March 18, 2021
Bijou Theatre: Burning Down the House
Part of the beauty of the Exchange District and Downtown Winnipeg as a whole, is that everything tells a story – from the tallest buildings all the way down to the empty lots. Luckily, for those with an keen interest in the area, some of the points of interest are marked by plaques.
Sandwiched between the former Macdonald’s Shoe Building (492 Main Street) and Paterson GlobalFoods (504 Main Street) is Bijou Park, a long rectangular extension to Old Market Square. At first glance, there is little to tell you what once stood there but if you take a second look at the archway along Main Street, you will notice two plaques hung on either pillar. One commemorates Winnipeg’s old courthouse and underground jail, which stood on the site from 1873-1884. The other is dedicated to the West Clements Block, which was built on top of the former courthouse’s foundations, and occupied the lot until 1979.
Named for its owner and prominent Winnipeg developer John Rickard Clements, the three-storey structure was used for both office and retail space for the bulk of the 1880s and 1890s. Much like the other commercial towers built around the same time, the building had an elaborate classical detailed façade. Decorated arched brickwork capped off the long, narrow rows of windows separated by thick rows of brickwork. The decoration along the roofline was the most elaborate, borrowing and merging different styles to create a distinctly Victorian roofline. Stylistically, the West Clements Block closely matched it’s neighbour the Ryan Block.
A new renovation in 1906 brought an exciting addition to the Clements Block: the Bijou Theatre. This was one of several new vaudeville theatres opening in Winnipeg around the same time. Vaudeville at the time, was one of North America’s most popular forms of theatre and was, in essence, a touring variety act. Performers sang, danced, did magic tricks or monologues, whatever would captivate entertainment hungry audiences. The owners of the Bijou Theatre, a Mr. Nash and Mr. Burrows, promised “clean and bright vaudeville” at the theatre’s opening ceremony in early January, 1906. Compliments were also paid to the theatre’s architects, William and Alexander Melville. The Winnipeg Free Press got an early tour of the building and wrote a glowing review of the theatre’s interior design:
“The decorations are in perfect taste; the colourings exquisite, and the beautiful plaster-relief representations of Cupid and various lovely maidens reveal the wonderful and artistic art of the decorators, who are experts in theatre work of this nature and were specifically engaged to present a picture pleasing to the eye. They are reputed to be the most prominent firm in the east in this particular department. The colourings are red, nicely subdued in tone, the varied hues being blended with skill and aesthetic taste and elegantly finished with old gold which presents a delightful charm to the dazzling scene.”
Of particular fascination at the time was the lighting. Two thousand electric lights, a novelty back then, illuminated the theatre. Safety was also an utmost concern, and the building had exits on both Main Street and Albert Street (which ran parallel to Main Street prior to the creation of Old Market Square in the 1960s). Multiple fire extinguishers could also be found in the building. Today this might seem like common sense but proper fire safety in buildings was still quite new to Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century.
The opening acts at the Bijou Theatre included a tightrope artist, acrobats, a child singer, and a comedic skit before closing with something even more novel: moving pictures. In 1906, “moving pictures” or movies were still a newer technology, with all the excitement and limitations that it brought with it. Movies were generally shorter, between 5-10 minutes in length, completely silent, and of course in black and white. The projectors used to screen movies could get warm and overheat, and as such needed time to cool. The first movies reached Winnipeg in 1899. John A. Schuberg, a former circus performer and entrepreneur, set up a black-top tent on Main Street near Logan in May of that year. The tent could seat 200 people, and was named the Edison Electric Theatre. The theatre took off in popularity and Schuberg took his show on the road.
In 1903, Schuberg opened a permanent venue in Winnipeg called the Unique Theatre (529 Main Street). Within the next few years the Dominion Theatre and Bijou Theatre opened, mixing live entertainment with on-screen excitement. Vaudeville and movies often went hand-in-hand. Both relied on a live orchestra for musical accompaniment and live acts could fill the time as a projector cooled down between film reels. Until the opening of the Nickelodeon Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1905, there was no theatre dedicated exclusively to showing films.
Dedicated movie theatres opened in Winnipeg in the early 1910s, with the likes of the Majestic Theatre and the Starland Theatre. In 1913 the Bijou Theatre joined their ranks and transitioned into a full time movie theatre. A wide variety of moving pictures were shown at the Bijou, from documentary footage of historic events, films showing far-off streetscapes and also the standard dramas, romances, and comedies. Sometimes they would even show a newsreels of current events, such as wartime footage or images of the disastrous 1917 Halifax explosion.
As the 1920s progressed on, movies grew longer and more complex and those in the film industry began experimenting with sound. Incorporating synchronized audio into a film was a tricky process that required recording the movie’s dialogue onto a disc or cylinder that could be matched up to the movie later. The Jazz Singer, released in 1927, was the first film to incorporate synchronized dialogue and music and shortly after its release the Bijou decided to “go talkie”.
The Bijou closed on May 31st, 1930, to undergo an extensive seven month renovation. Multiple Winnipeg companies had a hand in the renovations including Eaton’s Department Store, which provided the drapes and upholstery. Structurally, little needed to be changed during the renovations. Old beams, once used in the former court house, were still in the basement and according to the Winnipeg Tribune, and were still in excellent condition. The interior of the building needed to be updated to provide better acoustics, and the seating was completely rearranged. New lounges and smoking rooms, for both men and women, were also added to the theatre.
The first talkie shown at the new and improved Bijou Theatre was Once A Gentleman! which starred “the screen’s favourite fun maker” Edward Everett Horton. For the next twenty years the Bijou Theatre entertained the Winnipeg public, but as the 1950s drew on poor attendance it forced the Bijou to close. For the remainder of the decade the theatre was rented out, largely to a variety of healing evangelists. This too, petered out by the 1960s and 70s until, in 1979, sadly the Bijou Theatre was destroyed by a fire.
The West Clements Block had narrowly avoided a fiery demise twice in the past: once, in 1903, and again in 1933. The 1903 fire began in at 492 Main Street and spread quickly. Tenants of the West Clement Block began throwing their belongings out to the window to escape the potential flames. Although the fire never reached the West Clements Block, the tenants were forced to collect their belongings from the icy street below. The 1933 fire also largely impacted 492 Main Street, and the West Clements Block was yet again left largely alone.
The fire in 1979 was an interesting, and a tragic reversal of events. Winnipeg’s fire department received a call about a fire outside of 494 Main Street at 2:00 a.m. on April 5th, 1979. The fire raged on for hours, as firefighters battled the blaze. The West Clements Block, including the former Bijou Theatre, were completely destroyed by the fire – while the Macdonald Block at 492 Main Street sustained only $15,000 in damages. Even the underground jail cells, still intact after nearly 100 years, were destroyed as the building collapsed into itself.
Following the fire, debates sparked about the future of the lot. Ideas of a European-style outdoor market were touted, as was the idea of creating an extension to the recently created Old Market Square. The City of Winnipeg initially balked at the cost of the lot, estimated at $240,000, but members of a local environment committee pushed back – saying that the wrong type of new development would destroy the atmosphere of Old Market Square. Eventually the city opted to lease the lot for $1.00, in the hopes a new investor could come through and purchase it properly. The City of Winnipeg’s environment committee spent $11,654 to redevelop the site, adding sod, along with landscaping and asphalt paving. In 1989, the area was fully incorporated into Old Market Square.
As Bijou Park, the site has stories all of its own. It has played host to concerts, festivals, markets and more in the decades since its creation. Today it’s impossible to tell there was ever a theatre, or an underground jail on the site. Unless that is, you take the time to read the plaques.
THANK YOU TO THE SPONSOR OF THIS BLOG POST:
Winnipeg Free Press Files
Winnipeg Tribune Files