Starting the New Year — in 1912 music filled the grand ballroom of Royal Alexandra

by  Jim Blanchard

On New Year’s Eve, 1912, the Royal Alexandra Hotel at Higgins and Main was ablaze with lights, alive with laughter and music. The local newspaper, Town Topics, described “the dining room and café being crowded with all kinds of gay little supper parties, a large orchestra enlivening the proceedings. After 12 o’clock, the ballroom was thrown open and a jolly dance ensued.”

Dancing did not start until midnight because December 31 was a Sunday, and dancing, along with many other things, was forbidden under the 1906 Lord’s Day Act. But when midnight came, the laughing crowd spilled out into the lobby from the Oak Grill and the Dining Room, and hurried up the stairs to the Colonial Ball Room on the second floor. Samuel Barrowclough’s orchestra was set up and waiting for the dancers and, as the floor filled up, they put out their cigarettes, finished their New Year’s drinks  and began to play.

Samuel Barrowclough ... had made a good living from music: in 1912 he had his own music store and lived in a comfortable, middle-class home at 813 Balmoral St.

The Royal Alexandra was the unrivalled grand hotel of Winnipeg from the day her doors opened in July 1906 until 1913, when the Grand Trunk’s new Fort Garry Hotel opened on Broadway. In her public rooms, the city’s élite entertained with balls and dinners and teas.

The original decision to build a CPR hotel in Winnipeg had been made in 1899 by Thomas Shaughnassy, the new president of the company. It was to be part of a major redevelopment, including a station and office building on the railroad’s property at Higgins and Main, and the expansion of the yards a short distance to the west. He hoped that the large, handsome and expensive building, which he intended to operate on the lines of the Chateau Frontenac in Québec City, would improve the class of buildings in the neighbourhood.

As an urban renewal project, Shaughnassy’s hotel was a spectacular failure: many of the small Victorian hotels and business blocks that the president of the CPR hoped would be swept away were still standing when the Royal Alexandra was demolished in the early 1970s. But in its heyday, it was a symbol of the young city’s hopes and pretensions and wealth. Naming it after Edward VII’s Queen Alexandra suggested worldliness and style; the Queen was a fashion leader, watched and imitated by millions of women all over the (British) Empire.

More sober on the outside than her sisters, the Empress and the Chateau Frontenac, the Royal Alexandra was as elegant and spacious inside as any of the others. Like all the company’s hotels of this period, she bore the mark of Kate Reid, the wife of Hayter Reid, the CPR’s superintendent of hotels ...

Mrs. Reid was the Canadian-born widow of a wealthy New Yorker. She returned home to Canada after her first husband’s death and married Reid, her childhood sweetheart. She got her start as a decorator advising Sir William Van Horne, her husband’s friend and employer, on the purchase of antiques for his Montreal mansion ... Then Van Horne put her in charge of decorating the Empress Hotel, the Chateau Frontenac and the Royal Alexandra in Winnipeg. It was said of her that, “Playing on color harmonies, searching for the right details, matching fabrics and personally choosing the embroidered motifs on the table linen, she came up with a style that managed to be luxurious and domestic at the same time; a style which, in the end, made everyone feel at home.”

The manager of the hotel in 1912 was Walter S. Detlor, who lived in the building with his wife and children. By 1912, he had spent over 20 years working for the CPR, learning his trade as chief clerk and accountant at the elegant Place Viger Hotel in Montreal and at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec. Detlor was the guardian of the hotel’s style and a guide for the city’s ambitious hostesses, who sometimes thanked him publicly for his advice.

The Royal Alexandra was an immediate success, and this and the crazy growth of the city necessitated a huge expansion project, almost before the plaster was dry in the original building. By 1912, this enlargement of the hotel was nearing completion. There were many new guest rooms, a new larger ballroom, and a large banquet room, as well as a number of smaller private dining rooms.

Entering the hotel from Higgins Avenue on New Year’s Eve, visitors found themselves in a vestibule with marble steps leading up to the massive L-shaped lobby. This room, with its forest of classical columns, stretched to the southwest corner of the building and then continued along the west side to the billiard room at the rear. Two restaurants, the Oak Grill and the Dining Room, opened onto the lobby. Both rooms were large and exquisitely decorated. The Oak Grill was done in the popular Mission style, with large, square chairs and lamps with stained glass shades. The ceiling was glass and, through it, natural light filtered down from a light shaft in the centre of the hotel. The Dining Room, whose windows looked out onto Higgins Avenue on the south and the station courtyard on the east, was decorated with a series of murals six metres high, depicting scenes of Red River history, painted by Frederick Challoner.

On the second floor were the rooms of the Vice-Regal Suite, with a view across Higgins and south down Main Street. Also on this floor were the Gold Room, a drawing room in which guests could relax and visit, and the Colonial Ball Room, at the other end of the hall, also facing Higgins Avenue.

The Royal Alexandra was the scene of many of the teas, luncheons, balls and dinners that followed one another in quick succession in Winnipeg in 1912. Social events also took place in other public places and in private homes, but the hotel was the first choice of the city’s élite. The ways in which these middle- and upper-middle-class people spent their leisure time emphasized the real gulf between the rich and the not so rich. In addition to simply enjoying themselves, the wealthy often used entertaining as a way to display their wealth, erect social barriers and reinforce the class structure in Winnipeg. The prosperous families at the top of the social structure watched a little nervously as certain members of other immigrant communities — the Jews in particular — also grew wealthier. There was some interaction with Jews in business matters, but the social world was carefully sealed against them. There were, as well, many newcomers to the city from Ontario and Britain who were potentially acceptable, but who had to be vetted and either welcomed or excluded.

In a city of self-made men, where almost everyone with money had worked hard to get it, denying access to the local version of “society” was tricky ... Leaders of local Winnipeg society, such as Mrs. Colin Campbell, the wife of Manitoba’s Attorney General, reinforced a system of “door keepers,” controlling who was in and who was not, who was invited and who was excluded ...

The parties given by wealthy hostesses like Mrs. Augustus Nanton and Mrs. George Galt were described in the society columns in the newspapers, so lesser mortals could read about how it was done. Mrs. Hugh Phillips, the wife of a successful Winnipeg lawyer in 1912, recalled many years later: “I remember Mrs. Sutherland — Lady May we called her because she held her head high and was so grand. She had a blue satin drawing room. She told W.F. Alloway to be careful of the chairs: he sat down on one and put his feet up on another ...”

Mrs. George Galt and her husband also entertained on a grand scale. Her husband and his cousin, John Galt, were partners in a large grocery wholesale, which sold, among other things, the firm’s popular Blue Ribbon brands ...

In January 1912 the Galts moved from their home on the corner of Broadway and Donald to a beautiful new house at 460 Wellington Cres. George Galt had designed many features of the house and he made sure it had plenty of room for entertaining. The front hall was seven metres square and had a good oak floor for dancing. The music room was eight metres long and five metres wide. The Galts’ daughter, Alice, recalled many years later: “We entertained at home a great deal. We’d have a sing song or roll back the rugs if we wanted to dance. We had a lot of small parties of about a dozen people or less. We had got our first gramophone in 1908, but if we wanted to dance mother would play …When we were going to have a dance my sisters and I carried most of the furniture up to the third floor to the would-be billiards room so that if people wanted to go up there and sit out they could.”

At the end of January, the Galts had two dances — on Wednesday and Friday of the same week — to celebrate Alice’s coming out. Young women who were “coming out” were introduced into society at dances organized by their mothers or by a friend and for a year they were celebrated as “buds” of the season. It was during this year that young debutantes often became engaged to be married ...

Town Topics duly reported the young women’s rite of passage at a brilliant dance given by Mrs. John Galt in honour of the debut of her two daughters, Maryon and Evelyn Galt. “The spacious rooms of this lovely home were all beautifully decorated with American Beauty and Killarney roses, (with) shaggy yellow chrysanthemums being used in the dining room. Dancing was carried on in the drawing room and hall, the orchestra playing in a corner of the latter room. Mr. and Mrs. Galt with their two very charming and pretty maidens received their guests at the drawing room entrance ...”

Perhaps the most basic form of entertaining to be mastered by an ambitious hostess wishing to prove herself worthy of admission to “society” was the afternoon tea ...

 We get some insight into the details of an “at home” as practiced in Winnipeg from a humorous piece published in Town Topics on March 2, 1912. The author, identified only as K.E., injects some humour into her description of how to organize a tea, although she does not question the basic value of the activity. Preparing for a simple tea, which might last from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. or 4  p.m. to 7 p.m., was a great deal of work ...

The writers of society columns, also always women, were, therefore, courted in an attempt to secure just such a positive review: Constance Denholm, the society columnist for the Telegram, was frequently named in guest lists of social events of all sizes.

Not everyone was impressed by the formulaic accounts of such events. “Eye Opener” Bob Edwards made fun of them in a February 19, 1910, column in the Calgary Herald: “By George, we must get off some society stuff this issue or bust a gut. It is the height of the season and owing to several unfortunate jamborees at the time when the big functions were being pulled off we have not been able to get in our fine work. But better late than never. Last Wednesday night a charming dance was given at the charming residence of the charming Mrs. W. Sloshcum-Kachorker. Old Sloshcum-Kachorker, who had inadvertently got drunk at the Mariaggi that afternoon, was unable to be present, but a pleasant time was had nevertheless. The rooms were tastefully decorated with flowers and ferns. Among those present were: A beautiful gown of blue satin with net trimmings and sage and onion stuffing. A charming white gown of crepe de chine brussels sprouts net over silk, trimmed with old point lace ... It really does not matter who were inside the gowns. Toward the end of this most successful function old Sloshcum-Kachorker came lurching downstairs from an upper chamber looking for a drink and rather spoiled the general effect of the tout ensemble, but on the whole it was a charming affair and the charming hostess was warmly congratulated by her guests ...”

On the first morning of 1912, Winnipeg awoke to -28°F. Against the clear, blue skies, plumes of white smoke rose from thousands of chimneys. The brutal cold had gripped the city for two weeks and would continue, the temperature plunging to a low of minus 43 on January 11.

Outdoor activities were cancelled and equipment was starting to break down: on Friday, January 5, an overhead streetcar cable snapped in the cold, causing a backup of 34 southbound cars near St. John’s College on Main Street; passenger trains, struggling with frozen equipment, arrived four to seven hours late.

On Monday, January 1, most people were on holiday and a few of them stayed in bed, wondering what to do about the pounding in their heads and making resolutions to never drink again. The Free Press published a cartoon of a servant telling his employer, who was in the grip of a terrible hangover, that his coach awaited him. Out on the street a water wagon was waiting at the curb. A few heavy drinkers may have resolved to go to the Gatlin Institute, 147 Hargrave St., where they could undergo a three-day cure, under the supervision of a physician. A “harmless vegetable remedy” was administered internally with absolutely no hypodermic injections. Cocaine or morphine addicts were also welcome. The manager of the institute, W. Harvey Hamilton, lived in a substantial new house at 100 Arlington, so we can assume that business was good. People wanting to cure the liquor, morphine or tobacco habits, or who were simply suffering from nerve exhaustion, could also book themselves into the Evans Gold Cure Institute at 226 Vaughan St. For $120 they would be subjected to the treatment that helped restore Winnipeggers to good health for 20 years ...

The Free Press and the Morning Telegram published papers on New Year’s Day, although most businesses were closed. The papers listed plenty of ways to entertain yourself in the city. There was a hockey game at the auditorium rink, which stood on the south side of York Avenue between Fort and Garry. The Winnipeg Victorias defeated the Montreal New Edinburghs 5 to 2, in one of a series of games that wound up the following Saturday with the Victorias capturing the Allen Cup ...

Many people went curling on New Year’s Day; all the rinks were busy: the Strathcona, the Granite, the Civic, and the Assiniboine curling clubs. A few days later, Premier (Sir Rodmond) Roblin inaugurated yet another rink, the Union Terminal Curling Club, opened to satisfy an ever-increasing demand for ice. The papers carried the news that a delegation of champion Scottish curlers had landed in Halifax and that they would make their way to Winnipeg to participate in the bonspiel in February.

If you weren’t a sports fan, you might have gone to the theatre, where you could choose between a melodrama, Deep Purple, at the Walker Theatre, The Burgler and the Lady at the Winnipeg Theatre, or The Two Orphans at the Opera House. The Orpheum, a brand-new theatre on Fort Street, and the Empress both had vaudeville shows. In the evening the First Baptist Church offered a performance of the Messiah. 

Winnipeg was an important part of the North American vaudeville circuits. Later in the year, both Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields were among the vaudevillians who performed in the city. Chaplin actually came twice, both times as part of Fred Karno’s London Comedy Company, at the Empress. By the time of his second 1912 visit to Winnipeg, Chaplin — still Charles, not Charlie — was well known enough to warrant headliner treatment as the star of a sketch entitled The Wow Wows. Fields, who appeared in the summer of 1912 at the Orpheum, received star billing as “The Silent Humorist,” but had to share the stage with six other acts, including a “Quintette of Highly Educated Pachyderms.”

There were also movie theatres, “cinematograph halls” with names like “Dreamland” and “Starland,” which promised patrons “the world at your command in Motion Photography.” In 1912, the bill of fare at these early movie theatres included short newsreels along with melodramas with titles such as Victim of the Mormons. For more refined tastes, later in the year the Lyceum Theatre presented an “Engagement Extraordinary” with Sarah Bernhardt’s film version of Camille ...

In Winnipeg the first motion pictures were shown in a tent on Main Street in 1899 by John Schuberg and Fred Burrows. By 1912, Schuberg owned a chain of movie houses, including the Bijou and the Province in Winnipeg. There was a fledgling movie industry in Winnipeg, with companies making promotional films for the railroads. The Starland Company, which also owned the Starland Theatre, made two movies in 1912: one about the Calgary Stampede and another depicting the massive parade at the Odd Fellows Convention in Winnipeg in September ...

On New Year’s Day in Winnipeg, it was a tradition for men to go calling, or “first footing.” This was a Scottish custom practised in the days of the Red River Settlement and adopted in Winnipeg by many non-Scots. All over the city, ladies were “at home” and in their parlours the rumble of male voices was heard where, for the rest of the year, only women came to call. Hostesses who normally would offer tea or hot chocolate to their guests, on this day might put out a rum punch or pour a visitor a glass of whisky.

Ruth Harvey, the daughter of C. P. Walker, the owner of the Walker Theatre, gives us a glimpse of her parents’ house at 771 Dorchester at New Year around this time: “From early afternoon until well into the evening all the men in town went on a round of calls. They paid their respects to the crown at the Lieutenant Governor’s official reception and then went from house to house of friends where the women were ready with their dining tables spread with sandwiches and cakes and tea and coffee and punch ...”

When the last guest departed into the night, the Walkers turned out the lights and climbed the stairs. The first working day of a busy New Year would soon be upon them.

(Excerpted from Winnipeg 1912, by Jim Blanchard, University of Manitoba Press, 2005. For more information, visit uofmpress)