“The Burt” as it is affectionately referred to, is officially The Burton Cummings Theatre for Performing Arts and was named after Burton Cummings in 2002, a Winnipeg-born performer, and former lead singer of the Guess Who. The building has a rich history and wasn’t always known as “The Burt”.
Funded by Corliss Powers Walker and designed by Montreal architect Howard C. Stone, what was then called the Walker Theatre opened in 1907. The building was designed to be fireproof, as to avoid a tragedy similar to the one that had befallen the Iroquois Theater in Chicago in 1903. The Walker Theatre was designed with the plain brick windowless walls it has because there were plans later to attach a hotel that never came to fruition.
The theatre’s most intriguing quality is the column-free vaulted ceiling that still provides all patrons with a remarkable view of the stage.
The Walker Theatre enjoyed a quarter-century of success hosting ballets, opera, and Broadway style shows. It later hosted pre-World War I American and British theatre, as well as being an essential meeting place for leaders of the Winnipeg General Strike and members of the women’s suffrage movement. With the Great Depression came financial hardship for most, and the theatre was no exception. The Walker Theatre closed in 1933, and was seized by the City of Winnipeg in 1936 due to unpaid back taxes.
In 1945 it was converted into a single screen cinema and re-opened as the Odeon and continued operating this way until 1990. If you look closely you may see some of the original logos and artwork on the building.
By 1991, the Walker’s status as a National Historic Site of Canada and a Provincial Heritage Site was officially recognized, celebrating its legacy as the oldest of Winnipeg’s three surviving grand theatres. The theatre reopened as a home for performing arts with the help of the Walker Theatre Performance Arts Group Inc., a non-profit organization until 2014.
True North Sports and Entertainment assumed management and operating control of the theatre for two years before purchasing it in early 2016. The company has increased the number and quality of shows at the venue from 30 to more than 70 performances per year since taking over management. Now True North intends to renovate and provide some of the much needed upgrades to the building.
The Burt is a 109-year-old, 1,604 seat former vaudeville theatre and it seems is not only an iconic historic site but a bustling theatre that remains at the heart of Winnipeg’s entertainment scene.