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

Historical SynopsisB. Marcus Pretica – one of three outstanding theatre designers in North America – designed the Pantages Theatre. J.E. Dolen, the finest muralist in North America at the time, was responsible for designing the lavish interior that was described as a symphony of green, gold and ivory.

The Winnipeg Pantages Theatre was built in 1913 and was officially opened 9 February 1914, during the heyday of vaudeville. Ticket prices were 10¢ and 35¢ with 3 shows a day, 7 days a week. Normally, there were 6 new acts a week and a typical day's bill would include a juggler, a song and dance team, an animal act, a comedy skit, a novelty of some sort, and a short film.

The acts would arrive by train directly behind the theatre in time for the 9:00 a.m. stage opening. Rehearsal began at 10:30 a.m. and the performers and house orchestra would be busy getting their numbers co-ordinated for the 2:30 p.m. matinee. After the afternoon show, the orchestra of eight were paid in the manager's office.

The Pantages Theatre was specially designed in order to provide maximum speed in changing audiences. Between the balcony and main floor there is a mezzanine for this purpose. Originally, this was a tearoom 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". Modelled after the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, it was a place where wealthy women could sit and show off their jewels.

While in its vaudeville days, the building had been one of the focal points for the Pantages chain. It was once the producing centre for the entire circuit. Before heading west, the order of the acts was determined in Winnipeg. Citizens of the city took great pride in the fact that they were a discriminating enough audience to affect what was seen in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Of the 75 theatres once found in Pantages' chain, Winnipeg's is one of the few that have survived.

The theatre flourished until June 1923, when the chain moved to the Capitol Theatre. During this period, the Pantages Theatre played host to the best and worst of vaudeville. Among those who appeared were Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Houdini and Felix, the Mind Reading Duck. The last vaudeville show in the Pantages Theatre was on Saturday, June 23, 1923.

On October 8, 1923, the Pantages was renamed the Playhouse and began to feature live theatre. This venture was not entirely successful and the theatre reverted to a format of vaudeville, tabloid musicals and motion pictures.

In the early 1930s, before the construction of Winnipeg's Civic Auditorium, A.K. Gee's Celebrity Concert series operated through the Playhouse. These concerts featured some of the most outstanding classical musicians of the time, including Vladimir Horowitz, Paul Robeson, Lawrence Tibbet and Jascha Heifitz.

In June 1940, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet made its premier performance on the Pantages stage. The company danced in the Playhouse until the Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall was constructed in 1967.

The City of Winnipeg acquired the Playhouse Theatre during the depression. In 1943, the City Finance Committee recommended that the City sell the Playhouse. The new owner intended to use the building for vaudeville and motion pictures. This promise did not materialize and, in 1945, the Playhouse was again city property when it was seized for taxes.

It was during the post-war period that the Theatre began to address the needs of Winnipeg's vibrant performing arts community. Amateur theatre made its home in the building in 1948. From this time, until 1956, the Playhouse was the base of operations for many productions. The Manitoba Theatre Centre was to emerge from these efforts in 1956.

As much as drama has been an important part of the Playhouse, so has music. From the classical performers of the thirties to the pop bands of today, the building has soaked up a lot of sounds. Jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald, along with Buddy Rich, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Stefan Grappelli have all played in the hall, as have popular music stars such as Ann Murray, Elvis Costello, Duran Duran and the Guess Who. The list is endless.

During the early 1980s, the City repainted the auditorium of the theatre and replaced both the seating and draperies with newer seating and draperies salvaged from a cinema that was being demolished. In 1993, under a tripartite agreement with the Province and the Federal Governments, the City of Winnipeg acquired the Main Street frontage and added a new entrance and lobby to the theatre. In addition, some backstage improvements were made that improved the technical operation of the facility.

In the mid-90s, the City of Winnipeg identified the Pantages Playhouse Theatre as one of the areas that the City could find cost savings. The administration was asked to prepare a proposal to dispose of the facility. Several performing arts organizations formed the Performing Arts Consortium of Winnipeg and proposed to manage the Theatre on the City's behalf. This organization (the Performing Arts Consortium of Winnipeg, Inc.) assumed responsibility for the management of the theatre in February of 1998.

The Consortium is now preparing to undertake to restore the theatre to its original appearance and to upgrade the technical components of the theatre. Winnipeg's Pantages Playhouse Theatre is one of the few remaining theatres of its calibre from the turn of the century in North America. Designated as an historic site, this restoration must adhere to the strict standards set out in National, Provincial and Civic guidelines and regulations. When completed, the Pantages Playhouse Theatre will be a national treasure.
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Pantages Playhouse Theatre
180 Market Avenue East | Map
Winnipeg, MB R3B 0P7

Telephone: (204) 989-2889
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