Museum Musings: The Empress Theatre

Bill Smiley Archives photo. The Empress Theatre, seen here on First Avenue West, was built during Prince Albert's boon years.

Last week, I was pondering the subject of my next column when a volunteer from the Bill Smiley Archives brought to my attention an article from the January 20th, 1921 edition of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.  Ken, who undeniably has the most detailed knowledge of the Archives local photographs, thought I might find it interesting.

The article in question detailed a fire which, between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, had significantly damaged the Empress Theatre, which was located on the east side of 1st Avenue West between 11th and 12th Streets.  According to Fire Chief J. Smith, three calls were received by the fire department virtually simultaneously.  A citizen, C.T. Colville, had used the call box on First Avenue when he noticed the fire while coming down the hill.  Inspector R.R. Tait called the fire in by telephone, as did a member of the City Police. 

A locally produced pantomime had been rehearsing on the stage until about 10:30 on the Wednesday night.  The theatre’s manager, who had been working in his office, had not noticed anything wrong when he left at about 11:30, a little over a half hour before the calls came in at 12:03 a.m. on the Thursday morning.  The fire department managed to contain damage to the roof, the stage area, and the auditorium.  A major portion of the roof was destroyed, and a large crack had occurred on the east wall of the building.

The Empress Theatre had been built in 1911 during Prince Albert’s boom years.  Construction was supervised by the J.A. Burrichter firm of St. Paul, Minnesota.  It was the largest and best-appointed playhouse in the province, and considered to be the best theatre on the Prairies aside from those in Winnipeg and Calgary.  It could seat up to 900 people, including boxes, had an attractive interior design, and had large and comfortable dressing rooms.  A unique feature of the building was a tunnel which connected it to the Prince Albert Men’s club, which was located in the a nearby building.  Men attending functions at the playhouse would often take the tunnel during the intermission in order to have a drink in the Men’s club, or perhaps play a hand or two of cards

As a result, in the early years, theatre productions which played the largest cities in western Canada often came to Prince Albert.  Well-known names such as Lawrence Irving, Maud Adams, Percy Hutchinson, and Lawrence D’Orsay had been seen on its stage, as had groups such as The Dumbells (formed to improve the morale of World War One troops). 

Another actor, William Henry Pratt, honed his skills on the stage of the Empress Theatre.  Pratt met the theatre’s manager, Nelson Morton, in Regina shortly after that city’s cyclone at the end of June 1912.  He had been travelling with a theatre group from British Columbia, hoping to gain theatrical experience when the cyclone hit and put an end to the group’s anticipated performance in the Queen City.  Both Pratt and Morton were involved in the clean-up effort which was required, and Pratt advised Morton about losing the opportunity to gain the experience which he had planned.  Pratt indicated that he would be willing to do anything if he could have another opportunity to gain theatrical experience, even if it meant sweeping the floor of a theatre’s auditorium.  Shortly thereafter, he was in Prince Albert and getting the experience he was seeking.  Pratt would eventually use the stage name Boris Karloff, a name under which he performed both in movies and on television.  Whether he actually pushed a broom at the Empress is unknown!

Originally managed by James McKay, Nelson Morton had purchased the theatre a short time after its construction.  At the time of the fire, the registered owner of the building was The Empress Theatre Company, which was owned jointly by Nelson Morton and R.C. McLean, each owning equal shares.

McLean was the owner and proprietor of McLean’s Departmental Store, a business located on Central Avenue, and which sold everything from groceries to dry goods, boots and hats, millinery and men’s furnishings.  McLean also lived in a suite in the theatre block.

Morton had been the mayor of Prince Albert in 1912 and 1913, and was one of the major promoters of the La Colle Falls project.  As a result of this debacle, he had lost his mock-Tudor house which stood on the brow of the hill at 2nd Avenue and 20th Street West, and he was living with his family in another suite in the theatre block.

Although initially a profitable business, it would appear that the downturn in the local economy, as well as the impact of the First World War, had created some business difficulties.  As a result, a portion of the building had been rented out to various businesses, including the Bank of Montreal when it first established in Prince Albert.  At the time of the fire, a portion of the building was being rented by Miss Skett’s music academy.

The report in The Daily Herald indicated that most of the furnishings and personal possessions from the suites were removed from the building, and that little damage was done to those possessions which could not be removed.

The theatre block had been appraised at between $90,000 and $100,000, but was insured for only $45,000.  As a result, the playhouse was not rebuilt, although the living accommodations which existed in the west end and the east end were salvaged and continued as rental units until 1959 when the city determined that they needed to be demolished.

At the time of demolition, the connecting tunnel which ran from the theatre to the building which had initially been the Prince Albert Men’s club was still in existence.  Each end of the tunnel had been blocked off, one concreted end forming (according to Wes Stubbs, a former Police Chief) and the other end in the basement of what at the time was the Prince Albert Public Library.  (As the library building had been used as the headquarters of the local home of the Provincial Police after the Gentlemen’s club had gone bankrupt, the library thereafter had the distinction of being the only library known to have both a wine cellar and a cell block in its basement.)

The tunnel existed as it had been at the time of the theatre’s demolition until the early 1980s when the city determined that it should be filled in as a safety measure.  Alderman Lee Gisi and his council colleague Marion Sherman witnessed this measure, the final act in the story of the Empress Theatre.

I mentioned that Ken is knowledgeable about local photographs.  The picture he supplied to illustrate this column shows the theatre, but it also shows 1st Avenue West looking south.  If you follow the photo up the hill, you can see the James McKay house (which when I attended collegiate was the Doug Olver house), as well as the turrets on top of Prince Albert Collegiate Institute.