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Pantages Playhouse Theatre | Serving Winnipeg's Art Community for Over 90 Years
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Theatre History > Architecture

Architecture The Pantages Playhouse Theatre, with its particularly lavish interior, was the finest ever built in Winnipeg. Constructed in 1913-14 to designs of architects George W. Northwood and B. Marcus Priteca, it originally presented live theatrical, musical and vaudeville performances. The Pantages Company, a major American vaudeville chain, built numerous similar theatres of this type in Canada. Vaudeville theatres of this type, constructed between 1913 and 1930, were among the grandest ever built in Canada, but few survive today.

Early newspaper accounts provide detailed descriptions of the interior of the theatre. The Winnipeg Free Press (Saturday, January 24, 1914) contained the following article:
The general description of the Pantages theatre would be incomplete without special reference to the furnishings and draperies.

The proscenium drop curtain, the most striking feature of the decorative scheme, is a heavy, rich, dull gold colour velvet. The curtain is in harmony -- is in fact, the article that furnishes the keynote for the entire decoration scheme. The only decoration on the curtain is the embossed monogram in gold. The general draperies, also kept to a plain simplicity of detail, are of the same cloth, of lighter weight.

These draperies were all woven specially in extra widths for this purpose, specially coloured, and were imported, supplied and installed by the Hudson's Bay company.

The draperies and fittings of the ladies retiring room and lounging rooms in various parts of the building are also unique in character. The main motive in designing for these rooms was that of comfort. The furniture is supplied with special loose covers of loose linen.

The carpeting of the Pantages was the largest single contract of its kind that has been executed locally, that is, for single carpets of their size. The entire auditorium is an unbroken stretch of soft, heavy Wilton in green, laid over special mats. The carpeting was also supplied by the Hudson's Bay company. The theatre is seated in plush covered chairs which are large and roomy, in wide rows. These are green, matching the carpet and the whole theatre is a symphony of ivory, gold and green.
(In early theatres, such as the Pantages Playhouse Theatre, it was not unusual to have a solid colour carpet. This use of plain carpets soon gave way to more elaborate carpets, either in keeping with the increase in elaborate decorating of the theatres themselves or for the more practical reason that a patterned carpet does not show wear marks or stains the way a plain carpet will.)

Several other accounts from this period describe the interior of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. One notes that the wood throughout the building is mahogany. Another describes the mezzanine level in the original theatre. It states:
The Winnipeg Pantages was specially designed in order to provide maximum speed in changing audiences. Between the balcony and the main floor there is a mezzanine. Originally, this was a tea room for patrons waiting for the next show. At the very front of the balcony there is a special seating section, which used to be referred to as the "diamond horseshoe". Modeled after the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, it was a place where wealthy women could sit and show off their jewels.
Over the years, the interior has been repainted, while the original draperies and seats have been removed and replaced with draperies and seats salvaged from other theatres and movie houses in Winnipeg. As a result, the interior of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre bears little or no resemblance to the description of the original theatre. The Performing Arts Consortium is committed to upgrading the theatre, including the restoration of the original lobby and auditorium.

Historic Restoration - Interior Colours
The original interior decoration of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre was the work of J.E. Dolen, a painter and muralist who acquired an international reputation for his outstanding work.

As a part of a conservation study, Hannivan & Company conducted an on-site investigation of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. Their investigation revealed a monochromatic colour scheme of what would now be referred to as cream, straw, tan and khaki. The on-site investigation also revealed extensive use of glazing and of silver and gold leaf to highlight mouldings and ornamentation.

The purpose of glazing over painted interiors is to give an aged, mellow appearance to buildings designed in the classical architectural style. Glazing has the effect of enhancing the architectural form and decorative detailing, as well as creating an ambience of age and history. The theatres built in North America from about 1910 to 1930 were usually decorated with glazed finishes as part of the theatre palace illusion. Gold and silver leaf was also used throughout the Pantages Playhouse Theatre to highlight the mouldings and ornamentation. The play of light on the gold and silver leaf not only gave the Theatre a jewelled effect, but also aided in enhancing the quality of lighting.

During the Hannivan & Company on-site investigation it was discovered that the sidewalls of the auditorium, the rear wall of the promenade and the long wall of the acoustic balcony were stencilled with a two-coloured damask pattern thus tying the vast space together.

A second stencil, a cartouche design laid out in a chain link repeat pattern, was found on the coved ceiling of the acoustic balcony.

This picture, at right, could have been what the original seats would have looked like (different upholstery).Seating
Like the draperies, original seating could not be located in the theatre. The only source that Hannivan & Company can draw from is the press release in the Winnipeg Free Press. The two references the seating are as follows: "The orchestra chairs are built in heavy mahogany frames and upholstered in green plush" and "The theatre is seated in plush covered chairs which are large and roomy. These are green, matching the carpet."

This picture, at right, could have been what the original seats would have looked like (different upholstery).

The original press release contained in the Winnipeg Free Press notes that over 3,000 light bulbs were used in the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. The lighting in the auditorium is rather unique when compared to other theatres built during this era. The standard formula used at that time for auditorium lighting in most theatres was a large chandelier, sidewall sconces, and basic ceiling mounted fixtures on the underside of the balcony and in passageways.

The main lighting source for the auditorium in the Pantages Playhouse Theatre was a series of square, recessed lighting units with brass frames and frosted glass spaced evenly apart at the proscenium arch and the underside perimeter rim of the cove ceilings. This lighting, along with the up lighting at the cove rim, provided a wonderful ambient atmosphere in the theatre.

Also, across the face of the balconies and boxes is a series of circular recessed lighting fixtures (resembling the portholes of a ship). It is unlikely that the glass in these fixtures is original. Usually fixtures of this type would have caramel glass.

The brass torch sconces located on auditorium side of the promenade columns and in the original lobby appear to be originals, reflecting the design of the torch incorporated in the mask above the proscenium.

None of the ceiling mounted fixtures in the theatre appear to be original, including the chandeliers in the original lobby. Based on the torch sconces in the lobby it is likely that the central chandelier would also reflect the torch motif.

Special Areas
Several ancillary spaces within the theatre serve patrons. These include the original lobby, sometimes referred to as the Rotunda, the Mezzanine level and the lounges off the washrooms.

Although relatively small for a theatre of its size, the original Rotunda is richly ornamented and contains some of the most elaborate plasterwork found in the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. The on-site investigation of the ceiling, conducted by Hannivan & Company, indicated that the palette used in this space is the same as that used in the auditorium. The ceiling and upper walls were elaborately painted and extensively gilded, creating a stellar first impression. The investigation also revealed that marble on the lower walls of the rotunda has been stained with a natural colourfast pigment. The original marble had more grey tones and less mustard. Although it is difficult to tell if the marble was original to the structure, it is the opinion of Hannivan & Co. that it was added later.

The doors in Rotunda were stained with a transparent wood stain in a mahogany tone.

The Mezzanine Level originally served as a Tearoom where patrons could listen to the music while leisurely waiting to take their seat. This area, when restored, would be ideal for pre- and post-performance receptions. It would also be a suitable area to establish a patron bar during intermission.

An elegantly appointed waiting area for ladies and a smoking lounge for gentlemen were situated off the Mezzanine. Each of these areas had an attached washroom.

New Lobby: Features
  • The new lobby was designed to mimic the backstage experience for the theatre patrons.
  • The coat racks and the merchandise tables are designed to look like theatre equipment cases.
  • The copper wall is supposed to replicate the undulation of the stage curtain.
  • The chandelier and the silver torch wall sconces are from the old Free Press building – when the addition was built on the theatre, these were given a new home.
  • The angel and the grill were originally in the Capital Theatre – before that theatre was demolished, these two pieces were salvaged. They were not in the best of shape when they arrived and were restored on site. The pieces are constructed of horsehair plaster and if you look closely enough, you can still see some of the horsehair.
The Pantages is a reflection of the city. Winnipeg's politics, its values and its people have shaped the Theatre. It has managed to survive where other theatres have not. Alexander Pantages' policy of "something for everyone" has held true for more than ninety years by providing a cultural touchstone for the people of Winnipeg. The Performing Arts Consortium is proud to be a part of its history.
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Pantages Playhouse Theatre
180 Market Avenue East | Map
Winnipeg, MB R3B 0P7

Telephone: (204) 989-2889
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All photography by Michael Roberts.

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