Walker Theatre, the 109-year-old building is an important piece of Winnipeg history, to be sure, the site of Nellie McClung’s mock parliament and world-class plays, musicals and operas. It’s had a few owners with differing visions; it became an Odeon theatre in 1945 and was restored to its former designation as a live-performance venue in 1991.
It’s also been, to borrow a phrase from True North’s Kevin Donnelly, "a building that was on the ropes," struggling under the weight of a debt. And yet, somehow, the Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group Inc., a volunteer board that has helmed the Burt for the past 25 years, managed to keep its doors open. There have been a few grand-gesture efforts made to save it, including the rather desperate naming-rights agreement of 2002. As you may recall, it was renamed — to many people’s chagrin — after the Guess Who frontman, who agreed to play five fundraising shows to support the restoration of the venue. As of 2016, Cummings has played two, and the most recent one was 10 years ago, as part of the theatre’s centennial. (What have you done for your namesake lately, Burton?)
"The name of the Burt is still up for discussion internally — Burton’s support came at an integral time and allowed the venue to come out from under crushing debt, so I personally believe a debt of serious consideration is owed Mr. Cummings," Donnelly tells me. "That being said, moving forward, the name has some important monetary value that we will need to mine in order to stay viable. So, nothing is decided, and nothing is off the table at this time."
So, yes: it’s a relief that finally, someone is actually saving the theatre and has the means to put in the TLC it needs and deserves. Yes, the actual facility upgrades are exciting, but I’m more excited about what saving the Burt means for our city’s concert calendar. Mid-sized, soft-seat venues are important to a music scene. They are the ones that get those special, one-off acoustic tours. They are the ones that draw break-out artists who aren’t quite ready for an arena but have sized out of the clubs. They are the venues at which bands record live albums, as the Weakerthans did in 2010. It’s a special size. Small enough to feel intimate, large enough to draw names. Touring is only going to become more important, not less. If a city has infrastructure to support acts at all levels, it’s more appealing to touring acts. A high tide raises all boats.
Winnipeg used to be flyover country when it came to concert routing. That’s changed over the past decade, in large part because of the work Donnelly and True North have done at the MTS Centre and, more recently, at Investors Group Field and a busier Burt. The theatre also provides a little wiggle room for the MTS Centre, which this season has been home to two hockey teams. Donnelly told the Free Press back in May he’d love to see some acts choose to play a multiple-night stand at the theatre as opposed to one half-bowl show. "It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a great thought," he said.
It’s also great someone is thinking those thoughts. Too often, prized venues fall into disrepair or have people at the helm who either have vision and no money, or money and no vision.
I’m looking forward to see what True North does with one our city’s finest venues. And I hope that includes a name change. Long live the Walker Theatre.