By Dorothy Dobbie (photo by Herb Neufeld)
One hundred years ago, on Feb.9, 1914, Winnipeg celebrated the opening of the grand new Pantages Playhouse Theatre, home to vaudeville acts of the greatest renown, including Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Houdini and even Felix, the Mind Reading Duck. It saw the debut of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 1940. The Manitoba Theatre Centre got its start here.
Music has always been part of the theatre’s history and greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie have all played in the hall. It has also hosted music stars such as Anne Murray, Elvis Costello, Duran Duran and The Guess Who.
Today, Pantages Theatre stands sadly forlorn, not sure what era it belongs to, thanks to an inappropriate, stark Tyndall stone addition in the early nineties that looks like a wart on the graceful early 20th-century architecture of the original building. In spite of this and its generally rundown condition, the theatre is still a vibrant, useful part of our community, hosting many a nervous child at dance recitals and providing a venue for smaller travelling shows.
There is a way, however, to bring it back to life in a manner that will benefit the community even more.
About five years ago, a plan was hatched to turn Pantages into an administrative home for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO). It made sense for the WSO, which was then huddled away in the basement of the Centennial Concert Hall in rooms with ceilings so low in some parts that tall men had to duck. Had anyone complained to the City, it is doubtful that the quarters would have passed building code standards.
Today, the WSO is on the 16th floor of the Richardson building, thanks to the generosity of the Richardson family, but it is not a permanent home or solution.
Pantages had, since the mid-nineties, been run by a group of performing arts organizations called the PAC, the Performing Arts Consortium, while ownership has been held by the City.
The City, frankly, just wanted to get rid of what it considered a headache. It was costing everyone money. The PAC board was tired and wanted out, too. Meanwhile, the WSO was still looking for an administrative home. Several proposals were made to the Concert Hall which were less than lukewarm. Other options were examined. None worked.
Then WSO Executive Director Trudy Schroeder had a brain wave. What if the offices in the theatre could provide a home for the WSO. She went to see Curt Vossen, President of Richardson International, to get a measure of his support, and his imagination was immediately ignited. He could see the possibilities.
That is when the deal was struck. The WSO would take over management of the theatre on behalf of the City, which would pick up any shortfalls. A newly constituted board of the PAC was created that, it was envisioned, would ultimately assume ownership of the theatre and remain de facto owner until renovations and operational difficulties had been overcome.
The WSO would continue as resident manager and ultimately take over ownership. This would hold the WSO safe from liability, while restoring what can still be a gem in the City’s theatre scene.
Some funds were chipped in by CentreVenture Corp. and the Richardson Foundation to have a business plan and some conceptual architectural drawings done. In this, major renovations were proposed to bring the theatre up to standards that would make it a viable entity and create appropriate quarters for the WSO administration. Note that I say administration.
It was not envisioned that this would become the Symphony’s performance home. Pantages simply does not have enough seats to make this a viable option, since the WSO fills the 2,300-seat Concert Hall with over 104,000 attendees a year. Pantages can accommodate about 1,100, and there is great demand for a theatre of around 900 to 1,000 seats in the city.
But to make the theatre a suitable venue for a lot of travelling shows, the proscenium must be enlarged; Pantages was built to accommodate vaudeville acts, not to accommodate the kinds of travelling acts that book space today. This, and the fact that the seats themselves have to be replaced to fit the larger bottoms of today’s audience (the current seating was salvaged from a cinema 40 years ago), would reduce the hall to somewhere between 800 and 900 seats.
This is not to say that the WSO can never use the venue; the venerable old theatre could be a wonderful place for the WSO to augment its offerings, providing a venue for smaller ensembles or even chamber music.
The business plan also envisioned opportunities for some commercial enterprises beyond booking shows and community events. Running the concessions, a permanent gift shop for the Women’s Committee, a catering venue and a possible cafe, rentable conference and meeting space, studio space for music lessons and – most excitingly and potentially most profitably – a sound stage for use by recording groups were all part of the plan.
This is an incredible opportunity to take what was a sow’s ear and make it into a silk purse. Other cities have led the way, turning much less viable old theatres into go-to places for citizens and tourists. The WSO and its supporters on the PAC envisioned this as a glorious renovation that would restore the lovely interior plaster work, remake the hall, spiff up the foyer, and even turn the balcony back into the exclusive place for the haute monde that it was in its heyday.
The plan included a funding program that looked for one-third participation from the province, the Feds, and the private sector. The Feds have previously said they were on side, and the private sector has already pledged $2 million to get the ball rolling – all it needs is a boost from the province to pursue the project.