“Finest playhouse in the Dominion” — Walker Theatre called a “beautiful temple of the drama”

by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)

The first stage performance in the Walker Theatre was held on Monday, December 17, 1906, although the official opening would occur two months later.  

“The glory of last night was his (C.P. Walker’s), and almost his alone,” reported the Manitoba Free Press the following day, “and although the formal dedication is not yet, last night will always remain a red-letter day in Mr. Walker’s public career.

“Before the curtain was raised a hum of approval was heard throughout the house. True, certain parts of it may not have been quite finished ... but what of it. We were too much in spirit of exaltation to notice such trifles ... The momentous fact remained — Winnipeg’s magnificent new theatre was at last, an accomplished  fact, and we were within its walls. It really is the most beautiful theatre and solidity and elegance are blended together in the cleverest manner. The curve of the boxes is most graceful and they are delightfully roomy ... Comfort is the keynote of the building.”

The newspaper continued, “Another feature commented on was the fact that the orchestra is sunk below the stage, the members being almost hidden from sight.”

The opening night theatre-goers entered a “lobby, long and broad, handsomely floored with tiling, wainscoted with white marble, and with a beautiful ceiling done in plastering, with bronze panels. The light for the lobby is furnished by clusters of electric lamps (chandeliers) ...

“Passing from an inspection of the lobby they entered the lower or orchestra floor of the auditorium through heavy oak doors with plate glass panels. Once inside the theatre they had many things to note and exclaim over. They commented on its magnificent breadth and length, upon the beautiful ornamental plastering, the spacious  alcove at the centre, with its fireplace, the handsome oak-covered steel pillars that bear part of the weight of the balcony and yet are so placed that they are back of the last seats of the orchestra, thus leaving the line of sight absolutely free for the occupants of the orchestra section ...

“From the floor of orchestra to the megaphone-shaped ceiling is over sixty feet and between hang the balcony and the gallery in two separate tiers. This is something entirely new to Winnipeggers. Heretofore the balcony and gallery have been on the same floor.”

No pillars or posts supported the balconies so its patrons had an unobstructed view of the stage.

With a main floor seating capacity of 597 patrons and a first balcony capacity of 529, the theatre rivaled most New York theatres, but the addition of the 520-seat second balcony made it unique in North America. 

Several rows to seat 250 patrons in the second gallery, which  became known as the “Gods,”  were designated “rush” seating — no reservations were required. The Gods had its own ticket booth and the rush seats could be purchased for a nominal fee of 25-cents each, making it a popular choice for those of modest means. 

“The uniform price of gallery seats is twenty-five cents, and the crowds of men, young and old, who throng the place nightly, give ample proof of its popularity,” reported the Voice on February 1, 1907.

Ruth Harvey in her book Curtain Time said her father built a big gallery with plenty of low-priced seats to attract young people.

“When they could pay more for a better seat they’d do it, but it was simply good business to catch them young so they would get the theatre habit.”

The top-priced seat on the lower level cost $2.50 when the theatre first opened for performances, while reserved seats in the gallery ranged from 50-cents to one dollar.

Other productions leading up the official opening in February included The Sultan of Sulu, a comic opera; J.M. Barrie’s “delightful comedy,” Alice-Sit-by-the Fire; Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado; Morton and Kirker’s “delightful musical comedy,” The Belle of New York; the musical Sergeant Kitty, “played by the spritely and shapely Helen Byron;” and Adelaide Thurston, “with her melodious voice and plaintive note,” in The Girl from Out Yonder.

For the official opening on February 19, 1907, Walker was accompanied onto the stage by Manitoba Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin,  Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor Sir Daniel McMillan, Winnipeg Mayor James Ashdown and  other dignitaries.

The Telegram made a point of naming all the city’s elite in attendance, adding the “scene that greeted the eye when all were seated made a picture of unsurpassing beauty not easily duplicated. 

“All the four boxes (an upper and lower box on each side of the stage), ample in size, and striking in their subdued richness of the appointments, were completely in harmony with the handsomely gowned ladies and their escorts who occupied them. The color scheme is effectively carried out in an emerald green velvet. The heavy curtains of that hue with their gold borders from the becoming background to the delicately-tinted gowns and blending with the dark wood of the luxurious chairs and rich rugs which furnish them.”

In The Year Past: 1990, a report by Winnipeg’s Historical Buildings Committee, the theatre’s auditorium is described as possessing “an ornate and column-free vaulted ceiling, providing a clear view for all patrons. The cantilevered balcony was supported by columns at the rear of the main-floor seating, while the upper gallery was secured by an immense truss and steel rods attached to the roof ...

“The Walker’s stage was one of the few in Canada capable of handling the most spectacular productions, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin with ice floes, dogs and clouds ascending to heaven, and Ben Hur complete with a chariot race. The stage had a 21.4-metre-high gridiron with a full-fly gallery and huge doors to permit the movement of scenery from the outside dock. Parts of the floor could be taken up to provide traps ...

“Beneath the stage were dressing and property rooms; workshops; space for ushers, musicians and other performers/staff; wardrobe storage; and a special room for animals.”

The stage and its surrounding amenities were specifically designed for the benefit of performers at the insistence of Hattie Walker. As a former actor — she performed under the name Harriett Anderson when she was based in New York  — Hattie knew the needs of those who trod the boards. Hattie was noted for producing and encouraging local amateur musical comedies, light operas and dramas. She also wrote a theatrical column under the pen name Rosa Sub.

Harvey wrote that on the evening of the official opening, the street in front of the theatre was crowded with carriages and cars. “Every once in a while there would be a fine jingle of sleigh bells and a (horse-drawn) cariole would drive up ...

“There were crowds and crowds of people going into the theatre. Soon it was packed full of people — nearly two thousand ...”

For the grand opening, the Free Press said the boxes were “gracefully festooned with fragrant blossoms and trailing green. Stately palm mingled with brilliant poinsettia blossoms at each side of the stage, and the myriad of electric lights added to the splendor. An audience in full evening dress completed a picture which surpassed anything ever seen in Winnipeg.”

“I do not know that anywhere you will find a theatre of greater capacity, more noble proportions, or more thoroughly in keeping with the age we live in, than this theatre. It is the first metropolitan theatre we have had in the great northwest, it is a credit alike to this city, here it stands, and to the enterprise of the manager, who brought it about,” said Ashdown.

“If we were to close our eyes for a minute and open them again,” added Ashdown, “we would wonder where we had landed. My own thoughts are almost that I could conceive myself in the city of Boston, in some new theatre, opened for the first time, or in the city of New York.”

Roblin congratulated Walker for creating such a magnificent edifice, adding he hoped it would culminate “in a grand climax of good, not  only for the theatre, but for the people of Manitoba as a whole and for our friend, Mr. Walker.”

McMillan, who officially declared  “this beautiful temple of the drama” open, said: “I can say of this theatre what cannot be said of any enterprise in this city; that this is the only institution that is in advance of the development and growth of the city. A theatre of which we may be proud and which would be a credit to any city in the world.”

The man at the centre of attention rose, but had little to add, claiming that the preceding speakers had “said everything that could be said.”

Harvey explained that her father by nature was shy. She saw that under his blonde handlebar moustache, he bore a little grin, “as he often did when he was embarrassed.”

The next day, when explaining how uncomfortable he felt while seated on the tiny gilded chair, Harvey said her father thought of the finale in Faust. “I suppose the paeans of praise reminded me of the heavenly chorus (angels) — and  there I was, too, like Faust, helpless and uncomfortable, awaiting my fate ... And while Margeurite (the lieutenant-governor) and the angels (the premier, the mayor and other dignitaries) were still singing melodiously on, Mephisto (devil) and I could maneuver (sic) slowly and gracefully across the stage until we were over a trap door. And then, very slowly and gently, the trap would sink down and deposit us somewhere in the basement near the orchestra room where there was probably a good double-pinochle game going on.”

When Walker’s brief speech ended to thunderous applause, the curtain rose and Puccini’s musical drama, Madam Butterfly, was presented by Henry Savage’s Grand Opera Company, which starred Canadian performer Florence Easton in the title  role.

“Her (Easton’s) death scene was a most artistic portrayal and as before said, deeply affected her audience,” reported the Free Press.

The new theatre, which had cost the tremendous sum for the time of $330,000 — years later Walker claimed it was nearer to $400,000 — was greeted as the new marvel of the burgeoning city and a symbol of its progress.

Yet, the “Golden Age” of the Winnipeg stage productions had just a few more years to run before being supplanted by other modes of entertainment, especially the “flicks.”