Vancouver, Vaudeville and the City's Lost Theatre District

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VCB - Hastings Great White Way - April 19, 1914

Written by Kendall Walters for Forbidden Vancouver Walking Tours


Every weekend, Vancouverites converge on Granville Street, long the city’s entertainment hotspot, in the pursuit of fun. Not many know that Granville was once considered stuffy and the people flocked to an entirely different row of bright signs and glittering lights for their amusements…

Back in the early 1900s, Hastings Street was the heart of Vancouver’s entertainment district, with theatres, cinemas, pool halls and restaurants lining the road from Victory Square to Main Street.

It was called “The Hastings Great White Way,” nicknamed after Broadway – “The Great White Way” of New York City. It shared the glow of its namesake’s lightbulb-covered thoroughfare.

Only a few short years ago Vancouver lost the last of the great theatres on Hastings Street.

The Hunt for Vancouver’s Entertainment History

VCB - Hastings Great White Way Painting by Tom Carter

Tom Carter painting of “The Hastings Great White Way” in the post-WWI period, via Tom Carter

Local historian and artist Tom Carter may very well know more about the area and its history than just about anyone. He’s spent years working to preserve Vancouver’s entertainment history while learning all he could about it.

Carter has harboured an interest in history from a young age. When he was just a boy, his parents took him and his sister to tour around heritage buildings on the chopping block so that they could experience the spaces before they disappeared.

“I remember being in those theatres when they had all the old faded velvet seats and telephone booths in the lobbies and I loved that,” he says.

Though he’s researched so many of the dozens of theatres that called Hastings Street home in its heyday, The Pantages holds a special place in Carter’s imagination.

Built in 1907 and opened the following year, The Pantages Theatre was part of the city’s booming Vaudeville business.

Back in 1933, the theatre was bombed by the Chicago mob. At the time, Carter’s grandfather owned a café across the street.

“Part of the ticket office flew across Hastings Street into my grandfather’s café,” he says.

“He came to work that morning. It was really quiet – eerily quiet. All of Hastings Street was covered in glass.”

That tale of intrigue and excitement fueled Carter’s love of history and later sparked his desire to paint the city as it was in days gone by, as his grandfather would have known it.

“I really wanted to discover the city through his eyes,” he says.

That interest was rekindled when The Pantages was knocked down.

“There were big gaps in the theatre’s history, so I started to dig,” he says.

“It got me digging into other theatres around it on Hastings Street. As I uncovered everything, it just became more and more interesting. We’ve got this really amazing history that not that many people know about.”

“The Hastings Great White Way” in its Heyday

VCB - Hastings Great White Way - Mid-1920s - Gowen Sutton Postcard

Postcard of “The Hastings Great White Way” from Gowen Sutton photography studio, mid-1920s, via Tom Carter

With five solid blocks of theatres, cinemas, pool halls and restaurants, “The Hastings Great White Way” wasn’t short on entertainment.

Vancouver in the early 1900s was a working town and, unlike Granville Street’s opera house, Hastings Street featured entertainment for the everyman.

“They wanted a little more rootsy entertainment, they wanted Vaudeville and skits and pies in faces… they didn’t want opera,” says Carter.

Vaudeville was, in essence, a live variety show. On any given day, a Vaudeville theatre might be open for 12 straight hours, with acts performing on a rolling basis so that the stage was seldom, if ever, empty.

Acts often included singers, dancers, comedians and musicians – live entertainment which remains popular today – or they might have featured child performers, animal shows, minstrel shows or “freak shows” – forms of entertainment that have disappeared as tastes and values evolved.

While more theatres than you can imagine crowded themselves into the city’s hotspot, The Pantages Theatre was one of the brightest jewels in a seemingly endless crown of sparkling lights.

The Pantages Theatre – the first theatre Seattle magnate Alexander Pantages built in Vancouver – was the oldest remaining Vaudeville theatre in Canada until its demolition in 2011 and 2012.

By the time it was demolished, The Pantages had sat empty for nearly two decades and suffered a great deal of damage as a result. There was, however, a plan for restoring the once-great venue as a new showpiece of the Downtown Eastside, but plans fell through and the city approved demolition

When Vancouver lost the Pantages, it lost more than a dilapidated old building. It lost a vital part of the city’s cultural heritage.

“As a country we lost Canada’s oldest existing Vaudeville house,” says Carter.

“We also could have had a civic jewel – a showpiece that people could have been proud of. Once a building’s gone, you can’t rebuild it.”

Imagine walking down the street in the 1910s and 1920s – during Hastings Street’s heyday. Thousands of lightbulbs sparkle in the night air, shimmering off the rain-soaked streets. The tiny bulbs cover not simply the marquee, but the entirety of many of the buildings, showing off the Romanesque columns and Beaux-Arts archways.

“There’d be those street cars rumbling along and the bells clanging,” says Carter.

“You’d actually hear music as you walked by every place.”

The theatres in those days didn’t have lobbies, so patrons bought tickets and walked directly into the theatres themselves.

“Back then people would come and go as they wanted,” says Carter.

“Every time the doors would open, the sound from the theatres would spill into the street… you’d hear the sounds of the orchestra and the pipe organ. It would have been very animated and very exciting.”

The Death of Vaudeville

VCB - Majestic Vaudeville - 1958 - Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Sun Ad for The Majestic Theatre’s Vaudeville revival, 1958, via Tom Carter

While “The Hastings Great White Way” was home to Vaudeville in Vancouver, the entertainment form’s mecca was New York City’s Palace Theatre.

In the days of Vaudeville, travelling acts were all the rage and performers worked on circuits that sent them from theatre to theatre. In those days, The Palace was the pinnacle.

“If you could play The Palace you were really top of the heap,” says Carter.

But times change and The Palace changed with them.

By the time the Great Depression hit, Vaudeville was on its way out. Depression-era economics saw many theatres shutter their doors and for those that remained, new technology made it possible to play a variety of acts on screen, rather than incur the expense of hosting live performers.

The Palace Theatre held its last live Vaudeville performance in November 1932. That’s the day the death knell rang for Vaudeville.

Unfortunately, no one told Vancouver.

It’s said that Vancouver is the place where Vaudeville came to die. This city certainly held on to it much longer than any other. While theatres across the Western world switched to cinema, Vancouver clung to its Vaudeville acts (often presented in conjunction with a film).

Circuit Vaudeville limped along in Vancouver well into the 1940s, a solid decade past when the rest of the entertainment world had moved on. And that’s not even counting one theatre manager’s ill-advised attempt to host a live Vaudeville show in 1958, running acts continuously from noon until 5 a.m.

Needless to say, it didn’t last long.

The End of “The Hastings Great White Way”

VCB - First Pantages Theatre

The first Pantages Theatre on “The Hastings Great White Way” in the early 1900s, via Tom Carter

“The Hastings Great White Way” was there at the beginning of Vaudeville and it was certainly there at the end. While many of the stretch’s grand theatres disappeared decades ago, from the 1930s right through the 1970s, The Pantages survived, a lonely sentinel until 2011.

“I don’t blame people for doing what they did,” says Carter.

“It made sense at the time. That’s why it was so miraculous that The Pantages survived.”

During the campaign for The Pantages’ restoration, Carter had the chance to visit the theatre. He stood inside the ornate auditorium and marvelled at the history.

“It was really exciting to be in that beautiful space,” he says.

When demolition began, Carter decided to salvage everything he could, so fellow local historian John Atkin put him in touch with the demo team.

“They were finding little bits and pieces of ephemera,” he says.

“Anything they could find, I rescued. I even have some of the original seats from 1907.”

Among his collection, Carter counts one-of-a-kind photographs rescued from the theatre’s safe along with playbills, ledgers and pieces of the building itself.

“We managed to save a lot of the plaster work,” he says.

Though every piece of memorabilia saved is a treasure, it’s sad that so little remains of what was once such an important part of the fabric of Vancouver.


 

If you’re interested in learning more about “The Hastings Great White Way,” Tom Carter contributed a chapter to local history book Vancouver Confidential from Anvil Press.

This piece originally appeared on the Forbidden Vancouver blog.

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