Majestic Theatre – West Hastings Street

Majestic W Hastings

This image of the Majestic Theatre on West Hastings is dated to 1965, but the movie bill featured a 1958 western starring George Montgomery, Man From God’s Country, and a British 1962 film made by Peter Ustinov called Billy Budd. Like the opera of the same name, it was adapted from a Herman Melville short novel, and co-starred Terence Stamp in his first movie – one that earned him a nomination for an Academy Award. The western was about Montana – described on the poster as gun-raw… gun-ruled… gun hell. The theatre was heading for a dark screen, and given the double bill on offer that’s understandable.

The Majestic didn’t start life under that name – it was the second incarnation in the city of the Pantages Theatre. A version was designed by J J Donellan in 1914, but the start of the war delayed the project, and the current building designed by B Marcus Priteca late in 1916 wasn’t started until 1917, with the theatre opening in 1918. Alexander Pantages developed the building at a cost of $300,000 and built by Skene & Christie on a piece of land owned by C A Godson. The first version of the Pantages was more modest, and located a few blocks to the east. The fancy new theatre was part of the city’s vaudeville circuit, running up to 12 hour days and mixing comedy, dance and musical acts. During its time as the Pantages Theatre, it headlined such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth. Architectural writer Miriam Sutermeister noted that the theatre was “considered at the time to be the most richly embellished and efficient theatre of the Pantages chain.” In its final year under the Pantages name, L B Pantages was the manager and Alfonso Pantages was an usher.

Beacon TheatreBeacon Theatre 33It was renamed as the Beacon Theatre before 1930, still showing ‘acts’ as well as movies – and talkies as ‘Birth of a Nation – in Sound’ was shown in 1932 – the year that Godson estates took over management of the theatre. In this incarnation management invested in a set of massive neon letters that the were rearranged to identify the performance. Here’s a 1932 image showing “On Stage Boy Mental Wizard” – Jackie Merkle was the five year-old  son of a husband and wife acrobat team – The Flying Merkles. Jackie’s mother died in a fall when he was 7 months old and his father discovered psychic abilities a few years later and took him on the road.

A year later Texas Guinan paid a visit. She was really Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan, and unlike almost all the other details of her life that she invented or embellished, she really did come from Texas: Waco to be exact. She started acting at 16, briefly married (for the first time), then headed to New York where she dabbled in films and on stage before finding her niche as a nightclub hostess with an acerbic wit (an attribute she had developed in vaudeville). During prohibition she made a fortune holding court from a stageside table, draped in jewels and furs and greeting the clients with her catchphrase “Hello Suckers!”, later referenced in the musical Chicago. She could persuade the crowd to pay $25 for a whisky, but was teetotal herself. She hung out with actors and gangsters, and then went home to her parents. She moved on from partnering with an impresario to owning her own club, and apparently amassing a fortune.

The depression hit the club scene and she tried to get back into the movies, and toured a revue that was prevented from showing in France because it represented a threat to the work of local performers. (Taking a troupe of fan dancers to Paris wasn’t necessarily the most subtle idea, but it seems that Texas didn’t really do subtle). Turning lemons into lemonade, she changed the name of the show to “Too Hot for Paris,” and continued around North America with a troupe of 40 dancers. The tour ended suddenly and tragically in Vancouver; the image shows the revue attracted a sizeable crowd. While billboard 1950in the city Texas suffered an attack of ulcerative colitis and despite emergency surgery, she died aged 49. On her deathbed she was reported to say “I would rather have a square inch of New York than all the rest of the world” and her body was returned home where thousands attended her funeral. Her family donated a tabernacle in her name to St. Patrick’s Church in Vancouver in recognition of Father Louis Forget’s attentions during her final hours.

The building’s next reincarnation was as the Hastings Odeon picture house in 1946, when it was bought for $250,000. There were continued occasional live performances; Billboard reported in 1949 that having been “a straight flicker for the past two seasons, reverted to flesh Thursday (14) with a seven act bill and a feature pic… The seven circus acts which made up the opening bill included Snow’s seals, Perry the Penguin, Pansy the Horse, Hector’s dogs, Flying Olympians, Togo the clown, comedy jugglers and the Trampoline Trio“. A year later another vaudeville bill was announced headed by Texas Jim Lewis and his Plainsmen. The BC Archives have a CBC film from 1956  conductor John Avison rehearsing a 50-piece orchestra in two works, including a Liszt piano concerto with soloist Marie-Aimee Warrot.

There was another attempt to revive vaudeville in 1958 – this time as the Majestic. The acts were brought in from Las Vegas, and Carl de Santis and his orchestra provided the music. There were still two movies, but the theatre struggled and vaudeville really was, finally, dead. The Odeon decided to sell the building to a parking lot operator who razed the building in 1967. This raised some public protest, although not enough to save the building. The parking lot remained for over 30 years, until the Portland Hotel Society hired Arthur Erickson (with Nick Milkovich) to design non-market housing on the site, completed in 2000. When site works commenced the contractors discovered that the demolition crew of the theatre just pushed rubble into the basement and paved over it; the basement had been sitting there largely intact. The Portland offers 88 units, and was the first purpose-built housing project designed specifically to meet the unique needs of Vancouver’s hard-to-house community.

Image sources: City of Vancouver Archives CVA 1135-45 and CVA 99-4563 and CVA 99-4282

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