Pretty soon after the Hotel Vancouver was underway the Canadian Pacific Railway sought to make their part of the new city even more attractive by building a theatre next door to their hotel (to the south). Grandly (but fairly inaccurately) called The Opera House it was designed by Montreal architects John and Edward Hopkins, a father and son team who also picked up another CPR commission for the Lord Elphinstone Block, an office designed in the same year as the Opera House, 1888. Confusingly there was another Opera House built at the same time, the Imperial Opera House on Pender Street – and there was also Hart’s Opera House on Carrall Street, the oldest of the three, but that was described as a ‘glorified shed’ with burlap walls and doubled as a roller rink - the CPR’s was easily the classiest.
The new street railway conveniently ended in front of the Opera House, completing in 1889 not very long before the Opera House opened in early 1891. It cost $100,000 to build and apparently was run at a loss, but that was made up for by the passenger traffic it attracted. Mr A P Horne of the CPR Land Department recalled the first year of operation in a conversation with Major Matthews.
”We engaged Sarah Bernhardt, the famous European actress, for two nights and one matinée, that was in 1890, and then again we had another play, ‘Willing Hands and Honest Hearts,’ in which John L. Sullivan, celebrated prize fighter, was principal. It was rather funny, one morning when we presented to Mr. Browning, as he insisted we do, a statement of the expenses and receipts, he picked up the paper and remarked, ‘Very satisfactory, you made quite a profit,’ and I, just a young man, perhaps thoughtlessly remarked the John L. Sullivan had been quite an attraction. Mr. Browning replied, ‘There was no fighting, was there?’ and I answered, ‘Yes, in the third set. He brought someone with him to knock out.’ Mr. Browning was astounded, and said he did not know what Mr. Van Horne would think of it; that he would have to tell him; but we never heard any more of it.”
In 1894 the Imperial closed, and the CPR had a monopoly. They ran it until 1896 then handed management to Robert Jamieson who managed several other BC theatres. While serious drama often played to a limited house (with 1,200 seats a small audience was noticeable) the Province newspaper in 1898 complained about the vulgarity of ‘Leavitt’s Spider and Fly Burlesque Company’ while conceding that “a good many people appeared to enjoy themselves immensely”.
That year, 1898, the Savoy opened as a music hall, and a year later the Alhambra opened as a theatre. By 1906 US interests were booking the Opera House and by the time Alexander Pantages opened his theatre on Hastings Street in 1908, Vancouver was an integral part of the North American touring circuit. Despite a refurbishment of the theatre in 1907, the CPR were thinking of offloading it, which they did in 1909 for $200,000 to a local consortium, who promptly flipped it for $300,000 to US based Sullivan and Considine. The new owners as the Orpheum Theatrical Co brought in world class acts like Anna Pavlova and Ellen Terry who both appeared in 1910. They hired local architect James J Donnellan to expand and rebuild the theatre in 1912 at a cost of $160,000. That’s the theatre in the photograph after its 1913 opening as the New Orpheum; it received another re-build to add offices on Granville Street and lasted until 1969 under a variety of changing names until it was demolished as part of the site assembly for the Pacific Centre Mall.
Image source: Opera House 1913, Library & Archives Canada, City of Vancouver Archives, Opera House 1891 CVA Bu P509