Theatre Design to 1950

Canada's earliest theatre buildings are known only through written accounts and other archival sources. The first is thought to have been the New Grand Theatre, erected in 1789 for the British military garrison in Halifax.


Theatre Design to 1950

Canada's earliest theatre buildings are known only through written accounts and other archival sources. The first is thought to have been the New Grand Theatre, erected in 1789 for the British military garrison in Halifax. It was described in the diary of Lieutenant William Dyott as being "as complete a thing for the size as I ever saw. Boxes and a first and second pit." This building has been lost, as have many theatres that are known to have followed in the next 100 years, mainly due to fire, or to demolition because of the threat of fire.

19th Century Heritage

 A number of performance spaces dating as far back as the third quarter of the 19th century still exist within town halls and other public buildings. Good, relatively unaltered examples can be found in ST LAWRENCE HALL, Toronto (William THOMAS, 1850-51), at Port Perry (1873) and at Petrolia (1887-89), all in Ontario. The efficiency of the combination arrangement ensured its continuance until the disruptions of World War I. Many substantial town halls were built before 1914 in communities that, for the first time, felt affluent enough to support the performing arts. Frequently referred to as "Opera Houses," the theatre components were often well developed, with full stages, proscenium arches, galleries, sloped seating and plush decoration. Though most remaining examples are in Ontario (some 33 have been identified), a few can be found elsewhere, such as at Qu'Appelle, Saskatchewan (1905), and the Auditorium Theatre at Virden, Manitoba (William A. Elliott, 1911). At Rock Island, Québec, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House (James Ball, 1901-04) is an unusual and delightful example in which the other civic space sharing the building is a library. Two other civic combination buildings are in Montréal: the Bonsecours Market building (1845) once had a theatre or assembly space in its upper floor but has now been totally gutted and modernized; and the building of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste once housed the theatre known as the Monument National (Perrault, Mesnard & Venne, 1891-93). Today, that complex is home to the National Theatre School.

More obscure are the many theatres that once occupied the upper floors of taverns and shops - most now obliterated either through demolition or renovations. A rare survivor is in the 3-storey Cardno Building in Seaforth, Ontario, built in 1877. Another is the 672-seat Academy Theatre in Lindsay, Ontario (1892), built in a block that contained 2 stores on ground level. Cities and larger towns often had several examples of this type in various sizes and degrees of comfort, while in smaller places, the upstairs theatre in a commercial building might be the community's only accommodation for live music and drama. Amateur and professional productions were staged in these spaces, the latter through well-organized tours by individual stars and by companies of actors and musicians from metropolitan North America and, occasionally, from other parts of the British Empire.

 Representative of the frontier theatres in western Canada during its settlement phase is the Palace Grand Theatre (replica of the original) in Dawson City, Yukon, first constructed in 1899 near the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. Entirely of wood, its exterior features herringbone panelling, a false pedimented front, and 2 bay windows in the upper storey, all typical of boom-town architecture of the period. Inside, it was rather more pretentious, with 2 horseshoe-shaped balconies and 2 rows of small boxes along the sides. Today, period productions on the shallow stage give visitors to Klondike National Historic Sites a taste of turn-of-the century entertainments.

In addition to the buildings and spaces that were specifically called theatres, many structures have served double duty for such. These have included Mechanics' Institutes (beginning in the 1820s), schools and colleges, church halls, sports arenas, and the halls of brotherhood organizations such as the Masons and the Knights Templar. Without them, the considerable appetite for live performance in Canada would have been greatly restricted.

The 1890s saw the erection of one notable purpose-built theatre that has survived to this day - MASSEY HALL in Toronto (Sydney Badgely, 1893-94). Though sometimes derided for its awkward styling and its inadequate fireproofing (since updated), this 3700 seat house has always been known for its superb acoustics. It is unusual in its specialization as a concert hall, as determined by its benefactor Hart MASSEY, based on his own love of music and his Victorian belief in its capacity for moral improvement. Massey Hall has been, and remains after restoration and refurbishment in the 1990s, one of Canada's most influential and enduring cultural institutions.

The Grand Theatres of the Early 20th Century

Early in the 20th century several factors combined to affect theatre design. Growing transportation networks, notably railway, increased the availability of touring productions. In 1903, the drive to improve fireproofing in theatres was given impetus when the Iroquois theatre in Chicago burned and 602 lives were lost. Shortly thereafter, many large new theatres were built in Canada and the United States incorporating advances in fireproofing technology. In addition to the needs generated by Broadway shows, the growing size and scope of legitimate drama, ballet and grand opera around this time spurred a more ambitious treatment of theatre building than previously had been seen.

The 2000-seat Walker Theatre in Winnipeg (Howard C. Stone) is the oldest Canadian survivor of the group responding to these factors. Opened in December 1906, it was the brainchild of Corliss Powers WALKER, an experienced impresario who had already set up and managed a string of theatres along the Northern Pacific rail line from Fargo to Winnipeg, each one strategically sited for touring the performers and legitimate theatre companies that he booked, mainly out of New York. In architectural qualities, it followed the latest fireproofing techniques, including steel cage construction with many components encased in concrete or terra cotta, as well as a much-improved ventilation system. Both the interior and exterior design have much in common with the influential Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. Like it, the Walker was planned as part of an office/commercial complex (never built) and it has a similar ceiling, dramatically arched and radiating up and out from the proscenium arch.

In its first years, the Walker offered Winnipeggers a dazzling array of high-class entertainments - 2 or 3 original-cast shows a week, special 2-week seasons of grand opera, light opera, musical comedy and Shakespeare repertory performed by leading companies. Occasionally there was a "spectacular," such as Ben Hur, which required 12 horses, 3 chariots, a treadmill, and a moving backdrop. The Walker's accommodation of the demands of a production such as this signalled an advance in Canadian theatre building, in which large scale touring productions were no longer relegated to skating rinks or stadiums, at least in some of the larger urban centres.

  Toronto was next to enjoy a theatre of this type with the opening of the ROYAL ALEXANDRA THEATRE (John M. LYLE) in 1907 (restored in the 1970s), followed by Victoria and its Royal Theatre (Rochfort and Sankey) in 1913 (still functioning). Up-to-date in their fireproofing, they were also generous in their provision of backstage spaces - suites of dressing rooms (30 at the Royal) and apartments for the chorus required by the huge casts, and accommodation for theatre and opera stage accoutrements including large property rooms in the wings on either side of the stage, wardrobe rooms, enormous fly towers for dramatic drop curtains and a selection of opulent draw curtains. Like the Walker, the Royal Alexandra was endowed with a traditional "gods" section - a steeply raked second balcony where the cheap seats are located. The Royal Theatre, on the other hand, featured the newer arrangement of a single, deep balcony with gentle slope. It was also cantilevered and required no supporting posts underneath, thereby creating clear sightlines for every patron.

Vaudeville's Influence on Theatre Design

In the 1910s, vaudeville and movie houses were gaining in sophistication and competing for their share of the entertainment market. Defined as "a melange of comic, musical, magical, acrobatic, animal and dance acts," vaudeville had been performed since the 1880s and was oriented to a less literate and affluent audience than that of legitimate theatre. Vaudeville programs were usually put together as a string of 8 short acts, often performed at least twice daily for low admission prices. It depended on a quick succession of audiences to sustain profitability. Vaudeville made few architectural demands, since performers for any show were few while props and stage sets tended to be minimal.

Many cities had as many as a dozen or more small vaudeville theatres. The Princess Theatre in Edmonton (Wilson and Herrald, 1914-15), a rare survivor, is likely quite representative of these. Extending back from a narrow facade, not unlike other Edwardian commercial fronts on Main Streets everywhere, the small auditorium is also narrow and relatively long, with many seats far from the stage. Over the proscenium arch a classically inspired mural remains to suggest the original modest decoration.

In a much different scale, the large American-based vaudeville chains, such as Pantages, Keith-Albee and Loew's, erected spectacular new theatres in Canada in the 1910s. The Pantages in Winnipeg (George W. Northwood and B. Marcus Priteca, 1913) remains as an excellent example of this genre. Emulating traditional legitimate theatres in its lavish decor, it reveals its vaudeville purpose in its small lobby (patrons were not encouraged to linger since a new audience soon would be waiting for the next show) and in its paucity of dressing and property rooms backstage (performers were expected to come and go from their rail cars parked at the rear). Other large vaudeville theatres of this era include the McPherson in Victoria (1914; a Pantages theatre) and the Imperial in Saint John, New Brunswick (1913; a Keith-Albee theatre).

Motion Pictures and the Design of Theatres

The 1800-seat Imperial in Saint John, NB (known first as the Bi-Capitol, Albert E. Westover, 1912-13), comparable to Winnipeg's Pantages in size and opulence, illustrates another development in theatres of the period, the introduction of motion pictures into vaudeville programs. Short movies were first shown in open-air parks and tents beginning in 1896, but were soon included in vaudeville shows, constituting at least one of approximately 8 acts. By 1911, when the Imperial project was announced, movies were no longer novelties but were heralded by the local press as "the most popular form of indoor amusement St. John [sic] and the rest of the world has ever known." From the beginning, the Imperial was billed as "New Brunswick's Finest Picture House," though declining numbers of vaudeville acts and other live entertainments continued to share the stage, as was the case elsewhere.

Two other notable vaudeville/movie theatres illustrate different facets of the type: the recently restored 800-seat Capitol in Moncton (René-Arthur Frechet, 1926) and the 1422-seat Winter Garden in Toronto (Thomas Lamb, 1913-14). The Capitol was an independently run theatre - not linked to an American-based chain. These were much more common in Atlantic Canada, which maintained a strong regional association of theatre owners. The Winter Garden is notable for its daring decor and its position atop the Elgin Theatre, both designed in 1913 as a stacked pair - the lower theatre following a more conventional classical design. Unique in Canada, the Winter Garden's ceiling is hung with preserved beech leaves and branches, lanterns and artificial flowers, with some use of murals, including an open patch of moonlit sky. In this simulation of an outdoor environment, it anticipated the atmospheric theatres that became a short-lived fad from 1927 to 1931, while its positioning somewhat harks back to the insubstantial roof-top garden theatres in New York, popular around 1910.

 Meanwhile, some showmen (owner/promoters) had begun to operate theatres dedicated to movies. The Allen brothers, originally from Bradford, Pennsylvania, were foremost among these, eventually amassing a chain of more than 60 cinemas from Vancouver to Halifax - the largest in the world when at its peak around 1921. Their business mirrored the general progression of movie exhibition elsewhere. Beginning with a storefront operation in Brantford, Ontario, in 1906, they built or acquired cheap and gaudy "nickelodeons" (so-called because of the nickel admissions), followed by "deluxe" but still relatively small movie houses - the first, an 840-seat theatre erected in Calgary in 1913. The 1924 Rialto (J. Raoul Gariépy) in Montréal, owned by another chain, remains as an excellent example of this type. Glamorous movie "palaces" seating over 2000 were the next and final type built by the Allens in the early 1920s. Two excellent and near-identical examples remain: the Metropolitan in Winnipeg (1920); and the Palace in Calgary (1921). Initially bearing the Allen name, both theatres were early-career designs by C. Howard Crane of Detroit, who went on to gain a stellar international reputation in the field.

The Metropolitan and Palace illustrate the movie palace as a type when it first appeared on the scene. Still straining to distance itself from some of the low-class associations of movie exhibition in the early years, it went to great lengths to attract a genteel crowd. Besides emulating legitimate theatres in a richly appointed auditorium, and in a large orchestra pit for the musicians who accompanied the still-silent films, it also featured a generously sized mezzanine lounge area. Here, patrons were encouraged to linger and socialize. Plush sofas and chairs were provided, along with writing desks and Tiffany-type lamps, potted palms and orange trees, mirrored walls, and an overall architectural decor as elegant as existed in the auditorium.

 A feverish push to erect more movie palaces across Canada, and to consolidate ownership of existing cinemas, was instigated with the entrance of the American-linked Famous Players group into the market in 1921, setting off a corporate battle to gain movie exhibition supremacy. The Capitol (Thomas Lamb) in Winnipeg, built a short distance down the street from the Allen theatre, was part of the opening salvo, along with the control of rights to show the popular Paramount films. Before the war was over, the Allens had become financially overextended and had collapsed, and Famous Players was set to dominate the field for the next 2 decades and more.

Thomas Lamb of New York - considered by some to have been the dean of cinema design in America - was Famous Players' preferred architect, and in Winnipeg's Capitol he left a magnificent example of his work. It features a broad, dome-like ceiling, visually tied into an elliptical proscenium arch through sweeping bands of classical plaster decoration, which also run horizontally around the room in an entablature, curving up and over the arched grilles covering the pipes of the theatre organ. The whole is Adamesque in character - delicate, playful, and extremely elegant in its proportions.

Lamb drew up plans for about 16 other theatres throughout Canada between 1914 and c 1927, including still-extant ones in Québec (the Capitol, Walter S. Painter, 1902-03 and refurbished for cinema by Thomas Lamb, 1927); Brantford (the Temple, originally built for the Allen chain); and Toronto (the Elgin/Winter Garden theatres and the Pantages, though the latter is now largely a reconstruction).

Famous Players' grip on Canadian theatres and the cinema market had become a serious issue by 1931. Concerned about the detrimental effects on smaller Canadian chains and independent operators, the federal government published that year an "Investigation into an Alleged Combine in the Motion Picture Industry in Canada." Although it concluded that Famous Players had violated the act, preoccupations with the Great Depression and then World War II held back any action that might have been taken (see FILM INDUSTRY). Meanwhile, Famous Players had curtailed the live entertainment market by prohibiting performances in its own theatres, including the older theatres it had been buying across the country since 1920. Most of these had been designed with stage and orchestra pit and were capable of hosting live performances as they had done before being bought by Famous Players.

One of the last of the movie palaces designed to also accommodate live performance was the 2870-seat Orpheum in Vancouver (B. Marcus Priteca, 1926-27). Owned by the R.K.O. vaudeville/movie circuit, it first fell beyond the grasp of Famous Players (which later acquired it), though the latter's influence in stifling live performance was probably a factor in its almost exclusive use for movies. Its decor in an extravagant Spanish Renaissance theme represents the only example in Canada of the exotic phase of movie palace design, which resulted in numerous huge and spectacular theatres in the United States in the late 1920s. The 3-storey foyer features a profusion of cast stone colonnades and balustrades, and a rich-looking coffered ceiling, while the luxurious auditorium is especially notable for its dome with mural paintings.

The introduction of sound into movies in 1928 (widespread by 1929) made accompanying orchestras and theatre organs redundant. Many believed it also detracted from the elegant experience that movie-going had become, since sound movies were questionable in quality, at first. There is even some suggestion that the prohibition of live performance in Famous Players theatres was designed to force audiences to stay the course with movies during this difficult transitional period.

Atmospheric Design

 During the late 1920s it became fashionable to design atmospheric theatres. These were most prominently characterized by their sky-like coved ceilings on which moving images of clouds and stars, and sometimes of moons and airplanes, were projected. Pastiches of building facades or garden walls at the sides gave the illusion of open-air town squares or courtyards, often in a Spanish or other ethnic theme. The most fully developed example remaining in Canada is the Granada at Sherbrooke, Québec (D.J. Crighton, 1929). Here, 2-storey house fronts with ceramic-tiled roofs give glimpses of a night-time landscape beyond, through their columned loggias typical of southern Spain. Lesser examples, without the projected sky but with murals to suggest the outdoors, are the Capitol in Nelson, British Columbia (1927), and the Outremont in Montréal (René Charbonneau, 1929).

Art Deco

The Outremont also partially illustrates the last major development in Canadian theatres before mid-century, Art Deco design. One of the earliest Art Deco buildings in Canada, the Outremont's decorative aspects draw on the earlier and more short-lived zig-zag phase, so-named because of its use of sharp angular corners and wavy lines. Also characterized by flatly modelled decorative work and high-quality natural materials (gold, silver, coloured marble, etc), its effect was both modernistic and rich compared with the simplification for which the style subsequently became known. The Château Theatre in Montréal (René Charbonneau, 1932) illustrates this phase as well.

The Eglinton in Toronto (designed by Kaplan & Sprachman in 1934; opened in 1936) is the epitome of the more streamlined stage of Art Deco which flowered during the Great Depression and for some time after. In this phase, new synthetic materials were exuberantly used, while colour and lighting effects played an expanded role. In the Eglinton, the exterior vertical sign became an integral part of the facade, part of a futuristic tower faced in black vitrolite and crowned with a 3-stage pylon supporting a flashing neon ball. Inside, a striking use of coloured neon and indirect lighting highlights the simple but bold forms, as lines sweep across the ceiling and down walls, around rounded corners and stepped planes.

 The Vogue Theatre in Vancouver (Kaplan & Sprachman, 1941) is another example of this phase of Art Deco. Besides a dramatic neon-lit tower and sign on the exterior (topped by a stylized version of the goddess Diana), its special lighting effects included undersea murals at the sides, which glowed as the lights dimmed, and a dramatically tiered ceiling highlighted by coloured indirect lighting. Numerous other Art Deco theatres displaying lesser degrees of stylistic treatment remain elsewhere across the country, in varying states of preservation.

By 1950, live performance was in a poor state and few stylish theatres of any type were being erected. The general trend in new building was toward ultra-plain boxy halls and complexes of mini-cinemas, while many older theatres were partitioned or demolished. Those that remain are true treasures, hinting at the glories of live entertainment and early movie exhibition in the first half of the 20th century.


Further Reading

  • Dane Lanken, Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938 (1993); John Orrell, Fallen Empires: The Lost Theatres of Edmonton (1981); Hilary Russell, All That Glitters: A Memorial to Ottawa's Capitol Theatre and its Predecessors (Canadian Historic Sites Occasional Paper No 13, 1975).