Many of our large community spaces remain dark these days to limit the spread of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean all is quiet in the city’s performing arts venues, halls and other places we gather. Accompanied by photographer Mikaela MacKenzie, Brenda Suderman explored the nooks and crannies of Burton Cummings Theatre at 364 Smith St. to see improvements and upgrades made during lockdown and get a birds-eye perspective from high in the gods of this early 20th century performing arts venue.
When the house lights dim and the curtain rises again at the Burton Cummings Theatre, expect to see a dazzling show both on and off the stage.
"The place hasn’t looked this good in 100 years," explained Ruben Ramalheiro, director of live entertainment for True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns the 114-year-old theatre.
"Finally, with some downtime we had time for upkeep, cleaning the carpet, cleaning the seats, polishing the railing."
There’s no date set for the fourth grand opening of the Grand Lady of Smith Street, which first opened in 1907, closed in 1933, then found a second life as a movie theatre in 1945. Thirty years ago it opened again as a live arts venue.
Now this historic venue, constructed in 1906-07 at a cost of $330,000 by local impresario Corliss Powers Walker, will be more than ready when pandemic restrictions loosen to allow public gatherings, said Ramalheiro.
"I think the tidiness and cleanliness when patrons are coming back are the standards we will be held to," he said.
With about 100 shows a year, usually there’s not much time to embark on a deep-cleaning spree on the multiple levels of the former Walker Theatre, renamed in 2002 after the Winnipeg-born singer-songwriter and former Guess Who frontman.
Since the staging of The Simon and Garfunkel Story on March 11, 2020, the theatre has remained mostly silent, except for a handful of livestreamed events and video shoots, said Kevin Donnelly, True North’s senior vice-president of venues and entertainment. Staff have used the downtime to paint, clean carpets, and steam-clean the upholstered seats.
He said they have had more than adequate time to patch up the paint, dust the chandeliers and polish the curved brass railing on the first balcony of this historic building, one of the few in Winnipeg to have municipal, provincial and national heritage designations.
"We spent the first six or eight months of the pandemic cleaning and improving," said Donnelly of the approximately $10,000 in updates, mostly carried out by True North staff.
"Now we’re dusting."
They may have shaken loose the cobwebs in dark corners of the historic theatre, but current public health restrictions mean they can’t yet dust off their event-hosting skills. Donnelly has plans for when public indoor gatherings move back to 30 per cent capacity, as they were in early fall.
"If we had the ability to open to 500 tickets, we would open," he said of filling about one-third of the 1,589 seats.
"We would find entertainment that would fit that business model."
Designed by Montreal architect Howard C. Stone, this example of an early Canadian theatre was meant to bring people together and keep them safe with its fireproof features, including a steel superstructure. The grand opening performance on Feb. 18, 1907, featuring Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, drew a packed house, including the mayor, premier and lieutenant-governor, to mingle in the front lobby or gather in the lounges off the main auditorium and the first balcony.
"The Walker Theatre was meant to socialize," said Heritage Winnipeg’s Cindy Tugwell, referring to the curved rows, cantilevered balcony, and original smoking lounges.
"It was just a place for social connectivity."
Even the cheap seats — initially priced at 25 cents — brought people together, although for a different reason, with up to 13 people crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the eight steeply stepped pews topping off the second balcony. Those nosebleed-inducing seats were boarded off when the Walker operated as a movie theatre but were restored after a non-profit organization took over the building as a performing arts venue in 1991.
After True North took over in 2014 (and purchased the theatre two years later) those top seats were fitted with red seat cushions, reducing the number of bodies in a pew to a more comfortable 10, said Donnelly.
"We actually expanded the allocation to the seats," he said.
The seats may be bigger, but the way up to them remains the same, approached by climbing up 65 stairs on a separate staircase. Donnelly says there’s plans for some sort of people mover — either an escalator or elevator — to make the building more accessible.
The brick building still boasts the original pulley freight elevator backstage, designed to move equipment and costume cases from the loading docks to the stage or to the upper-level dressing rooms.
Although the historic building has limitations compared to newer venues, Donnelly said it continues to impress performers and audience members with its elaborate gilt, marble and plaster finishes, good sightlines and great acoustics.
"It’s a constant struggle. It’s not a museum, it’s not a temple to a past era," he said of balancing the historic elements with installing up-to-date systems for touring shows.
"You have to provide technology that’s relevant today."
The owners seem to have struck that balance, said Tugwell, by working to maintain and preserve the historic elements while waiting out the pandemic.
"They’ve taken a building that right now can’t generate any revenue and right now they’re maintaining it," she said.
"People have to realize everyone should be doing what they’re doing."
What Donnelly really wants is to carry out what the historic theatre was designed to do: open the doors so people can once again enjoy live performances in a beautiful historic theatre. When that’s on the horizon again, he’s got a plan.
"If the concept is to ease people back in, I’d love to start with a series of local shows," he said.
"I want to get the industry employed again and to get people back in touch with their fans again."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.