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Death & Debauchery Before the Theatre - Exchange District BIZ Walking Tours

Article by Rushika Khatkar, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.  
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

Hi! My name is Rushika Khatkar. This summer I am working at Heritage Winnipeg. I was placed here through the Winnipeg Foundation’s Summer Internship Program. It's an opportunity for students to understand the charities in Winnipeg at a deeper level. I got involved with this program through my participation in the Youth in Philanthropy club at my high school. This was a club that was dedicated to helping local charities in Winnipeg. 

I hope to go into business once I graduate high school. I am a member of numerous clubs at my school such as yearbook and student council.  I love to read in my spare time and can be often seen with my nose in a book. 

On Tuesday, we went to Music at the Millennium, sponsored by Telpay, which was a real treat as I was able to hear members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. It happens on Tuesdays at noon and it's free for anyone who wishes to come. If you are looking for something to do in the summertime, this is a great option. 

Death & Debauchery Tour 

We also went on the Death and Debauchery tour provided by the Exchange District BIZ. We met our tour guide at Old Market Square, in front of Smoke's Poutinerie.

Where we met at Old Market Square for the tour
Right away our tour started with stories of Winnipeg's First Mayor, Francis Cornish. He also happened to be the chief magistrate. So what happened when he was charged with public drunkenness? He was the judge at his own trial. He gave himself a long lecture about the evils of drinking. He then walked down from the judge's seat to plead guilty. After putting himself back on the judge's seat, he gave himself a choice between a fine or jail time. Talk about bias!

As we moved along the tour, we were also told about Winnipeg's first police chief, John S. Ingram. He made a deal with the brothels of the city. If they stayed in one area of the city, he would not arrest them as long as they didn't stir up trouble. The area chosen was what is now Minto Street. Later, a raid was performed on the brothel and none other than Chief Ingram was found in bed with a prostitute. Ingram had to pay a fine and resign from the job. He later became the chief of police in Calgary. 

Our tour guide talking about Chief Ingram
The focus of the tour then turned to hotels. Three in particular. The first hotel we looked at was the Mariaggi Hotel. The story was not about the hotel, but about the owner, Frank Mariaggi, who came into the city with the Red River Expedition. He was accused of the murder of James R. Brown, who was stabbed 33 times. He was kept at Upper Fort Garry while still drunk and with blood all over his body. Although he was later proved innocent of the crime, his friends within the Fort where he was imprisoned had to smuggle him out in order to avoid the angry mob that formed in protest of the murder.

The Mariaggi Hotel
A short walk later, we saw the building that used to be the Royal Albert Arms Hotel. The hotel had a shady past. It was surrounded by controversy about one of it's performers, Tom Leary. He was not allowed in Winnipeg but one of the owners of the hotel was in politics and able to get Leary a work permit. In years to come Leary was kicked out but the politician never got punished. While we were still there, the tour guide talked about one more hotel. It was known by the name Roblin House. What was notable about this hotel was the entertainment they provided. They would tie bears to telephone poles outside on the sidewalk and this went on for about 10 year. The hotel didn't even stop when a 4 year old was mauled by one of the bears. 

The next stop on the tour was the Electric Railway Chambers. This was the location of the biggest, unsolved robbery in Winnipeg. The value of the money stolen at the time was $87 000, in today's time it would equal to $1.2 million. The money was coming from the Bank of Montreal, which was so close that you could walk there in 5 minutes. The money was being transported by truck and when it arrived at the Electric Railway Chambers, the driver was held at gunpoint. He then drove a short distance before being kicked out by the robbers. The money was never recovered.

The Electric Railway Chambers Building
The tour continued with more stories of Winnipeg's darker side. We talked about the killing of a gang leader  and how the killer didn't get charged. We walked past the Kelly building and were told about the builder, Thomas Kelly and his role in the Legislative Scandal where he stole approximately $1 000 000. 

At Bijoux Park, we stood where the provincial court once was located. This was also the site for 3 hangings, including the first hanging in Western Canada. This was the perfect conclusion to a great tour about a not so great part of Winnipeg's history.

Bijou Park, where the old Provincial Court used to stand

Theatre District Tour

We also went on Exchange District BIZ's  Theatre District tour on Monday. It started off with information on the first theatres in Winnipeg, which were mostly in churches and barns. They usually ended up being really small and one in particular was so small and so hot that it was said if you were to faint, there would be no where to fall.

The Cube Theatre, currently in use for the Fringe Festival
As we had started the tour at Old Market Square, we started with the Cube Theatre. It was built in 2010 and since been used for a number of festivals. Right now it is being used for the Fringe Festival.The Fringe Festival originally started in Edinburgh but they are numerous festivals around the world now. Winnipeg hosts the 3rd largest Fringe Festival in the world. 

At Bijou Park, where the old Provincial Court once stood, the Bijoux Theatre also stood there. Opened on January15, 1906, it hosted mostly vaudeville productions and would become one of the first movie theatres in Winnipeg

The outside of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre
We then went the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. It was built for the working class but was still a grand theatre. Tickets cost 15 cents and to compensate for the low price, the theatre ran 3 shows a day, 6 days a week. The theatre hosts film festivals and was the first stop for many performers hoping to succeed on their way to California. Some famous performers include Harry Houdini and Charlie Chaplin. It was also the where the debut for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet took place.

An air vent inside one of the lobbies in the Pantage Theatre
The Pantages Playhouse Theatre was founded by Alexander Pantages. Pantages ran away from home at the age of 9 from Greece. He made his way to San Francisco where he worked in bars and theatres where his love for theatres was born. He made his way up to Canada in hope to find gold but was unsuccessful. Instead he made money by giving readings of newspapers to miners. With the money he made he opened his first theatre. He ended up building over 75 theatres but only a few still remain, the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg being one of them. His dying wish was for his theatres to not be made into movie theatres. 

We went to the MTC (Manitoba Theatre Centre). It was founded by John Hirsch and Tom Hendry. The street by the building is dedicated to John Hirsch as he was also the first artistic director at the MTC. The highest grossing production was Keanu Reeves' portrayal of Hamlet. His name still hangs on the dressing room to this day. 

A monument outside the MTC dedicated to Tom Hendry (sitting) and John Hirsch (standing)
 Once again, the Royal Albert Hotel appeared on our tour. It was mentioned because of its bizarre performers used for entertainment. There was a man labelled the "Prince of Steel" whose act included putting needles through his skin. Tom Leary was also an infamous entertainer. He was widely known for promoting LSDs as a stand- up philosopher. The Royal Albert Hotel was a different kind of stage. 

The building that was once the Royal Albert Hotel
That was the last stop before we headed back to Old Market Square. It was fitting to finish the tour there, as the posters for the Fringe Festival reminded us that performers and their art is still appreciated today.


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