On Stage: Theatre and Theatres in Early Winnipeg

By Hartman, James B. | Manitoba History, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

On Stage: Theatre and Theatres in Early Winnipeg


Hartman, James B., Manitoba History


The anomalous fact is that the theater, so called, can flourish in barbarism, but that any drama worth speaking of can develop but in the air of civilization.

Henry James (1843-1916); Letter, 1916

In 1870 there were only about one hundred residents of what three years later would become the City of Winnipeg, a tiny population living in a cluster of wooden structures stretched along the public highway. The following year, however, the population of the city more than doubled and over the next six decades it grew at a phenomenal rate, reaching approximately 213,000 inhabitants by 1930. This rapid population growth, and the accompanying economic development of the area that began in the 1880s and continued throughout the early years of the twentieth century, was reflected in the growth of theatrical entertainment in the young city. This article will chronicle the highlights of the theatre phenomenon--both buildings and events--from its beginnings to the late 1920s. (1)

Red River Hall

The early settlers soon tired of the simple delights of social intermingling and the anecdotes told by raconteurs at a hotel owned by "Dutch George" Emmerling; they craved more elaborate theatrical entertainment. The earliest record of such activity is when a group of enthusiastic young men of the Red River Settlement formed an amateur dramatic society in the fall of 1867. (2) They obtained the upper story of a building that contained several shops on the lower level, brought in benches for seats, set up a miniature stage with a curtain and oil lamps for footlights, and called their new space Red River Hall. This simple unadorned frame building had a precipitous outside staircase at one end of the building that served as the only entrance and exit to the theatre area. Winter heating was supplied by a couple of stoves, but the building, of course, was not fireproof. (3)

The opening performance began with a pantomime, followed by an original farce supposed to take place at Emmerling's hotel. Since it was believed that the fragile theatre structure would not withstand foot stamping by the patrons, before each performance members of the audience were cautioned against this form of expression and applause was discouraged. The proprietors of the stores on the main floor used long poles to prop up the ceiling to prevent its potential collapse. A later store owner discontinued the theatrical performances on account of this risk. Red River Hall made a spectacular blaze when it was destroyed by tire in 1874.

Theatre Royal

Theatricals were a British army tradition for many years, and regiments at the outposts of the Empire in Canada relieved the tedium of garrison duty by presenting amateur productions that amused both the soldiers and the local populace. British soldiers who arrived in the 1840s and occupied both Upper and Lower Fort Garry performed farces imported from London for enthusiastic audiences inside the forts.

The officers and men of the First Ontario Rifles Musical and Dramatic Association, consisting of troops assigned to maintain order following the Riel Rebellion, decided to give a dramatic presentation. On 16 December 1870 they offered an opening performance in their new Theatre Royal, a renovated space at the rear of a store on McDermot Street owned by A. G. B. Bannatyne. They spent about $1,000--considered extravagant at the time--on elaborate decorations, staging, scenery, and accessories for a space that could accommodate over 200 people. The printed program described the event as "the first entertainment under the distinguished patronage of His Honour the Lieut.-Governor and Lady." It began with comic songs and featured a dramatic presentation, The Child of Circumstances, or The Long-Lost Father, described as "A New Sensational Burlesque, in Three Acts, Never Before Played on Any Stage." Various members of the dramatis personae were identified as "Monarch of all he surveys," "a faithful follower," "an interesting young man," "a purser, and a villain," "a child of circumstances," "damsel," "Tabby Feline, a real Cat, 20 years old," "Soldiers, Sailors, Etc. …

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