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A History of The Burton Cummings Theatre

Written by Laura Wiens on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg corp. 

Laura McKay, your trusted Heritage blogger, has moved on to bigger and better things. She was a huge asset to our organization and we wish we all the best. 
I'm also named Laura, I guess it was a popular 90s name. I'll be continuing this blog. I'll try very hard to maintain the same high level of quality that the Laura McKay strove for, and our readers have come to expect.

To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.  

The man who Brought Entertainment to Winnipeg

Long before the Burton Cummings Theatre was named for the lead singer of The Guess Who, it was called The Walker Theatre, named for Corliss Powers Walker. (1853-1942)
Corliss Powers Walker

C.P. Walker was born in Vermont. His family moved from Minnesota when he was young. As an adult, he ran a printing business in North Dakota with his brother, and was the business’s manager.

In the 1890s, Walker became interested in an industry a world away from printing: theatre management.

He became the manager of the Fargo Opera House, and acquired other theatres in North Dakota and Minnesota.

The first Canadian theatre he purchased was the Bijou Theatre in Winnipeg. It stood at the corner of Adelaide and Notre Dame. He renamed it the Winnipeg Theatre, and he moved to Winnipeg to manage it himself in 1897.

The Winnipeg Theatre became the flagship theatre for Walker’s network of theatres called the Red River Valley circuit of theatres.

He booked live theatre acts from New York to perform, and his Red River Theatre Circuit soon had a monopoly on touring shows and stars. Because of the way Walker set up his system, Winnipeg was able to get shows that would have never come to such a small, Canadian market in the past.

The Fire that Changed the Theatre Business

In Chicago in 1903, the Iroquois Theatre Fire took place. To this day, the Iroquois Theatre fire remains the deadliest single-building fire ever in United States history. At least 602 people died, but authorities suspect there were actually more deaths. 575 people died during the fire, and at least 30 more died from injuries in the days that followed. The theatre was packed with men, women, and children of all ages on the night of the fire.

At the time of Iroquois Theatre Fire, C. P. Walker was still managing the Winnipeg Theatre. The Winnipeg Theatre was not completely fireproof, and C. P. Walker had many critics in the city who were concerned about the safety of the theatre, and some who wanted to see it closed down.

C. P. Walker set his sights on building a new theatre and ending his ownership of The Winnipeg Theatre. He envisioned a theatre that was lovely, functional, and also completely fireproof. Walker hired Montreal architect Howard C. Stone to design this new fireproof building.

The Walker Theatre

Construction on The Walker Theatre began in 1906, and the theatre opened in 1907. Its design was based heavily on the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, which was constructed in 1889.

Its clear to see the influence of the Auditorium Theatre if you look at the interior of the Walker Theatre, but if you only looked at the exterior of the building compared to The Auditorium Theatre, you might think they look nothing alike, and you would be absolutely right. 

The interior of the Walker Theatre
Other than the wall the main doors are on, exterior of the Walker is completely bare brickwork with no ornamentation. The Auditorium Theatre’s exterior is full of windows, and has a very commanding presence.

The Walker Theatre was intended as the first stage of a larger complex that was never completed. Originally there was going to be commercial space and a hotel attached to the theatre. The exterior walls were left bare because there were going to be other buildings right up against them. But the other parts of the complex were never constructed.

The programming at The Walker Theatre was top of the line. Broadway, grand opera, light operas, Shakespeare and other shows were performed live on the stage. The Walker Theatre was the pinnacle of live entertainment in Winnipeg.

The Walker Theatre was also the setting for the satirical mock parliament put on during the women’s suffrage movement. Nellie McClung played the premier, and she advocated against men being allowed to vote. A sign for the mock parliament can still be seen no the building today.

Decline of Theatre

Live entertainment became less popular over time as movies became the new, more popular entertainment trend. People became more interested in going to see a moving picture than going to the theatre. So naturally, the American entertainment industry began investing in movies more, and there then there were fewer and fewer live acts to book. At first Walker began booking more British groups to come and perform, but those too in time, dried up.

After the great depression hit, Walker closed the theatre and retired in 1933. He was 80-years-old. In 1936, the City of Winnipeg seized the building for unpaid taxes.

The Odeon Cinema

The Walker Theatre sat empty for close to a decade after being seized by the city. In 1944, Henry Morton bought the theatre from the city. He re-opened the building as The Odeon Cinema.

A false roof was installed, covering the upper balconies. When the Odeon Theatre opened, it was one of the most popular and successful movie theatres in the city at the time. The facility remained as the Odeon Cinema for close to 50 years, until it eventually closed down. The Odeon Cinema logos and artwork can still be seen on the side of the building today.

The Walker Theatre, Again

In 1990, the Walker Theatre Group for the Performing Arts Inc. purchased the buildings. They had a vision to restore the building, and once again make it a prime venue for live entertainment. They began to restore the building, and re-opened it once again under its original name of The Walker Theatre.

In 1991, it was recognized as a Grade One Heritage Building by the province of Manitoba, and the Government of Canada recognized the theatre as a national historic site.

The Burton Cummings Theatre

14 years ago, in August of 2002, The Walker Theatre was renamed after Winnipeg musician Burton Cummings. Its official name is now The Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts.

In 2009 the theatre received a 3.4-million dollar grant to continue repairs and refurbishing of the building.

In 2014, True North Sports and Entertainment began managing the building. In 2016, they announced that they would be purchasing the building.

In 2016, Vice President of True North, Kevin Donnelly, told the CBC that they had replaced about 200 seats, and they have re-upholstered and re-cushioned 100 more.

The Walker Theatre has been in Winnipeg for 109 years of Winnipeg 143 year history. Hopefully with its new ownership and restorations, it will be around for the rest of the city’s future.