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Opulence Takes the Stage

For the week of Monday February 4, 2013

On February 9, 1914, the Winnipeg’s Pantages Playhouse officially opened its doors. This neo-classical building, both lavish and luxurious, was part of the wave of prosperity that washed over Winnipeg with the expansion into Western Canada.

Pantages Playhouse façade
© Parks Canada / 1995
Located in the Stock Exchange district, the building was bankrolled by businessman Alexander Pantages, who founded a major chain of Vaudeville theatres in the United States. Vaudeville was a type of variety show that enjoyed huge popularity from the 1880s to the 1930s. The two-storey concrete building was designed by architects George W. Northwood and B. Marcus Priteca. Today, it is one of the few surviving examples of the 75 theatres built in Canada and the U.S. by the Pantages company.

Its architecture and design make the Pantages Playhouse one of the grandest theatres ever built in Canada. The building’s façade includes a number of classical elements, including the long marquee above the entrance. The interior features a large auditorium with architectural details along the walls. The mezzanine is specially designed to facilitate audience movements between performances. The theatre’s original decor, designed by noted painter and muralist J. E. Dolen, had a monochrome cream and beige palette, with silver and gold leaf to highlight mouldings and ornamentation.

Auditorium of the Pantages Playhouse seen from the stage
© Photo by Michael Roberts / www.dualityphoto.com
The Pantages Playhouse staged shows from 1914 to 1923. Tickets were 10 cents and 35 cents, and the venue welcomed such renowned artists as Buster Keaton and Houdini. The last Vaudeville show took place on June 23, 1923. That same year, the City of Winnipeg purchased the building, using it for live theatre, but Vaudeville shows were soon back on the program.

Over the years, a number of well-known artists called this hub of artistic creativity home. Talented organist A. K. Gee performed there from 1930 until the Winnipeg Civic Auditorium opened in November 1932. During his performances, he was accompanied by some of the most outstanding classical musicians of the time. The theatre was home to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet from 1940 to 1967. Even today, many performers use the Pantages Playhouse Theatre to stage variety and dance shows and classical music, jazz and pop concerts.

Winnipeg’s Pantages Playhouse Theatre was designated as a site of national historic significance in 1985 owing to its status as one of the most beautiful of the few surviving examples of the Vaudeville theatres built in Canada between 1910 and 1930. It is currently being restored to preserve its place among the last of North America’s Vaudeville theatres.

To find out more about Canada’s concert halls and theatres, consult the following articles from the This Week In History archives: The Show Place of TorontoGrand Old Lady of Grandville StreetA Gem of a Theatre, Something for EveryoneTake a Bow, The Granada, A Theatre of DreamsThere's No Business Like Show Business, Downtown Gala Held for Vogue TheatreThe Last Two-Storey TheatreCanada's First Movie Palace and Tutus at Eaton Auditorium.

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