Winnipeg's Pantages Playhouse celebrates 100th birthday

Vaudeville was king at Pantages Playhouse.

Ron Robinson to host birthday bash with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on June 29

"Unequalled Vaudeville" is inscribed on the outside of Pantages Playhouse (courtesy Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)
Vaudeville was king at Pantages Playhouse. In fact, chipped into the front of the building are the words "unequalled vaudeville." 
Ron Robinson will host Pantages 100th Birthday Party. (Finley Photography)

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra will bring back the memories in a 100th birthday party on June 29, hosted by the affable Ron Robinson.

Robinson described a typical day at the theatre where the train would pull up just behind the building at 9:00 in the morning, the performers and crew would unload, a rehearsal would be under way at 10:30, then the first show would begin at 2:00.

There were six new acts every week, three shows a day, seven days a week. "It was a sausage factory," he said.
Ella Fitzgerald circa 1970 (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The ticket price for a show was 10 cents or 35 cents for the fancier seats.

"Winnipeg was the testing ground even back then. Winnipeg is where they set the tone, where they set the sequence of what the acts would be as they travelled west to Seattle and Los Angeles," he said. 

Vaudeville, "the sissified French word for variety show," explained Robinson, involved singing and dancing, but also magic, dancing dogs and even short films.

"Going to Pantages would have been an event," he said.
The Great Houdini mesmerized audiences at Pantages Playhouse (courtesy Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

And the beautiful architecture made an evening out even more special. Alexander Pantages owned 30 theatres and had control of contracts for another 60. He generally used the same architect for his new theatres and the style became known as "Pantages Greek."

After vaudeville died out, Pantages continued to welcome an astonishing range of performers to its stage, like Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Jascha Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz, Harry Houdini, The Guess Who, Charlie Chaplin, comedian Anna Russell, Laurel & Hardy and Stephane Grappelli.
Laurel & Hardy inspired some laughs in the early years of Pantages Playhouse. (courtesy Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra)

"Everybody who was anybody was there," said Robinson.

For this 100th anniversary concert the audience is invited to dress in vaudeville attire for a chance to win a season's subscription to the WSO's 2014-2015 season.

The concert, with a long list of invited guests, will reflect the golden era of the Pantages with some Gilbert and Sullivan, jazz, classical, even some tap dancing and magic.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra presents Happy Birthday Pantages Playhouse! on Sunday, June 29 at 7:30. Tickets are just $10.