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Thread: Today's History Lesson - Pantages Vaudeville Theatre

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    Default Today's History Lesson - Pantages Vaudeville Theatre



    The stages that built Edmonton theatre
    by Lawrence Herzog
    It's Our Heritage | Vol. 25 No. 10 | March 08, 2007
    1099.jpg
    Photo supplied by City of Edmonton Archives, EA-160-24.

    Pantages Vaudeville Theatre, 1923.

    Robertson’s Hall, the Thistle Rink, the Empire, the Opera House, the Dominion and the Pantages are all gone, and yet their place in Edmonton theatre history is indelibly etched. They were the birthplace of Edmonton theatre and the places where the city began to build a reputation as Canada’s theatre and festival capital.

    As early as 1879, formal drama readings and recitations were held at various locations around the town. In 1891, the year the Calgary & Edmonton Railway reached the south side of the North Saskatchewan River at what we now call Strathcona, the Edmonton Amateur Society was formed. It was followed by the Garrick Club in 1900 and the Edmonton Operatic and Dramatic Society in 1903.

    Those fledgling organizations and some forward thinking citizens ensured that, while Edmonton was the frontier, it wasn’t without class and style. The town’s first sheriff, Walter Scott Robertson, decided the community needed a theatre after the first professional troupe visited in 1892.

    He built it on the south side of Jasper Avenue at the foot of 97th Street, right where the Edmonton Convention Centre now sits. It quickly became one of Edmonton’s preferred social gathering places.

    Robertson had been lured to Edmonton from Ontario in 1879 by the hunt for a buffalo. The trip was unsuccessful – the buffalo population was already decimated – but the ardent hunter was so taken with the North Saskatchewan River Valley, he returned for good in 1883.

    Robertson’s Hall was joined in the summer of 1904 by the Thistle Rink, which presented plays until Alexander Cameron built the Opera House two years later. The Rink then reverted to roller skating and, that same year, Robertson’s Hall burned down.

    Cameron also built the Kevin Theatre in 1907 but it, too, caught fire and burned to the ground – barely two months after it opened. Undeterred, Cameron rebuilt on the same site and opened the replacement structure as the Dominion Theatre the following year.

    The Opera House became the Lyceum Theatre in 1910. The Dominion changed ownership in 1911 and became the Majestic and then closed for good in 1914.

    In 1906, the Empire Theatre opened as a venue for vaudeville. It was a wood frame building, located on the northwest corner of what was then McDougall Avenue (100th Street) and Cristabelle Street (101st A Avenue) – opposite today’s Westin Hotel.

    Three years later, the original building was abandoned and subsequently demolished. The Edmonton Opera House, also constructed in 1906, became the new home for the Empire on 103rd Street north of Jasper Avenue.

    A story in the February 21st, 1914 edition of The Edmonton Bulletin newspaper reported that the manager of the Empire Theatre was planning several “rather revolutionary alterations in the interior the Third Street theatre,” including an entirely new colour scheme and carpeting. “This latter move will be held with joy by the ladies, who at present do not care to wear a costly gown in the theatre, owing to the danger of them becoming soiled on the floor.”


    Then along came the Hudson’s Bay Company with plans to expand their store and so a new building was erected in 1920 just north of the Bay store. It was constructed of steel and concrete, clad with gray brick and intricately adorned to be a showpiece. The auditorium had seating for 1,477, including box seats along its sides.

    The total cost was $300,000, including land. The doors of the third Empire first opened to the general public on the evening of December 23rd, 1920, for a performance of “The Maid of the Mountains.” This new Empire quickly cultivated a reputation as one of the finest theatres in the country.

    Between 1910 and 1930, the second and third versions of the Empire hosted stage stars including Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Ethel Barrymore and George Arliss. Operating in the bosom of the golden age of drama, opera and vaudeville, the theatres introduced Edmontonians to many performers who were to go on to stardom, including Eddie Cantor and George Jessel, who performed as child stars.

    It was at the old Empire that Edison’s phonograph talkies were first shown to an Edmonton audience. The Empire gained renown for its superb acoustics and great musicians from all over the world travelled to play there. They included violinist Jascha Heifitz and Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

    During World War II, the theatre was converted for use as offices by Metcalfe, Hamilton and Kansas City Bridge Company, US contractors working on the Alaska Highway project. On May 30th, 1946, the Empire Theatre was purchased by several local investors for $55,000. The famous Players Canadian Corporation Ltd., the vendor of the property, stipulated in the sale that it could not be used for theatre purposes for the next 20 years.

    Musician Bob Lyon, who had played in the Trocadero Ballroom in Sydney, Australia in the early days of the Second World War, spearheaded the effort to convert the theatre. He named it the Trocadero, after the dance hall in Sydney, and an Edmonton institution was born.

    Over the next 35 years, the “Troc 59,” as it came to be known, prospered with a mixture of swing, old time and modern dance. To circumvent Alberta’s strict liquor laws in the 1950s, the tables at the Troc were designed with a small wooden box hidden under the edge. If patrons wishes to add a little something to their tea, they hid a bottle of spirits in the box. Staff at the door were trained in how to spot plainclothes police officers and signal the boss so the hootch could be hidden.

    But time marched on and the Troc fell onto hard times in the 1970s. It was turned into a bingo hall in 1980. A bid to save the building, led by now-Senator Tommy Banks, was unsuccessful. The Alberta department of culture declined to intervene and declare it a historic site, deciding that there wasn’t enough left of the original vaudeville house to save. What was left of the building was demolished in early 1981 to make way for Manulife Place.

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    Notice the streetcar rails down the center of the street. Too bad they're gone.

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