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May 30, 2016

A Brief History of the Walker Theatre

Long before the Burton Cummings Theatre was renamed after the lead singer of the Guess Who, it was called the Walker Theatre, named for Corliss Powers Walker, the man who brought entertainment to Winnipeg.

The Walker Theatre circa 2014.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press.

Walker was born in Vermont. His family moved from Minnesota when he was young. As an adult, he ran a printing business in North Dakota with his brother, and was the business’s manager. In the 1890s, Walker became interested in an industry a world away from printing: theatre management. He became the manager of the Fargo Opera House, and acquired other theatres in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Corliss Powers Walker in January 1906.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society.

The first Canadian theatre Walker purchased was the Bijou Theatre in Winnipeg, which had previously been Victoria Hall. It stood at 34 Adelaide Street, at the intersection with Notre Dame Avenue. He renamed it the Winnipeg Theatre, and he moved to Winnipeg to manage it himself in 1897. The Winnipeg Theatre became the flagship theatre for Walker’s network of theatres, called the Red River Valley circuit of theatres. He booked live theatre acts from New York to perform, and his Red River Theatre Circuit soon had a monopoly on touring shows and stars. Because of the way Walker set up his system, Winnipeg was able to get shows that would have never come to such a small, Canadian market.

The Winnipeg Theatre.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg files.

The Fire that Changed the Theatre Business

In Chicago in 1903, the Iroquois Theater fire took place. To this day, the Iroquois Theater fire remains the deadliest single-building fire ever in United States history. At least 602 people died, but authorities suspect there were actually more deaths. 575 people died during the fire, and at least 30 more died from injuries in the days that followed. The theatre was packed with men, women, and children of all ages on the night of the fire.

The Iroquois Theater after the 1903 fire.
Source: Forest Home Cemetery Overview.

At the time of Iroquois Theater fire, Walker was still managing the Winnipeg Theatre. The Winnipeg Theatre was not completely fireproof, and Walker had many critics in the city who were concerned about the safety of the theatre, and some who wanted to see it closed down. Walker set his sights on building a new theatre and ending his ownership of the Winnipeg Theatre. He envisioned a theatre that was lovely, functional, and also completely fireproof. He hired Montreal architect Howard Colton Stone to design this new fireproof building.

The Walker Theatre

Construction on the Walker Theatre at 364 Smith Street began in 1906 with the theatre opening in 1907. Its design was based heavily on the Auditorium Theater in Chicago, which was constructed in 1889. It is clear to see the influence of the Auditorium Theater if you look at the interior of the Walker Theatre, but if you only looked at the exterior of the building compared to the Auditorium Theater, you might think they look nothing alike, and you would be absolutely right. Other than the wall the main doors are on, exterior of the Walker is completely bare brickwork with no ornamentation. The Auditorium Theater’s exterior is full of windows, and has a very commanding presence.

The interior of the Walker Theatre in 2017.
Source: CTV News Winnipeg.

The interior of the Auditorium Theater in 2016.

The Walker Theatre was intended as the first stage of a larger complex that was never completed. Originally there was going to be commercial space and a hotel attached to the theatre. The exterior walls were left bare because there were going to be other buildings right up against them. But the other parts of the complex were never constructed.

The plan for the Smith Street elevation of Walker’s hotel and theatre complex. Only the arched entrance in the bottom right hand corner was ever built.
Source: Manitoba Free Press, May 31, 1906.

The plan for the Ellice Avenue elevation of Walker’s hotel and theatre complex, which would have been the entrance to the hotel. None of it was ever built.
Source: Manitoba Free Press, May 31, 1906.

The programming at The Walker Theatre was top of the line. Broadway, grand opera, light operas, Shakespeare and other shows were performed live on the stage. The Walker Theatre was the pinnacle of live entertainment in Winnipeg. The Walker Theatre was also the setting for the satirical mock parliament put on during the women’s suffrage movement. Nellie McClung played the premier, and she advocated against men being allowed to vote. A sign for the mock parliament can still be seen on the building today.

A drawing of what the interior of the Walker Theatre would have looked like in 1907 by Robert Sweeney.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg files.

Decline of Theatre

Live entertainment became less popular over time as movies became the new, more popular entertainment trend. So naturally, the American entertainment industry began investing in movies and there then there were fewer and fewer live acts to book. At first Walker began booking more British groups to come and perform, but those too in time, dried up. After the great depression hit, Walker closed the theatre and retired in 1933. He was 80-years-old. In 1936, the City of Winnipeg seized the building for unpaid taxes.

An undated photograph of the interior of the Walker Theatre.

The Odeon Cinema

The Walker Theatre sat empty for close to a decade after being seized by the city. In 1944, Henry Morton bought the theatre from the city. He re-opened the building as The Odeon Cinema. A false roof was installed, covering the upper balconies. When the Odeon Theatre opened, it was one of the most popular and successful movie theatres in the city at the time. The facility remained as the Odeon Cinema for close to 50 years, until it eventually closed down. The Odeon Cinema logos and artwork can still be seen on the side of the building today.

The Walker Theatre when it functioned as the Odeon Theatre in 1965.
Source: Archives of Manitoba.

The Walker Theatre, Again

In 1990, the Walker Theatre Group for the Performing Arts purchased the building. They had a vision to restore the theatre, and once again make it a prime venue for live entertainment. They began to restore the building, and re-opened it once again under its original name, the Walker Theatre.

In 1991, the City of Winnipeg gave the theatre heritage designation, and the Government of Canada recognized the theatre as a national historic site.

The Burton Cummings Theatre

In August of 2002, the Walker Theatre was renamed after Winnipeg musician Burton Cummings of the band the Guess Who. Its official name become the Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Burton Cummings outside the Walker Theatre in 2017.

In 2009 the theatre received a 3.4-million dollar grant to continue repairs and refurbishing of the building.

In 2014, True North Sports and Entertainment began managing the building. In 2016, they announced that they would be purchasing the building.

In 2016, Vice President of True North, Kevin Donnelly, told the CBC that they had replaced about 200 seats, and they have re-upholstered and re-cushioned 100 more.

The sign above the entrance of the Walker Theatre, seen here in 2016.
Source: Global News.

The Walker Theatre has been around for 100 years of Winnipeg history which you can learn about during Doors Open Winnipeg. Hopefully with its new ownership and restorations, it will be around for the rest of the city’s future!

Written by Laura Wiens and edited by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.

SOURCES: – Auditorium Theater of Roosevelt University – True North Experimenting with Killing the Barcode on Event Tickets
City of Winnipeg – Walker Theatre
CTV News Winnipeg – Doors Open lets Winnipeggers explore history
Forest Home Cemetery Overview – Iroquois Theater Fire
Global News – True North to buy historic Burton Cummings Theatre
Manitoba Historical Society – Corliss Powers Walker
Manitoba Historical Society – Walker Theatre / Burton Cummings Theatre
Winnipeg Free Press – The Burt employees must reapply for jobs

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