Pantages Theatre Opens in Winnipeg

Greek Immigrant Expands Vaudeville Circuit to Winnipeg

by George Siamandas


The Pantages Theatre opened in Winnipeg on Feb 9 1914. Its colourful American builder was Alexander Pantages a Seattle based impresario who wanted to build a string of new vaudeville houses for his touring acts. Pantages' Vaudeville circuit was a top quality chain of theatres and travelling acts that played in the western US and Canada.

Alexander Pantages emigrated to the US as a boy from Greece. At age 13 he ended up in San Francisco and worked as an usher in theatres. In the late 1890s he was attracted to the Klondike during the gold rush days where he met Klondike Kate Rockwell a dance-hall girl. Using the "Queen of the Yukon's" money, Pantages' first effort at entrepreneurship saw him owning a dance hall in the Yukon. The miners had lots of money and were willing to pay $12.50 admission to his Orphium Theatre in Dawson City, which was grossing $8,000 daily.

It was this money that let him open up the first Pantages Theatre the Crystal Theatre in 1902 in Seattle Washington. He then abandoned Kate and married a Lois Mendenhall. By 1926 he owned 30 theatres and controlled another 42 and was estimated to be worth $50 million. He sold out just before the depression. When approached by a broke Kate for help, he loaned her six dollars. His later years were very bad. In 1929 he was accused of rape by a Miss Eunice Pringle and settled out of court on an appeal. A little later his wife was charged with manslaughter on a drunk driving charge. He died in Los Angeles in 1936.


It was billed as Winnipeg's first really high-class theatre. Built in a record time of 7 months this $250,000 structure was Winnipeg's first air conditioned building. It played to Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Will Rogers. It also hosted some dull-sounding shows including "Felix the Mind Reading Duck," and the "Musical Blacksmiths." Pantages himself attended the grand opening with his wife Lois. CP Walker and his wife who owned the Walker were also there. Mayor Thomas Russ Deacon proudly introduced this son of Greek immigrants to the over 1500 patrons attending the grand opening. The show featured Mademoiselle Adgie and her 12 lions in the dance of death, a juggler, two banjo wizards, a comedian, and a farce skit.


Patrons in 1914 could watch shows for only 10 cents. There was the 2:30 pm matinee, and shows at 7:30 and 9:30; a schedule which became a Pantages tradition. The acts were timed to go continuously. Variety was the key and performers had to be versatile. Shows in Winnipeg lasted a week and went on to Regina Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton and back to Los Angeles along the West Coast. The only sleep the performers got was on the night trains. The deep stage permitted a variety of shows to be mounted including live horses performing in rodeos. A play featuring the sinking of the Lusitania had a huge water tank on stage


About 1923 Pantages sold the theatre and moved his shows to the Capitol Theatre. The Pantages was renamed the Playhouse and so began its decline. In 1923 he had 10 movie theatres for competition. By fall it became the Playhouse. By the crash of 1930 its days as a commercial theatre were over. After WW2 it was taken over by the city for unpaid taxes. It operated as a venue for concerts and musical events. But unfortunately it spent too much of its time dark. In the 1980s it saw a $6 million renovation by the city. But it continues to suffer from insufficient revenues and high operating costs. Pantages at one time owned 32 and controlled 12 others. Winnipeg's Pantages is the only one remaining in Canada and only one of 6 overall.


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