Sunday, October 2, 2022

814 Main Street - Grand Opera House / Progress Candy Building

© 2022, Christian Cassidy

Buildings along Main Street, Winnipeg

Place: Grand Opera House / Traders' Building / Prosperity Building
Address: 814 Main Street (Map)
Opened: December 24, 1908
Architect: William and Alexander Melville

The Grand Opera House had a bumpy ride as a theatre. Dr. Earl Hirshfield, who grew up in the North End, noted in his memoirs that it was: “neither grand nor (was there) any reason to call it opera.”

The building was constructed for a company called the Grand Opera House Theatre Company. It was created by New York promoter W. J. Gilman who attracted local corporate investors such as W. B. Alsip Brick Works, Douglas Bros., Gate and Sons, and the architect brothers Alexander and William Melville.

Grand Opera House (1908 - 1918)

October 10, 1908, Winnipeg Tribune

A $35,000 building permit was taken out on October 10, 1908  for this building designed by Alexander and William Melville, best known for their work on many of Winnipeg’s early fire halls.  It is a three-storey with basement, 6,700 square foot building finished in red pressed brick. The main floor housed retail space and the theatre hall had seating for over 1,200 people overlooking a stage that measured 55 feet by 37 feet.

The company set an ambitious opening night date of December 21, 1908, just ten weeks after construction began. An October 23, 1908 Tribune article noted that the foundations were complete and walls were already up to ground level and that the project was: "being rushed along as fast as possible."

In late November, during the final stages of the exterior construction, there was a setback when a 20-foot tall section of facade including brick, terra cotta, and a window sash, collapsed onto the sidewalk below. It occurred at 7:30 in the evening. Luckily nobody was walking past at the time.

A building inspector blamed the incident on the fact that the workmen were being pressed to work late into the evening to get the building finished and did not leave enough time for the mortar to properly set in the cool weather. He determined that the collapse had no impact on the structure of the building and construction resumed the next day.

December 22, 1908, Winnipeg Tribune

The theatre ran ads promoting December 21st as the grand opening day. It was city building inspectors, though, who had the final say. The day before opening they refused to issue an occupancy permit until more of the interior work had been completed.

Management had to postpone the opening and in their ads blamed the delay on the fact that 200 of the theatre's fanciest 1,200 chairs were late to arrive in the city.

Workers stayed on the job until midnight each night to complete the work and after satisfying city inspectors the venue opened on December 24th with David Belasco's The Rose of The Rancho, a play that ran for two seasons at Belasco's Manhattan theatre. Proceeds from the opening day's performances were donated to the "Poor Children's Christmas Fund."

Disappointingly, the show did not open to a full house which was likely due to the fact that it was a three-hour long play on Christmas Eve! 

A Free Press reviewer noted that there were some awkward pauses in the dialogue but chalked that up to opening night jitters from a cast that had little chance to rehearse in the building. The play got a favourable review.

The reviewer also noted that it was hard to rate the interior of the theatre as the plaster was still wet in places and many of the finishing touches were not yet complete. In later reviews, the theatre was described simply as "roomy" and that the promethium and curtain: "compar(ed) favourably to other houses."

The theatre's ownership group had a multi-year lease with a company called Grand Amusements Ltd., which was in charge of putting on the shows. 

W. J. Gilman, of the ownership group, was the theatre's general manager and Albert Lando was the stage manager. They put together an in-house theatre company called the Grand Opera House Stock Company comprising of about a dozen actors, primarily stock actors from New York and Chicago.

One local who was a major part of the early days of the Grand Opera House was S. L. Barrowclough. He was one of the city's best-known band leaders and led the Grand's orchestra. He started his musical career as a boy bugler during the North West Rebellion. In the 1890s, he opened a piano and sheet music store on Portage Avenue and led the City of Winnipeg's official band for more than two decades.

Prior to the Grand's opening, Barrowclough managed his store and led an "orchestra for hire" which is exactly what the Grand needed. As an added bonus, his Portage Avenue at Fort Street store acted as a downtown box office for the North End theatre.

February 3, 1909, Winnipeg Tribune

The Grand put on a new show every week or two. Many were ambitious productions that had appeared on New York or London stages. Newspaper reviews of the shows were generally favourable.

Behind the scenes there was turmoil as attendance for the shows was lower than expected. By early February the daily matinees were trimmed back to Thursdays and Saturdays only with Thursdays being offered at a reduced rate. After just a month, Gillman and Lando's names no longer appeared in the advertising and the shows ended a couple of weeks later.

In February 1909, the theatre was leased to a new manager, local cigar manufacturer John McDonald. He announced that the venue would switch from dramatic theatre to burlesque. That new format lasted a matter of weeks.

March 17, 1909, Winnipeg Tribune

In March 1909, after days of rumours, it was announced that the ownership group in charge of the Winnipeg Theatre on Notre Dame Avenue had leased both the Grand Opera House and the Dominion Theatre. It was felt that being able to book acts for three stages at a time would give them better "buying power" with production companies and promoters.

For the Grand Opera House the change meant an end to musical theatre and the start of dramatic plays which were thought to be more appealing to audiences. The Grand Theatre Stock Company was fired and the Charles A. Taylor company, likely from New York, was contracted for production.

The Grand closed for a week to rejig the stage for the requirements of dramatic theatre and reopened on April 5, 1909. E. R. Krippner, was the new orchestra conductor and a harmonium was added to the instruments, something more common in Germany than North America.

For reasons not explained in newspapers at the time, Charles A Taylor's last show was at the end of May. After he departed it was discovered that he failed to leave behind enough money to pay the salaries of the cast and crew. It was left to theatre manager C. A. Owens to break the news to the troupe.

The manager of The Winnipeg Theatre, Gordon Howden, stepped in to assure them that if they played out the remainder of the week he would guarantee their salaries.

Top: July 13, 1912, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: 3, 1912, Winnipeg Tribune

The Grand Opera House continued to struggle to establish a permanent stock company over the next couple of years. New ones tried and failed to make a go of it in January 1911, November 1911, and spring 1912.

In June 1912, the theatre was leased to G. B. Sherman, the owner of a couple of rural Manitoba theatres. He renamed it Sherman's Grand Theatre and focused on musical comedy.

The theatre reopened on  July 1, 1912 headlined by Mabel la Monaie's Musical Comedy Company. She was also the "house entertainment" putting on three shows a day with her troupe's short acts intermixed with those of visiting performers. The theatre went back to offering matinees - as many as three shows a day.

Mabel's run ended in August 1912 but musical comedy continued until April 1913 when the theatre again closed.

Top: April 16, 1923, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: September 6, 1911, Winnipeg Tribune

Without a promoter or stock company, the Grand's management worked hard to fill the downtime with anyone who would book it. This included everything from one-off travelling shows to wrestling matches and political speeches.

One speaking series that took place in 1912 - 13 was called the Peoples' Forum. It was the brainchild of J. S. Woodsworth of the All Peoples' Mission in Point Douglas and later the MP for the area.

It brought some of the city's top labour and progressive voices on stage to discuss matters of the day. In 1913, topics ranged from horticulture to town planning to social justice issues such as an overview of the international peace movement and welfare reform.

Speakers included Woodsworth, W. J. Bartlett of the Winnipeg Labour Council, and Rev. Salem Bland.

On February 2, 1913, Nellie McClung and Anne Anderson Perry spoke on the topic of women's suffrage. McClung told the crowd: “...if the hand that rocked the cradle really did rule the world, there would not now be thousands of Manitoba children not attending school.” (Almost a year to the day later, McClung and Perry appeared on stage together as the premier and opposition leader during the famous "Mock Parliament" event at the Walker Theatre.)

McClung spoke again at a Liberal party rally at the Grand in 1914.

The size and location of the venue made it a favourite for political candidates looking to reach North End voters.  

In 1911, former mayor James Ashdown held a standing-room only Liberal party rally for his candidacy. Sharing the stage with him was tribune co-founder and former M.P. R. L. Richardson. Also in 1911, the Social Democrat Party of Manitoba was created at a public meeting at the theatre. It also had a party office located in the theatre for a number of years.

The Grand was also used by the Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg as a meeting and recital space.

August 12, 1913, Winnipeg Tribune

Over the summer of 1913, the Grand was retrofitted into a moving picture house. At nearly 1,200 seats it was the largest in the city at the time and one of the largest in Western Canada. It was one of around 15 moving picture houses operating in the city at the time. It and the former Osborne Theatre, (now American Apparel), on Osborne Street, are two movie theatres from that era that still stand today.

It reopened in August with 'Stampede Pictures' a three-reel action film taken at the 1912 Pendleton, Oregon rodeo. Other second-run features shown were Sarah Bernhardt's La Reine Elizabeth and Helen Gardner's Cleopatra.

The manager of the Grand for part of this time was a young Henry Morton who in the 1930s and 40s would own the Walker and Garrick as part of the Odeon Morton theatre chain.

Buildings along Main Street, Winnipeg

A. A. Alsip announced in late 1913 that the building's ownership group wanted to sell the theatre. He admitted in a Free Press article that not having a regular general manager during the time they owned it which was part of the reason for its bumpy ride.

In July 1914, the Grand Opera House was purchased by Samuel Berch of the Transcona Realty Company and Jacob Chmelnistky, a merchant who would later open a dry goods store in the building.

They closed the building for renovations that included the addition of new fireproofing measures such as replacing some of the timber structure with steel girders as well as “entirely changing the front of the building”.

The interior would also get a renovation and the address changed from 818 Main to 814 Main. When completed, the theatre would continue on as a moving picture house managed by H. Roubert of the Globe Theatre on Portage Avenue.

It's unclear how long the arrangement with the Globe's management lasted. By 1915, the Grand Opera House rarely advertised any films though it did continue on as a theatre for hire.

June 4, 1917, Winnipeg Free Press

There was a heated meeting at the Grand on June 3, 1917.

An "anti-conscription" themed meeting was to take place that included speakers such as Alderman John Queen and MLA Fred Dixon. There were about 1,000 people in attendance but it turned out that the crowd was stacked by a large contingent of returned soldiers who were critical of those not willing to go overseas and do their part for the war effort.

They shouted down Dixon when he tried to give the opening address. When he realized that it was futile to go on with the rally, he tried to leave the stage and was confronted by a soldier who beat him in the face and tore his hat to shreds. He had to be rescued by police.

The theatre was also home to a couple of returned soldiers benefit concerts later that year.

The Wiseman Dramatic Company of Chicago was contracted in the spring of 1918 to do a season of plays at the venue. It also continued to show at least some second-run movies, though it did not advertise them regularly.

The building featured a retail space on the main floor. According to street directories, it was usually vacant with the exception of A. H. Popam's Grand Cigar Store in 1908 -09.

The renovations in 1915 added two new retail spaces to the front of the building. The first retailer to call it home was the Peoples' Book Store run by Ben Miller, (more below.)  He was joined the following year by Samuel Makrovitch, tailor.

March 5, 1918, Winnipeg Tribune

A fire broke out at the Grand Opera House in the early morning hours of March 5, 1918. Shortly after the fire department arrived before 2 a.m., the roof collapsed into the basement of the building. It took another four hours to put out the blaze.

The total value of the damage was $20,000 to the building plus an additional $10,000 in losses to tenants, which included The People's Bookstore, Makrovitch's tailor shop, and the sets and other equipment of the Wiseman Dramatic Company which was to launch their season the following week.

The building was insured and in August the owners got the go-ahead to do extensive interior renovations that cost around $15,000.

Instead of rebuilding it as a theatre, the owners had floors added to the interior that created a three-storey office building and warehouse with a new main entrance at 207 Jarvis Street. The two retail outlets remained at the front.

Traders' Building (1919 - 1946)

April 5, 1919, Winnipeg Free Press

The Grand Opera House was rechristened the Traders' Building and by April 1919 it was advertising space for lease to warehouse and factory tenants with a new main entrance at 207 Jarvis Street.

Not long after, the Peoples' Book Store was back as well as jeweller Adolph Kaplan.

Dominion Electric Co., founded in 1914, made use of the factory space to manufacture, sell and repair electrical devices - everything from lamps to floor waxing machines.

By 1925, the bookstore shared space with the Winnipeg Jewish Chess Club. Klasser Bros and Kanchikoff, wholesale clothing merchants and shoe repairers, were its new neighbours. Peerless Electric Ltd. took over the Dominion Electric space.

Progress Building (ca. 1946 - present)

Undated photo, City of Winnipeg Archives

The Progress Candy Manufacturing Company was created in 1933 by Joseph Schwartz(stein) a block east on Jarvis Avenue. It relocated to the Traders' Building in the summer of 1946 with its offices and plant on the second and third floors.

Schwartz, president of the company, soon rechristened the block the Progress Building.

The company and its owners kept a low profile. As it was a wholesaler, it didn't need to advertise and no "advertorials" or company profiles can be found in the daily or Jewish papers. According to street directories, Schwartz was president until at least 1965. By the 1990s, the company president was Ralph Shaff.

Progress was part of a fairly large candy manufacturing industry in Winnipeg. In 1975, for instance, there were at least three independent candy manufacturers, Cavalier, Morden's, and Progress, that churned out millions of pounds of candies per year. Large manufacturers such as McCormicks and Paulins also had candy producing lines. (Interestingly, Scott-Bathgate's Nutty Club did not manufacture its own candy. It bought companies like Cavalier and Progress and packaged it.)

Around 2000, the company became known as F. Baigle Candy Co. Ltd. It is unclear when the company ceased business.

Retail Tenants

Berl (Ben) Miller came to Winnipeg from Russia in 1905 at the age of 19 and in 1910 opened The Peoples' Book Store on Main Street. He married Bertha in 1911, the year after she came to Winnipeg.

Together the Millers ran the bookstore which became a cornerstone of Jewish culture in Winnipeg. Aside from books, religious items, and gift ware, the store was also a news agent that carried newspapers from around the world and served as a box office for various Jewish cultural groups.

The store initially opened further up Main Street and relocated to the Grand Opera House (the 816 Main space) in 1915 when the retail spaces were added. It was destroyed in the 1918 fire and had to relocate elsewhere on Main Street for about a year before returning.

Faith Jones describes the book store in this essay as "... a meeting place for the community, with an emphasis on those who wanted to talk, read Yiddish materials, and particularly as a place for youth ... the bookstore space was used by North End Jews in creating an informal, ad hoc social life."

1962 was a year of transition for the bookstore. It was announced that the Millers sold the store and when the new Israelite Press building opened later that summer at 1587 Main Street, it would reopen there as Witmans Books and Gifts. It appears that Mr. Miller stayed working at the new store for a year or two to help with the transition.

Bertha Miller died 1964. Ben Miller died 1979.

For more about the Millers and their store, see here, here, and here (which opens an essay in a PDF download).

January 6, 1955, Winnipeg Tribune

Joseph Demkiw, tailor, was born in Ukraine and came to Canada in 1914, at the age of 23. He first appears in street directories in the 1920s as part of Demkiw and Kuzyk clothiers on Selkirk Avenue. Around 1927, Demkiw relocated to the Grade Opera House (the 814 Main space) and was a fixture in the block for decades to come.  

In 1938, Demkiw's became a "branch store" of Tip Top Tailor. It was not a full corporate store, but it was able to offer North End customers the affordable "one price suit" the chain was famous for. The business relationship with Tip Top lasted until he closed the store and retired in 1974.

Demkiw died in 1983.

February 13, 1964, The Jewish Post

The building would never again have such long-lasting retail tenants.

Dymont's Business Machines, owned by Donald N. Dymont of Seven Oaks Avenue, relocated to the book store space in August 1963. he was there until the late 1960s when it became home to Princess Fashion Shop to at least 1971. (The colour city of Winnipeg image of the building above is likely from the early 1970s after Princess Fashion moved out.)

December 13, 1990 Winnipeg Free Press

The 814 space from about 1984 to 1995 was home to Croatian Needlework owned by Anica Kampic.

The seamstress came to Canada in 1965 with her husband and children. The seamstress worked various jobs, from fish processing plants to shoe factories, until opening her own store on Main Street in 1979 at the age of 48.

She made clothing featuring ethnic needlework, silk flags, and bedspreads, among other items. The store eventually expanded to include a gift shop. It closed in 1995.

The Future ?

1919 classified ad
By 2000, the retail spaces were empty. The F. Baigle Candy Co. Ltd. ceased operation around 2014 and the building was put up for sale.

It was purchased in 2016 by the owners of the nearby Northern Hotel, (with the machinery and a lot of candy left behind.) A plan was drawn up to convert the upper floors into residential suites but it didn't materialize.

The building was put up for sale again in 2021.

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