Tuesday, May 4, 2010

364 Smith Street - The Walker Theatre

Downtown Winnipeg
Place: The Walker Theatre (Burton Cummings Theatre)
364 Smith Street Map
Dec 17, 1906 (official opening Feb 18 1907)
Howard C. Stone


Corliss Powers Walker and wife Harriet Anderson Walker owned a small chain of theatres in the U.S. midwest. In 1897 they moved to Winnipeg and leased the Bijou Theatre, renaming it the Winnipeg Theatre. Their plan was to one day have a custom-built theatre built here to be the centrepiece of their chain.

Elevations: Ellice Av. above, Smith St. 
Below. Morning Telegram May 31, 1906

In 1905 they had Howard C. Stone, a Montreal architect, draw up plans for a combination theatre and hotel, the hotel to be added at a future date. In the Smith Street elevation above I have placed the existing facade beneath where it fit into the complex to give an idea of the size of the hotel.  

I cannot find references as to why the hotel was never built. I would imagine, though, that the financial difficulties encountered by the nearby Marlborough Hotel would have kept the Walkers out of the railway-dominated high-end hotel business.

Downtown Winnipeg

The facility was inspired by Chicago's c.1889 Auditorium Theatre and built with steel frame and a forced ventilation system to make it 'completely fireproof'. That was an important selling feature given disastrous theatre fires around North America at the time. (The Walkers' former Winnipeg Theatre was razed in 1926 killing four firemen and injuring 11 others.)

December 13, 1906, Winnipeg Tribune

The construction of the Walker was delayed for weeks by city-wide builders' strikes in 1906. The Walkers had, however, already booked hteir first headliners, Australian youth musical troupe Pollard's Lilliputian Opera Company. They decided to open a nearly-completed theatre on December 17, 1906 and Pollard's headlined for three weeks. The formal opening took place on February 18, 1907 with a production of Madame Butterfly.


The Walkers were a business team. He handled the business dealings and she handled the bookings and promotions. They worked hard to live up to their billing as Canada's Finest Theatre, attracting A-list acts from around the world.

The Walker saw the likes of
Florence Easton, George Arliss and Lillian Russell. It also hosted a number of significant local events. On January 28, 1914, it was the scene of the Political Equity League's Mock Parliament led by Nellie McClung, a good friend of Harriet's. On December 22, 1918 it held one of the largest pre-general strike meetings chaired by John Queen that passed a number of radical resolutions.

Genser's Furniture
ca. 1907 (source)

Live theatre began to struggle in the 1920s as 'moving pictures' became the favoured form of entertainment. The Depression dealt the final blow for The Walker. It was sold to the city in 1936 for back taxes of about $35,000.

August 1, 1944, Winnipeg Tribune

C.P. Walker died in 1942 at the age of 89, Harriet died the following year

The city waited until 1944 to put the mothballed venue up for sale. Just two offers came in, both for around $35,000, which caused a split on council. Some wanted to hold out for more money, others wanted assurances that the theatre would not be sold just to be bulldozed, yet others felt that the city just needed to be rid of this "white elephant" regardless of price or outcome. 

The purchase deadline was extended for another week but no more offers came.

Council voted 10 to 7 in favour of
selling the theatre to Henry A. Morton, manager of the Odeon's Garrick Theatre, a cinema. Morton added a last-minute guarantee to sweeten the deal: that The Walker would continue as a theatre for at least ten years, even if it was resold to another party.

November 2, 1945, Winnipeg Tribune

The Walker was in need of major renovations to make it into a cinema. The seats were replaced, a dropped ceiling was installed, the lobby was modernized and a screen was installed, (though the original stage was left intact behind it.) The Walker reopened on November 3, 1945 as 'The Odeon' with the James Cagney film Blood on the Sun.

The Walker lived on as a cinema until March 29, 1990 when Cineplex Odeon closed it and put it up for sale.

Katz ca. 1990

As in 1944, two groups vied for the building in 1990. One was the Manitoba Choral Society, the other a non-profit group headed by Nite-Out Entertainment's Sam Katz and Bruce Rathbone, (now known as the Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group Inc). The latter won out and purchased the building on October 1, 1990 for $700,000, which included $250,000 from the Core Area Initiative.

Walker Theatre

The group began a multi-year restoration project to undo much of what Odeon did decades earlier. The screen and dropped ceiling were removed to reveal the stunning plaster work and 'the Gods', (the third-level balcony). The Walker reopened on March 1, 1991, in the midst of renovations, with a concert by Blue Rodeo.

In August 2002 The Walker was renamed for Winnipegger and Guess Who front man Burton Cummings in exchange for playing a number of benefit concerts to help retire the theatre's then $1.8m debt.

UPDATE 2014: In May True North Entertainment, the company that own the Winnipeg Jets and MTS Centre, took over the Walker.

Walker Theatre Vignette Heritage Winnipeg
Walker Theatre Winnipeg Building Index
364 Smith Street Historic Buildings Committee Report

My Flickr album of the Walker Theatre
Finest playhouse in the Dominion Cherney Pt 2
Agenda Paper: The Walker Theatre Parks Canada
History and Chronology Burton Cummings Theatre

Also see:
On Stage: Theatre and Theatres in Early Winnipeg MHS
There is also a book called 'Curtain Time' by Ruth Harvey, daughter of the Walkers, published in 1949.

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