Tuesday, May 4, 2010

364 Smith Street - The Walker Theatre

Downtown Winnipeg
Place: The Walker Theatre (Burton Cummings Theatre)
364 Smith Street Map

Seats: 1,604
Dec 17, 1906 (official opening Feb 18 1907)
Howard C. Stone

Contractor: Canadian White Co. (Montreal)


Corliss Powers Walker and wife Harriet Anderson Walker owned a small chain of theatres in the U.S. Midwest. They worked as a team; he was responsible for the business dealings while she handled the bookings and promotions.

 In 1897 they moved to Winnipeg and leased the Bijou Theatre, renaming it the Winnipeg Theatre. Their goal was to one day have a custom-built theatre here that would be the centrepiece of their chain.

Elevations: Ellice Av. above, Smith St. 

In 1905 they hired Montreal architect Howard Colton Stone to draw up plans for a theatre, inspired by Chicago's Auditorium Theatre, and hotel that would be added at a later date. It is because the Walker was the first piece of a complex that was never built that explains its odd exterior of plain brick, with the exception of a small stone facade around the entrance. (In the Smith Street elevation above I have placed the existing facade beneath where it fit into the master plan.) 

I cannot find references as to why the hotel was never constructed. I imagine, though, that the difficulties encountered by the nearby Olympia / Marlborough Hotel would have kept the Walkers out of the railway-dominated high-end hotel business.

Genser's Furniture
ca. 1907 (source)

The Walkers went to great lengths to be able to claim that the building was "completely fireproof", a good selling feature in an era of disastrous theatre fires around North America. (In fact, the Walkers' former Winnipeg Theatre was razed in 1926, killing four firemen and injuring 11 others.)

It featured a steel frame construction with concrete exteriors walls and floors, even in the balcony and beneath the stage. The interior walls were of terra cotta. There were more entrances than required by code and it was said that the hall could be vacated in less than three minutes. A forced air system ensured not only comfort for patrons but the quick removal of smoke, should fire ever strike.

December 13, 1906, Winnipeg Tribune

Construction was delayed for several weeks due to a series of city-wide builders' strikes in 1906. Their first booking, however, had already been made: the Australian youth musical troupe Pollard's Lilliputian Opera Company. They had no choice but to open the theatre on December 17, 1906 and Pollard's headlined for three weeks. 

Construction continued around show schedules for a number of weeks. The formal opening took place on February 18, 1907 with a production of Madame Butterfly.


The couple worked hard to live up to their billing as Canada's Finest Theatre, attracting A-list acts from around the world.

The Walker saw the likes of Clara Butt, Maude Adams, Adelina Patti, Viola Allen, Margaret Anglin, Edythe Chapman, May Robson,
Florence Easton, George Arliss, Johnstone Forbes-Robertson, Robert Mantell, Dustin Farnum, Conway Tearle and Lillian Russell

Sadly, it was witness to the final stage performance of British acting couple Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney. After a series of successful dramas in May 1914, they left ahead of their crew to take the Empress of Ireland back to England. The ship sank en route, killing more than 1,000 people, including them.

It also hosted a number of significant local events. On January 28, 1914, it was the scene of the Political Equity League's Mock Parliament led by Nellie McClung, a good friend of Harriet's. On December 22, 1918 it held one of the largest pre-general strike meetings chaired by John Queen that passed a number of "radical" resolutions.

Live theatre began to struggle in the 1920s as 'moving pictures' became the favoured form of entertainment. Talkies and The Depression dealt the final blows for the Walker. It was seized by the city in 1936 for back taxes of about $35,000.

For the Walkers, it was a crushing loss. They would never see the theatre open again as C.P. Walker died in 1942 at the age of 89 and Harriet died the following year.

August 1, 1944, Winnipeg Tribune 

The city leased the theatre short-term to local promoters and it hosted numerous political speeches, concerts, school choirs and the like. The city was losing money on these leases and in 1944 decided that the time was right to put the venue up for sale

Just two offers came in, both for around $35,000, which caused splits on council. Some wanted to hold out for more money, some wanted assurances that the theatre would not be bulldozed, others felt that the city just needed to be rid of this "white elephant", regardless of price or outcome. The purchase deadline was extended for another week to see if better offers would come, but none did.

November 2, 1945, Winnipeg Tribune

One of the offers was from Henry A. Morton, manager of the nearby Odeon Garrick, a theatre of the same vintage that had been retrofitted into a cinema. He had similar plans for the Walker. To sweeten his bid, Morton added a last-minute guarantee that the Walker would remain a theatre for a period of ten years, even if he ended up selling it or leasing it to another party. Council voted 10 to 7 in favour of Morton's deal.

The Walker underwent a number of renovations to convert it into a cinema. The seats were replaced, a dropped ceiling was installed, the lobby was modernized and a screen and sound system added. It reopened on November 3, 1945 as the Odeon Cinema with the James Cagney film Blood on the Sun.

The Walker continued on until March 29, 1990 when Cineplex Odeon closed it and put it up for sale.

Katz ca. 1990

Two groups vied for the building in 1990. One was the Manitoba Choral Society, the other a non-profit group headed by Nite-Out Entertainment's Sam Katz and Bruce Rathbone, (now known as the Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group Inc.) The latter won out and purchased the building on October 1, 1990 for $700,000, which included a $250,000 grant from the Core Area Initiative.

Walker Theatre

The group began a multi-year restoration project to undo  what Odeon did decades earlier. Fortunately, the hidden treasures wer left mostly intact. The stage behind the giant screen, the stunning plaster work and third balcony "Gods" level above the false ceiling.

The Walker reopened on March 1, 1991, in the midst of renovations, with a concert by Blue Rodeo.

In August 2002 The Walker was renamed for Winnipegger and Guess Who front man Burton Cummings in exchange for playing a number of benefit concerts to help retire the theatre's then $1.8m debt.

In 2007 it was named a National Historic Site.

Downtown Winnipeg
UPDATE 2014:  

The theatre struggled as a stand-alone, live venue. In April 2014 True North Entertainent, owner of the Winnipeg Jets and MTS Centre arena, announced that they had reached a long-term lease agreement with the Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group Inc..They will now be responsible for the bookings and its management.

Walker Theatre Vignette Heritage Winnipeg
Walker Theatre Winnipeg Building Index
364 Smith Street Historic Buildings Committee Report

My Flickr album of the Walker Theatre
Finest playhouse in the Dominion Cherney Pt 2
Agenda Paper: The Walker Theatre Parks Canada
History and Chronology Burton Cummings Theatre

Also see:
On Stage: Theatre and Theatres in Early Winnipeg MHS
There is also a book called 'Curtain Time' by Ruth Harvey, daughter of the Walkers, published in 1949. Excerpts appeared in the Winnipeg Tribune that year.

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