Friday, September 14, 2018

959 Main Street - Former Winnipeg Little Theatre

© 2018, Christian Cassidy

Place: Former Von's Theatre / Winnipeg Little Theatre
Address: 959 - 961 Main Street
Constructed: 1909
Architect: Unknown

Long-time Saskatchewan hotelier Ernst von Ferber opened his custom-built, $80,000 Von's Hotel in Regina in 1907. The following year, he purchased a hotel in Moose Jaw, the Royal George Hotel in Brandon and another Royal George in Emerson.

In 1909, Ferber, his wife and some of his grown children relocated to Winnipeg, (he was in his early 60s at the time).

In August, he took out a $14,000 building permit for this 350-seat theatre at 959 - 961 Main Street. His wife, Julia, opened a cafe in the neighbouring building, 963 Main Street, which became known as the Von Ferber Block.

Jan. 3, 1909, Winnipeg Free Press

"Von's Theatre" was originally a Vaudeville venue.

Starting in January 1910, it hosted a hosted a five-week run of Eddie Deloy’s comedy troupe. Deloy, an American, was a fixture in traveling shows, sometimes performing in blackface. The troupe was made up of about a dozen people including his sisters Tolla and Myrtle.

After the Deloys left in Mid-February, Von's advertised movies and then a return to musical comedy in March with the Yankee Girls Company.

After March, mentions of the theatre disappear from newspapers except for hosting a couple of political rallies in the July 1910 provincial election.

It appears that Von Ferber left the city by 1913, likely returning to Saskatchewan. In 1918, he was in Los Angeles for surgery and died from complications at the age of 72. His death notice noted that his widow and four children lived in Saskatchewan.

May 1, 1912, Winnipeg Free Press

In December 1911, H. H. Payne and H. A. Rice took out a permit to operate a cinema called the Royal Theatre. It closed briefly in 1913 and reopened in October under a new owner after "a thorough overhauling and all the latest equipment installed."

Yet another closure in 1919 saw the Royal rescued by Fred H Stewart, said to have had many years experience operating theatres in Los Angeles. Stewart invested about $7,000 in renovations to the place before reopening.

Throughout its time as the Royal, the theatre rarely advertised as it never showed big studio productions. It was smaller fare or independent films. It was also rented out for live events. A number of ethnic drama and dance groups used it for productions.

Time ran out for the Royal in 1922. From February to April it was leased to a church group to become a gospel hall before newspaper mentions of it disappear again.

Top: November 18, 1922, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: April 11, 1928, Winnipeg Tribune

In November 1922, the theatre's fortunes changed when the Community Players leased it to become their Winnipeg Little Theatre. Five years later, the company bought the building.

The Players were organized in 1921 to provide facilities for the production of plays written by Canadian authors and “dramatic works of the highest order” that could rarely be produced by professional companies due to commercial restraints.

After an extensive renovation of the theatre, which reduced it to a 300-seat live-venue, it opened on
December 7, 1922 with A. A. Milne’s Wurzel-Flummery and Edmond Rostand’s The Romancers. Other fare over the years included everything from Shakespeare to productions of popular Jewish and Icelandic plays translated into English.

October 16, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

By the end of 1931, the Community Players had staged over 40 plays, 22 of them Canadian and a dozen by Winnipeg playwrights. They also had a subscription base of 750 members and their productions had become more elaborate. The small theatre was no longer able meeting their needs.

In the mid-1930s their productions were moved to the Playhouse and the Main Street theatre was sold off. In 1958, the Winnipeg Little Theatre and Theatre 77 merged to form the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

August 28, 1936, Winnipeg Tribune

On August 29, 1936, the theatre reopened as the Times. Owner W. Triller renovated the theatre "from the ground up" making it a 400-seat cinema wired for sound.

The Times was now a second-run cinema showing fare such as opening night's Broadway Lullaby of 1936 with Jack Benny.

In November 1938 it was under new management. H. B. Shawn from an independent theatre company came from Toronto to take over the Times and make it an exclusively foreign-film venue. It was said to be a first in Canada and a prototype for what the company wanted to do in Toronto.

Shawn promised to bring in top French, Russian, Yiddish and Swedish films of the era. Most would be with English subtitles to appeal to a wider audience.

The foreign film venture lasted only a few months and it closed in early 1939.

August 28, 1941, Winnipeg Tribune

On August 31, 1940, the Times reopened with Jack Kurk as manager. This time, it was part of the Western Theatres Ltd. chain. Western operated 25 theatres in Manitoba, including large houses like the Orpheum and and Uptown.

The Times, though, was linked with its smaller neighbourhood theatres like the Roxy, Rose, Osborne and Furby, though the Times had maybe half the number of seats of its cousins. The group often shared promotions like "foto-night " contests and were relegated to second-run and short films.

In 1941, Western curiously added Vaudeville acts to the Times' lineup, intermixing up to five live performances - singers, tap dancers, comedians, yodelers - with short films. By this time, Vaudeveille had pretty much run its course. The Beacon was the only other city theatre to offer it. The live performances only lasted about a year.

The Times continued on as the smallest member of the Western Chain through the 1940s until the around April 1957 when it was closed. The Times' fifty-year run as a theatre of one sort or another ended.

April 27, 1960, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1958, the Winnipeg Bag Company bought the building for use as a warehouse space. The maker of bags and cloths was located less than a block away at 977 Main Street near Pritchard.

On the night of April 26, 1960, fire gutted the neighbouring former Von Ferber block and caused extensive damage to the former theatre building.

The building was renovated, including the removal of the sloped floors and seats, amd found a new life as a retail space.

Ads from 1950, 1964 and 1995

Floors Moderne opened in 1950 at 581 Main Street selling tiles and rugs. The president of the company was Sam Kreger. It soon moved to 980 Main and when Polo Park Shopping Centre opened in 1959, it relocated there.

In the early 1960s Paul Kastes became co-owner and in 1964 the store relocated again to 959 Main Street where it remained until at least 1996. 

In 2003, it became The Fish Gallery filled to the brim with aquariums and exotic fish.

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