Betting on the Burt

True North exercises optionto buy historic theatre, more renovations to come

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After two years of running the Burton Cummings Theatre, True North Sports & Entertainment has decided to buy the iconic venue.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/03/2016 (2371 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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After two years of running the Burton Cummings Theatre, True North Sports & Entertainment has decided to buy the iconic venue.

Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president of venues and entertainment at True North, has been booking shows at the Burt since the spring of 2014 while simultaneously overseeing a never-ending string of renovations to the 109-year-old theatre.

True North has given formal notice to the Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group Inc., the volunteer board that oversees the Burt, that it’s going to exercise its option to buy the building.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Kevin Donnelly onstage with the house at his back.

“The wheels are turning now. We’re going to own it and operate it. It will be a True North entity,” Donnelly said.

The terms of the deal aren’t being released but Donnelly said they take into account the “hundreds of thousands” of dollars True North has invested into the Burt over the course of its two-year lease.

Reaction to the deal from the WTPAGI, which has run the Burt for the last quarter-century, was one of relief. Dave Sherman, past chair and long-time board member, said the financial resources and stability that True North brings has forever changed both the building and its future.

“We almost closed once or twice in the past. We were hanging on,” he said.

Operationally, the board wasn’t able to take on any financial risk by booking its own shows, so the Burt became essentially a road house for rent. That’s obviously not the case with True North.

“They can fill the building by promoting their own shows,” he said. “Every time I go in there, it’s better. It looks great in there now.”

But there’s more — much more — still to do. Many of the recent upgrades aren’t visible to concert-goers, such as new pipes and new windows in the back of the house, but some are. For example, there are more men’s and women’s washrooms today than ever before in the building’s history.

Upgrading the seating is a major priority for Donnelly. About 200 of the 500 seats on the main floor have been replaced, with the remainder to follow before the end of April. Patrons may not notice a subtle difference with the new chairs. The outgoing seats, which were installed when the facility was a first-run movie theatre called the Odeon, were tilted backwards so a patron’s natural gaze was angled higher to where the screen used to be. The new seats are positioned so customers’ eyes are naturally drawn to the front of the stage instead.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Kevin Donnelly backstage in the green room at The Burt.

During a recent tour of the building, Donnelly noticed one of the new seat bottoms was a little stiff and was on the phone immediately with maintenance to fix it.

About 100 of the 500 seats on the first balcony have been already recovered and reconditioned, and the plan is to cushion the one-time church pews in the second balcony — affectionately known as “The Gods” — while also widening the amount of space each ticket holder is given on the wooden benches.

“It cost us some seats but it doesn’t matter. We weren’t selling these out anyway because people weren’t comfortable. The goal is to increase the comfort level for the people who have successfully made it up our stairs. You want to be able to say, ‘every seat is a great seat’ and be truthful in that statement,” he said.

The artists’ green room, where performers hang out before and after shows, is unrecognizable from two years ago. Gone are the decades of graffiti and doodling from various performers over the years, replaced by a few coats of fresh paint and new furniture.

“We debated the pros and cons of having the historical context of past performers, but we felt there wasn’t enough that represented the true unique historic value. There wasn’t a signature by Sammy Davis Jr., but there was the high school graduating class from wherever who performed here in 2000. We decided to clean it up and make it presentable,” he said.

The Burt does pay homage to its history with several dozen new posters sprinkled throughout the building celebrating the many artists who have played there. Some are recent, such as reggae singer Ziggy Marley or comedian Gerry Dee, while others are from the early 20th century, when ticket prices were as low as a dime.

(One poster trumpets the Walker Theatre, as it was known for most of its history, being “absolutely fireproof” as it was the first theatre to be built out of steel and concrete since the inferno at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago on Dec. 30, 1903, in which more than 600 people died.)

Another room backstage has been turned into a small gym, complete with exercise bikes, some dumbbells and weight benches.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Burton Cummings Theatre

“Get off the tour bus, hop on the bike,” Donnelly said.

Just when will the renovations end? Well, probably never unless a wealthy sugar daddy comes along with a multi-million-dollar gift. Regardless, Donnelly said with the capital investment that has already been completed and more in the works, the Burt is set to host shows for another 109 years.

“There aren’t two of this building in the world. It was a building that was on the ropes but it’s not any more. We think it’s on a path that we’re proud of and excited about and we hope the community feels the same way,” he said.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 9:07 AM CDT: Adds video.

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