True North reaches out to save historic Winnipeg theatres

The group that brought the Jets back to Winnipeg is trying to devise a plan to save two historical downtown theatres from the ruins of age and neglect.
The group that brought the Jets back to Winnipeg is trying to devise a plan to save two historical downtown theatres from the ruins of age and neglect. The CBC's Meg Wilcox reports. 1:36

The group that brought the Jets back to Winnipeg is trying to devise a plan to save two historical downtown theatres from the ruins of age and neglect.

Pantages was once a major focal point of the North American theatre circuit. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
 True North Sports and Entertainment's Kevin Donnelly said the Burton Cummings Theatre and Pantages Playhouse are limping along, barely.

Both venues are run by not-for-profit boards who haven't been able to keep up with the maintenance, he said.

The Burt, as it is commonly known, has an extremely limited capital budget and is one equipment malfunction away from closing, he said.

"The Burt is on fumes. That building is in risk of just shutting down because it's got no ability to continue," Donnelly said.

He believes True North could help book more acts to the theatres, as well as help finance upgrades and repairs. But a deal needs to be worked out that benefits all sides, he said.

"We like the idea of helping to create another little success story in a corner of our downtown. But, you know, the motivation has to make business sense," Donnelly said.

The Burton Cummings Theatre is operating on a fine line, one equipment malfunction away from closing, says True North's Kevin Donnelly. (Google Street View)

There are no deadlines to work out a deal but something needs to be done soon, he said.

Artistic community hopeful

The idea that the Pantages could get some new life is good news to WSO Executive Director Trudy Schroeder.

She said a revitalized Pantages has been part of the plan since the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra took over management of the theatre three years ago.

"We'd love to see it thriving," she said. "To thrive we'd need to see a slightly different business model. So that's what we're talking about. How do we make it work? How do we connect? How do we market these facilities better?"

Musicians welcome the news, too.

Winnipeg singer-songwriter JP Hoe, who played at the Burt just last week, said preserving it would keep much-needed mid-sized concert venues alive in the city. And not just because it makes good business sense.

"Aesthetically, they're beautiful and we'll never replace them," he said. "We just don't make buildings with the same sort of intent anymore."

Burton Cummings Theatre

Originally known as the Walker Theatre, The Burt was constructed in 1906-07 and was part of a circuit through the Red River Valley that brought in Broadway-style shows. It was converted a movie cinema in 1945 and in 1991 it was reopened as a venue for live performances.

That same year it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada and a Provincial Heritage Site. And in 2002, it was renamed after former Guess Who lead singer Burton Cummings, who donated a portion of proceeds from a string of concerts at the theatre to help pay down the debt.

Pantages Playhouse

Pantages first opened as a vaudeville house in 1913 and is still used as a venue for performing arts.

According to, the theatre, in its vaudeville days, was the producing centre for the entire Pantages 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.

Among those who appeared were Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Houdini and Felix, the Mind Reading Duck. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet also made its premier performance on the Pantages stage and the company danced there until the Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall was constructed in 1967.

Of the 75 theatres once found in Pantages' chain, Winnipeg's is one of the few that have survived.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.