Tragic Winnipeg Theatre fire — playhouse began its existence as Victoria Hall in 1883

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

Fire safety concerns expressed about the Winnipeg Theatre in the late 1890s and early 1900s were an early indication of a looming tragedy. Two decades later, the warnings were realized when the theatre erupted into a disastrous conflagration. 

The Winnipeg Theatre started out as the Victoria Hall in 1883, and was built by Thomas J. McCrossan. The theatre had a stage at its east end and an entrance on the west side facing Notre Dame Avenue. The theatre hosted dances, concerts and lectures, as well as the occasional performance of the Winnipeg Amateur Opera Company.

Eventually, Confederation Life Company, an insurance and mortgage company, took over ownership of the theatre. 

In January 1890, well-known actor Frank G. Campbell leased the hall from the company, according to the Manitoba Free Press.  “Victoria Hall passed out of existence last night (January 27) as a name and the Bijou Opera House (not to be confused with the Bijou Theatre, which opened on January 15, 1906) took its place. The hall has been transformed into a cozy, little theatre with a seating capacity of about 700.”

Campbell built a new raised stage and added a narrow gallery to increase its seating capacity. The centre section of the main floor was raised, although the side sections were left flat, which prohibited viewing from the rear of the theatre, as did pillars on each side of the stage which supported an old-fashioned drop curtain that came down with such force that it shook the house.

Corliss Powers “C.P.” Walker came to Winnipeg in 1897 from Fargo, North Dakota, and became another in a long succession of managers of the theatre. After leasing the theatre at the northwest corner of Notre Dame and Adelaide, he made some renovations and renamed the entertainment venue as the Winnipeg Theatre and Opera House, which opened on September 6. Plays were staged in the 1,000-seat second floor auditorium, while the ground floor was devoted to stores. 

Walker became famous locally by opening the “finest Play-House in the Dominion” in 1907, which was named in his honour.

As the manager of the Winnipeg Theatre, Walker was continually subjected to criticism about the safety of the brick veneered wooden structure, especially in the aftermath of the disastrous Iroquois Theater Fire on December 30, 1903, in Chicago. Flames engulfing the theatre claimed 571 lives within 20 minutes, while another 31 died  in hospital.

Theatre fires were also frequent occurrences in Winnipeg, although, fortunately, no lives had so far been lost. On May 1, 1892, the Princess Opera Theatre — a brick-veneered wooden structure similar to the Winnipeg Theatre —owned by Gray Bros., succumbed to flames in one of the city’s most destructive fires  as it also involved many adjacent buildings. A Free Press editorial proclaimed the Princess a “life-trap,” and greeted its destruction with “good-riddance.”

The management of the Bijou Opera House objected to the allegations made about the safety of their building, issuing a public notice in June 1892 that the facility had undergone a thorough inspection, resulting in a favourable report.  In addition to the report, the management commissioned an inspection by four local building contractors — John A. Girven, J.G. Latimer, Andrew McBain and John Farquhar — who issued a certificate stating: “We are of the opinion that every care has been taken to make this building as safe as possible.”

The four contractors said the walls were made partly of solid brick, 14 inches thick and partly of brick veneer.”The veneer walls are well made, resting on solid sills.”

An editor’s note following the notice by the management and certificate by the contractors in the June 14, 1892, Free Press, said the newspaper didn’t agree with the views expressed about the safety of the Bijou Opera House.

On January 17, 1897, The Grand Opera House caught fire and was consumed “with terrible rapidity.” City building inspector E.H. Rodgers called the Grand “a death-trap of the worst kind.” He claimed to have signed a letter sent to city council saying the theatre had not passed his inspection.

The Grand was rebuilt Wesley Hall, on old church property on Main Street. The theatre was located above several stores. It was in existence for just three months when it too burned to the ground.

In 1904, the city and province commissioned reports on local theatre safety, which resulted in new laws meant to mitigate the potential for disaster. A city bylaw specified a number of conditions that had to be met before any theatre licence could be renewed. Yet, the laws were not made retroactive in the case of the Winnipeg Theatre. Newspaper editorials urged that the theatre be closed or the law changed.

Walker received a theatre licence in 1904 only after promising improvements to safeguard the public, including new exits on the north side of the building opening directly to Adelaide Street, and a large exit from the theatre balcony to Notre Dame Avenue, as well as using a fireproof asbestos curtain on the stage. A store operating as a tobacco shop on the ground floor was removed and a large staircase leading to a new exit was built.

“The expenditure ($3,000) to diminish the danger on case of fire will surely be heartedly appreciated by the theatre-going people of Winnipeg,” commented the Winnipeg Telegram.

Even with the alterations, the Winnipeg Theatre did not fully comply with the new city bylaw on two major points. First, the auditorium was on the second floor and not a maximum of seven feet from the ground as specified in the bylaw. Second, the theatre was a wooden structure with a brick veneer and not of solid brick or stone as further specified in the new city ordinance.

In a letter to city council, Walker said that to fully comply with the bylaw, he would have to spend $100,000, which would not be approved by investors, and as a result he would be forced to close the theatre. Eventually, Walker spent $75,000 to transform the theatre into a luxurious modern playhouse with crimson plush seats and carpets.

Although council approved the licence, Walker’s harshest critics were not silenced. 

A year after Walker received a 1905 licence for a performance of Ben Hur — with a cast of 200 and a spectacular chariot race on stage — in the second-floor auditorium, city building inspector Rodgers told the Telegram, it was done without his knowledge. “The building does not comply with the building bylaw which requires that for a theatre licence it must be of solid brick or stone.” 

Since the building didn’t follow the code, Rodgers said he would not support a licence for the proposed staging of Camille with the world-renowned Sarah Bernhardt playing the title role.

“I have taken precaution against such a repetition and have put the new licence inspector, Mr. Kerr, on his guard.”

As Camille  was being brought to the Winnipeg stage by rival booking agent A.E. Fulljames, Walker was accused of working against granting the licence.

Walker had leased the Winnipeg Theatre starting on May 24 for his own productions, but as the manager of the theatre, he had an obligation to ensure that until his productions played, other performances brought paying customers through the door.

He told the Telegram on April 27, 1906, any “refusal to grant a licence for the coming performance (of Camille) would mean that I could not use it (the auditorium) this season. It would be against my own interests to see the licence refused. The allegations are unfounded.”

When the new Walker Theatre opened, C.P. Walker and his brother J.M. Walker still held a one-third interest in the Winnipeg Theatre. The remaining interest in the theatre was purchased by J.G. Harvey in 1911, who was then living in Dauphin. 

In 1906, W.B. Lawrence, who owned a stock company then operating out of the Dominion Theatre, rented the theatre for $12,000 a year. His stock company performed in the Winnipeg Theatre until 1926.  

Harvey sold his two-thirds share in the theatre to the Walker brothers in 1925 “for a greatly reduced sum on the original purchase price of $125,000 for the entire building,” according to a history of the theatre published in the Free Press on December 24, 1926.

While the Walker Theatre in the 1920s was primarily showing “moving pictures,” the Winnipeg Theatre continued to stage dramas and comedies featuring the Permanent Players. For the 21 years of its existence, the Permanent Players called the Winnipeg Theatre home, which was a record in North America for the continuous existence of a stock company in one venue.

Their streak ended as a result of a disastrous fire that struck on the morning of December 23, 1926, while the theatre was closed by Lawrence until the New Year. At the time, the theatre was allegedly vacant as the fireman (engineer), who was employed to tend the furnace had left.

At 9:55 a.m., the alarm was sounded and the men from No. 1 firehall, 110 Albert St. (demolished 1965) were first on the scene followed by firefighters from No. 2 firehall, Smith Street and York Avenue. 

Charles Stewart, captain of firehall No. 2, said, during a later inquiry into the blaze, that his men arrived on the scene within a minute and a half.

Stewart entered the burning theatre first, followed by his men. He then proceeded down the main aisle to the orchestra pit in front of the stage, while smoke billowed in the interior of the theatre. Stewart said he only observed flames rising in the northwest corner of the stage.

“In the meantime, his men had been bringing in hose,” according to a January 6, 1927, report in the Free Press on the subsequent coroner’s inquest into the fire, “and he ordered them to pour water on the flame. At that time it didn’t look as if the fire were uncontrollable, as there was not a very big flame.”

Stewart believed there were more flames in another portion of the theatre and ordered another hose be brought inside and water directed on the north wall where the heaviest smoke was evident.

Photos taken during the fire by city newspapers show huge mounds of frozen water obscuring the structure of the theatre. In one photo, a fire truck is encased in ice, aptly showing the conditions firemen encountered as they combated the blaze. While the men took breaks from fighting the fire in the bitter cold, the Salvation Army provided hot coffee, the City Dairy furnished hot milk and an unnamed Chinese restaurant in the vicinity furnished sandwiches, all at no cost.

“He (Stewart) could see the fire was travelling the roof, for though he could not see any flame he could see the reflection of it,” according to the Free Press report of the inquest. “He then found there were indications of fire coming down near the pay box section of the theatre, and he went back to get a third line in operation.” Stewart ran upstairs to the first balcony, but could see no flames, although there was a lot of smoke.

When the firefighters broke into the ceiling, they found there was fire coming out of the “construction of the first balcony. While Stewart ordered a hose to direct water on the balcony, a firefighter dashed up the stairs to the balcony and reported the presence of a fire.”

The Free Press reported dense black clouds of suffocating smoke from the stage scenery settings “poured out from the building, when the fire, working ...(its way down the) .., roof caught the west end of the building, sending the crowds of people scurrying for relief from the choking, nauseating volume.

“As the fire worked its way to the south side on Notre Dame Avenue, jets of flame shot out of the fire escape doors and windows and the strong high pressure  streams directed at these slowly burning sections on the outside undermined the walls, which were of brick veneer and covered in stucco as an ornamental exterior to the old bricks.

“At 11:30 a large section of the south and west walls fell in at the Notre Dame and Charlotte corner and sent up a cloud of fire and smoke.

Captain Stewart said he was outside getting hose into position, and was just in the act of putting it into the doorway when the east wall collapsed at the Adelaide street side.

After entering the building and surveying the scene, it was Fire Chief Buchanan who ordered the men out of the building. Buchanan told the inquest the Adelaide Street wall collapsed after he heard a huge explosion. It was his opinion that an accumulation of smoke, heat and gases  led to the explosion.

When the east (front) wall on Adelaide Street collapsed, carrying the heavy canopy with it outwards, three firemen, all members of No. 2 firehall,  were buried in debris while operating hoses from an adjacent footpath and perished. Donald Melville, 41, of 693 Langside St., Robert Stewart, 37, of 402 Seymour St., and Robert S. Shearer, 33, of 304 Ashland Ave., were buried by debris from the collapsing wall with their bodies later  discovered near the footpath curb. Melville’s body was recovered at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Stewart’s body was found an hour after that and Shearer’s another hour later. Two years earlier, Shearer had been badly burned during a fire at the Hammond Block.

Another fatal casualty of the Winnipeg Theatre fire was Arthur Smith, 38, of 1139 Strathcona St., the driver of Fire Chief J.E. Buchanan’s car who was stationed at No.2 firehall. He succumbed to his injuries after being taken to Winnipeg General Hospital. It was reported Smith was badly burned from the waist to his feet as were his hands. Smith was rendered unconscious when debris fell on him.

Fire Chief Buchanan testified at the inquest into the fire that Smith’s duties included the role of “fireman like the others,” and said he was unaware how Smith had found his way into the burning building.

Medical evidence given at the inquest revealed the men had either died from their injuries or asphyxiation.

There had been nine men in the building when the order was given 

to evacuate, according to Stewart. Shearer was outside the theatre manning the same length of hose that Stewart was attempting to bring through the front door when the wall collapsed.

Robert Stewart was one of the men who had been pulling down the ceiling when he was ordered out of the building. Melville was further south, assisting near the end of the hose.

Captain Stewart said he and another man were within an arm’s length of Shearer when the wall collapsed.

“Replying to questions, Capt. Stewart said there was no indication about the fire, as he saw it, that the walls would collapse as soon as they did,” the Free Press reported.

All four of the men who died were First World War veterans and were long-time firemen. Smith had lived in Winnipeg for 16 years and was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. Stewart had been born in Perth, Scotland, and had resided in Canada for 20 years, seven of them in Winnipeg. Shearer was a native of Banff, Scotland, and had been in Winnipeg for 15 years. Melville, the brother of Winnipeg police detective-sergeant James Melville, was born in Port Gower, Scotland. Although there is no report on how long he had been in Winnipeg, Melville had served on the city’s fire department for 14 years and five months.

It was reported at the inquest by Roy Turner of No. 2 firehall that Melville’s last words were a warning to run for safety. “Come on Roy, the gallery is giving way!”

Turner was among the injured firefighters. He had been struck by a 

portion of the wall when it collapsed. Other firemen injured were Alexander Brown, who suffered burns to his right arm and face; James G. Brass, who received a cut to his head and had been burned on the face and back; Dan Williamson, who received burns to his face and neck; Harold Gilmour had his face scorched,  right knee hurt and suffered from smoke inhalation; Ewart Arthur only received slight burns; and John Budge was slightly injured  as was Vic G. Buckingham. Robert Kirk was said to have been in considerable pain while in hospital as a result of burns to his face, wrists, ankles and knees, although doctors said he would recover from his injuries.

The less seriously injured had managed to scramble out of the debris on their own, while the more severely injured were rescued by fellow firefighters.

“The police ambulance was on the scene and ready hands helped the injured into the car and they were taken to hospital to be examined,” reported the December 24, 1926, Free Press.

A joint funeral was held for the four victims of the Winnipeg Theatre blaze. On December 16, 1926, thousands filed past the four coffins of the firemen lost in the fire during a special tribute held in the chapel at the Gardiner Funeral Home on Kennedy Street. That day, Mayor R.B. Webb ordered flags to be flown at half-mast throughout the city.

“The caskets were placed near each other in positions where the faces of  the dead could be seen without any 

inconvenience by the sorrowing passers-by,” reported the Free Press on December 27.

(Next week: part 2)