The Westminster Opera House: A Cultural and Economic Disappointment

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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most towns across Canada and the United States boasted an opera house. Relative to comedies, dramas, and other forms of entertainment, little opera was in fact staged, particularly in the smaller towns (Kallman 297). The designation "opera house" was used euphemistically as an "icon of cultural coming of age and economic progress and the community's self-conscious desire for asymbol of such maturity [...]" (Rittenhouse 72). Although most opera houses have long since disappeared, revisiting them provides a window through which to view those communities. The Westminster Opera House, virtually a forgotten venue, affords us a glimpse of the cultural life in New Westminster, BC in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

On 9 March 1899, the day following the highly successful opening of the new theatre in New Westminster, BC--also known as the Royal City because it was named by Queen Victoria--an editorial in the local newspaper proclaimed that the Westminster Opera House would provide "a valuable advertisement and a distinct material acquisition to the city, saving many dollars from going out of the city, which formerly went out in seeking legitimate amusement elsewhere [Vancouver]; for now, the best companies that come to the coast will perform here, also, a thing that was impossible before" (Columbian, 9 March 1899: 2). (2) As will be demonstrated, the expectations for the new venue were never realized. Throughout the two decades of its existence, the Westminster Opera House struggled to bring in audiences and ultimately failed in its promise as a cultural and economic boon to the Royal City. The first part of this article is narrative, recounting for the first time the story of the Westminster Opera House. In so doing, it contributes to the literature on old opera houses in Canada and to the need for ongoing empirical research in theatre studies (Conolly 153). The latter part of the article attempts to explain the Opera House's failure in terms of regional and national (and international) developments.

The fact that the Westminster Opera House has been virtually ignored to date reflects the relative lack of attention paid to the city of New Westminster, the "disappointed metropolis" (Gresko & Howard 11). The cultural and economic development of the Royal City was affected in no small measure by its proximity to Vancouver and more will be said of this at the end of the article. With respect to studies of old opera houses across Canada, British Columbia generally has not fared as well as Ontario or the Prairies (see a number of articles in the list of sources). But Victoria, Vancouver, and even other centres in the Northwest have attracted some attention (see especially Booth; Elliott, Craig; Elliott, E.C.; Todd). Apart from the work of Evans and McIntosh, the same cannot be said for New Westminster. The Westminster Opera House itself is described briefly in Evans's Frontier Theatre but is not mentioned in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre or in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. In the 1990s, Archie Miller, then curator of Irving House Historic Centre and Museum, wrote three short articles in a local newspaper, the Royal Record, in support of the present investigation.

Of the physical structure itself, nothing remains save some seats in the Irving House Centre and Museum (though the provenance of those seats cannot be confirmed). Of the few photographs in which the Opera House can be seen, it is only from a distance (see photograph below). Despite the paucity of sources--a common problem for theatre historians (Saddlemyer 16)--a systematic mining of the local newspaper, city maps, council minutes, and other documents enables one to trace in considerable detail the trajectory of the theatre and its offerings.

On 10 September 1898, fire razed most of New Westminster, including Herring's Opera House, built by a local druggist in 1887. …