Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Haunted Winnipeg - Theatres: Guest Post by Author Matthew Komus

Guest Post by Matthew Komus
Edited by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp. 
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

For over a decade I have worked as a tour guide in Winnipeg. In this role, I have had the opportunity to showcase many of the city's amazing heritage buildings to visitors from around the world. Over the years, I have been asked countless questions but there is one question that comes up far more than any other. It doesn't matter what building is being discussed or what the topic of the tour is, someone will always ask "is this building haunted"? 
 
The Masonic Temple on Donald Street. Photo courtesy of Matthew Sinclair.


It was the frequency of this question that lead me to begin Winnipeg's first haunted walking tour Winnipeg Ghost Walk. The tour showcases the history and ghost stories connected to some of Winnipeg's best known heritage buildings. 

It should not be surprising that we find a connection between history and ghosts. Both subjects provide us with a pathway to our past. Historic buildings provide us with a physical connection to the lives of their previous owners and visitors; we can still wander through their rooms and see where they lived and died. Ghost stories provide a spiritual connection to the souls that have remained behind.

The entrance to the Fort Garry Hotel, a famous haunted heritage building. Photo courtesy of Matthew Sinclair.

After operating the tour for a number of years, in 2014 I wrote Haunted Winnipeg, Ghost Stories from the Heart of the Continent. The book includes far more buildings and stories than what can be included on a walking tour or in a blog post. Though the book includes many different types of buildings, for the sake of brevity I will focus on one type of building for this blog. 

Winnipeg is fortunate to have a number of historic theatres. The theatrical world is an environment full of energy and superstition. It is the perfect setting for ghosts and so every theatre seems to have at least one ghost story. Winnipeg is no exception, as the following two examples will illustrate.

The Walker Theatre

On February 18th, 1907, the Walker Theatre held its grand opening with Puccini's new opera, Madama Butterfly. Founded by Corliss Powers Walker and his wife Harriet, the expatriate entrepreneurs dreamed of bringing the very best shows to Winnipeg. The couple brought in the most popular shows touring Europe or the eastern United States. It was where many Winnipeggers were first exposed to the symphony, opera, musicals, and ballet. 

The Walker Theatre which later became the Odeon Cinema in 1944. Photo courtesy of Mark Komus.

The Walker attracted the biggest names in show business of the day, including Harry Houdini, Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmy Durante. The Walker also held many important community events. Harriet Walker was an early suffragette and helped Nelly McClung hold her Women's Parliament at the Walker.

The Walker's support for their community went beyond women's rights. They built the theatre with a second balcony to allow as many people as possible to see the shows. This balcony soon became known as "The Gods", as you were sitting so high up you must be sitting with the gods themselves. Tickers to "The Gods" were only 25 cents, allowing many people who otherwise could not afford the theatre to attend. 

The Walker Theatre, now called the Burton Cummings Theatre. Photo courtesy of Mark Komus.

Today "The Gods" are known as one of the spookiest places in the theatre. Performers have been rehearsing on stage, alone or in small groups, when they have heard applause coming from "The Gods" as if there was an invisible crowd watching an unseen show. There are many other strange occurrences at the theatre, mostly at night when the building is empty except for security guards. Doors that are supposed to be left open are found closed with no explanation. Guard dogs who were normally very well behaved at other job sites would bark at nothing and refuse to enter certain rooms in the theatre.

The haunting of Walker Theatre is often explained as the work of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, a famous acting couple from England. They had just completed their North American tour at the Walker and soon set sail aboard the Empress of Ireland for the voyage home. They would never make it. On May 29th, 1914, the Empress of Ireland went down, resulting in over a thousand lives lost, including Laurence and Mabel. It remains the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history. After the accident, a plaque was put in the lobby of the Walker Theatre in their memory. 

Though Laurence and Mabel are the best known ghosts at the Walker Theatre, they are not the only ones. To operate a theatre the size and scale of the Walker, a large staff was required and one of the most important roles was the ticket seller in the box office. Dealing with fussy customers made it a position that was often tough to fill until the Walkers found Joe. 

The Walker Theatre Interior 1907. Photo courtesy of Archives of Manitoba-Winnipeg Theatres.

Joe loved the theatre and the people in it, and soon became a popular fellow with both staff and patrons. In 1914, Joe's employment would be interrupted with the start of the war. He answered his country's call and went overseas to fight. While fighting in the trenches, he was caught in a German gas attack. Joe managed to survive the gas and returned home to Winnipeg, but was now in poor health and would soon pass away. Now it seems Joe has decided to remain in the space where he once had so many happy memories.


The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

Another haunted theatre is home to the oldest English-language regional theatres in Canada. The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre has produced hundreds of shows ranging from Shakespeare to musicals to theatrical world premieres. Located in the John Hirsch Theatre, the building does not fit the classical description of a haunted theatre. When picturing a haunted theatre, one is likely to think of old and ornate buildings. This description does not fit MTC as it was built in 1970, in the brutalist style of architecture. Though not as old as most heritage buildings, the theatre was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, 2015. Photo courtesy Heritage Winnipeg.

Even though the building does not fit the classical description of a haunted theatre, staff have reported many strange occurrences. Office staff have said items go missing and then reappear in the exact same spot only moments later. Others have reported hearing giggling and running footsteps when no one else is present. While working late one night, a set designer claimed to see a young boy run through his workshop.

The reason for these strange occurrences may be explained by MTC's first home, the Dominion Theatre built in 1904. After many strange events, including unexplained childish laughter and seats flipping up and down by themselves, staff started to investigate the history of the Dominion. This investigation lead the staff to discover the story of George. 

The entrance to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. Photo courtesy of Heritage Winnipeg.

The Dominion Theatre had a caretaker who lived on site with his son, George. George loved the theatre and dreamed of becoming an actor. He was also known for playing little pranks on visitors. Though only a young boy, George was in poor health and required the use of a wheelchair. Tragically, there was a fire at the theatre and George, unable to escape the building, perished.

After spending ten years at the Dominion, the theatre was slated for demolition and MTC was forced to move. Once in their new home, unexplained pranks started to happen again. One such prank happened to an out of town actor who refused to believe there was a ghost at MTC. While he was rehearsing a scene, a book being used as a prop flew across the stage and hit him in the head. After this event, he apparently changed his point of view. It seems George had decided to move with the theatre company.

The idea of a ghost moving locations is questionable, but the story about George has a larger problem. The Dominion Theatre never had a fire and would not have been accessible to someone in a wheelchair. The story has a dated Victorian feel to it, describing a poor little crippled boy who is to be pitied. So if George never existed, just who is haunting MTC?

Though it may not be known who is behind the strange occurrences at Winnipeg's theatres, it seems certain that as long as they continue to put on shows, the ghosts will continue to visit.

About the Author

Matthew Komus works as a tour guide and heritage consultant with many of Manitoba's heritage sites. Additional information on the Winnipeg Ghost Walk tour can be found at www.winnipegghostwalk.com.

A copy of his book, Haunted Winnipeg, Ghost Stories from the Heart of the Continent can be purchased at www.greatplains.mb.ca/buy-books/haunted-winnipeg/



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