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Something for Everyone

For the week of Monday February 11, 2008

On February 17, 1867, Pericles Pantages was born in Andros, Greece. Pantages, who changed his first name to Alexander after hearing the story of Alexander the Great, would become one of North America’s theatre legends, creating a hugely successful vaudeville circuit of theatres in the western United States and Canada.

Alexander Pantages
Public Domain
At the age of nine, Pantages ran away from his father in Cairo, Egypt, and began to work at sea. Eventually he ended up in Dawson City, Yukon, during the Gold Rush, where Pantages owned and operated his first theatre, The Orpheum. The theatre offered live vaudeville entertainment and grossed an average of $ 8,000 a day.

As the Gold Rush ended, Pantages moved to Seattle and opened his second theatre in 1902, The Crystal Theatre. Pantages’ success lay in his goal of providing acts that appealed to the widest variety of patrons, “something for everyone,” at the affordable price of 10 to 35 cents a show. His bookers were always on the lookout for the newest talent, or shockers of the day.

The Winnipeg Pantages Playhouse Theatre
© Parks Canada / J. Butterill / 1995

With his theatres booming by 1913, Pantages finalized the plans for the lavish Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg. The theatre was designed by B. Marcus Pretica, one of the most outstanding theatre designers in North America.  The Pantages would serve as the focal point of the Pantages Circuit, which extended west to Victoria, down the coast to San Diego and as far east as Chicago. The audience reception in Winnipeg would determine the order of acts for the tour and if the audience received an act poorly then it would not continue on the circuit.

Acts that appeared at the Winnipeg Pantages theatre included: Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Houdini, and Felix the mind-reading-duck.

During his theatre career, Pantages would open 75 theatres, with five in Canada, stretching all the way from Victoria to Toronto. In June 1923, the Winnipeg Pantages closed as a vaudeville theatre due to the heavy competition from motion pictures.

The Winnipeg Playhouse did not expire with the Pantages chain; the theatre continued to be the centre of entertainment in Winnipeg. Over the years, the theatre would be home to vaudeville acts, ballet, concerts, and amateur theatre, to name a few. In 1985, the Winnipeg Pantages Playhouse Theatre was designated a National Historic Site. The theatre is currently being restored to preserve its reputation as one of the last few functional vaudeville theatres in North America.

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