Pantages Theatre – East Hastings Street (2)

We looked at the story of Alexander Pantages, whose name graced Art Clemes East Hastings Street theatre from its opening in 1908 for about a decade in our previous post. The theatre was built in a hurry – the developer was fined $10 for covering up the foundations before they could be inspected by the city’s engineer. George Calvert managed the theatre when it opened in January 1908, seeing a range of vaudeville acts revolve through the stage door, playing several houses a night as the management sought to charge lower prices than rival theatres, but still extract a profit from the operation. They ranged from musical comedy to animal acts, (Madam Lucretia with her leopards and panthers), whistlers, acrobats, a quick change artist (Mlle Fregolia, the first popular woman to perform Quick Change with prepared costumes), blackface and boxers (Bob Fitzsimmons, the ‘Famous Freckled Fighter’ from Cornwall, the lightest heavyweight champion). Alexander Pantages checked the theatre out in November 1908.

In 1909 Miss Nada Moret of Australia offered charming high-class songs, with a ‘dainty’ operetta as the headlining act. That contrasted with Sullivan and Kilrain who fought America’s last-ever bare-knuckle prizefight in 1889, and continued to cash in on it twenty years later. In 1910 Hamad’s Arabs appeared – not horses, but acrobats: “Abou Hamad’s Arabs, nine in number, said to be the best troupe of sons of the desert, will be on the bill. It is one of the best of foreign acts.” The Daily World reported “Eddie Martin, playing at the Pantages this week, will be seen in a specialty song and dance act that is one of the best in the business. Mr. Martin has the reputation of being one of the finest clog and fancy dancers in vaudeville”. Earlier that year The Great Pauline had been the attraction, “the wonderful French scientist and physician, whose demonstrations of the superiority of mind over matter have been the talk not only of the vaudeville votaries of the States and Europe, but also of physicians and psychologists in every city that he has appeared in.” This description might not make it obvious that Pauline was a male hypnotist and mind reader – one of the highest paid performers in vaudeville. He was French only if you had been hypnotized to believe that Rochester, New York, was in France. In October “an abundance of laughter will prevail during the turn of Chas Allen and Jack Lee who have the reputation of being the funniest pair of Jew comedians ever sent over the Pantages circuit.”

A year later, in August the Three Marx Brothers appeared for the first time in Vancouver in “Fun in Hi Skool”. Groucho played as a Dutch-accented schoolmaster and alongside his brothers his Aunt Hannah was one of the pupils. That year there were two attempts to break into the theatre’s safe. The Marx family returned again to play a week’s residency in 1913 as The Four Marx Brothers, and didn’t return to Vancouver again until 1918, when they had transferred their allegiance to the rival Orpheum circuit. It continued to operate throughout the war, adding drama to the roster of performances, including Arizona Joe’s Cowpuncher’s performing ‘Pastimes of the Plains’.

Once the new larger Pantages theatre opened a couple of blocks west, the old theatre continued under new owners, although Pantages had to sue to prevent the old name continuing in use. It became the Theatre Royal in mid 1918, and the owner, Mr Royal, chose a pink and gold redesign which could still be seen when the theatre was closed in the 1990s. Touring dramatic performances continued to provide most of the bookings, initially provided by Jim Post and his Musical Comedy Company, who worked up and down the west coast. There were still hypnotists and mind readers, and the occasional visiting songstress, but business was clearly falling off, and by the early 1920s the theatre was sometimes dark, and sometimes was showing films. Kelly’s Comedians performed here, but they moved to another theatre near the new Pantages.

In the late 1920s the theatre was converted to a movie house. In 1933 it survived having a bomb being thrown into the building, destroying the projectionists booth, and a car parked outside on the street. The aftermath damage is shown in our 1933 VPL image. Surrounding businesses including the Balmoral Hotel and the Dawson Building had their windows blown out, and discovered their insurance didn’t cover bombings. It was supposedly carried out by a Russian-born Chicago mobster and extortionist known as ‘Willie The Pimp’ working for union interests trying to create a monopoly union. (Years later, in 1955, having ratted out his gangland partners and despite being given a new identity by the FBI, Willie Bioff was killed when his car exploded in his Phoenix driveway).

Later it became known as the State, the Queen, the Avon and City Nights. As the Avon, in 1953, it saw a police raid in the middle of a live theatre performance of ‘Tobacco Road’. Five members of the regular cast were taken to jail, charged with taking part in an indecent performance. The play was an adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s book about life, love, and poverty in the American South. Despite having run on Broadway for 8 years and being turned into a film, the VPD viewed the performance as “lewd and filthy”. It turned out that the raid was prompted by complaints from the production team to generate the response, and hence free publicity. It paid off; the cast returned after 90 minutes to complete the performance, and the play sold out for the rest of the run.

It last operated as the Sung Sing, a Chinese-language theatre, which closed in 1994. Several attempts were made to resurrect the theatre by community based groups, but holes in the roof started to see significant damage to the decorations. An appeal to the City of Vancouver to purchase the theatre was rejected, and the property developer owner was allowed to demolish the structure and the single storey retail buildings to the west. He built a woodframe condo building that was supposed to offer low cost home ownership over revitalized retail with a courtyard. However, the courtyard is gated, and locked, and the ownership model does not ensure the relatively low initial costs of apartments are maintained in subsequent sales, so units have been flipped to new owners at higher prices. The one tangible benefit are 18 units on non-market rental. The new Downtown Eastside plan wouldn’t allow a condo building in the area in future.

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Posted May 31, 2018 by ChangingCity in East End, Gone

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