The Burt from the Walker to True North

Burton Cummings Theatre continues to persevere

By Derek Gagnon

The Burton Cummings Theatre is a 110-year-old, 1,604-seat, former vaudeville theatre. It is not only an iconic historic site but a bustling theatre that remains at the heart of Winnipeg’s entertainment scene today. “The Burt,” as it is affectionately referred to, has a history that stretches back more than a century, back to when it was called the Walker Theatre.

In spite of its turbulent history, what is now called The Burt still rocks on.

The birth of the Walker

The Walker Theatre was named for and funded by an American named Corliss Powers Walker who had slowly developed a chain of theatres in the United States, and eventually in Canada. His first foray into Canadian theatre came in Winnipeg, when he leased the Bijou Theatre in 1897, after being convinced to move here by the head of the Northern Pacific Railway.

Walker renamed the Bijou to the Winnipeg Theatre, and was operating it in 1903, when the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago killed more than 600 people. Concern was expressed over the safety of the Winnipeg Theatre, as it was not fire-proof either, and in 1905, Walker visited other cities for inspiration for a new theatre. He acquired the land for the site of what would become the Walker Theatre, consulted with architect Howard C. Stone and had construction commence in March of 1906. The first performances in the Walker started in late 1906, despite the fact that the theatre was not quite finished when these shows occurred. The Walker officially opened February 18, 1907.

The exterior of the building features tall, plain brick walls because the original idea was that the Walker would be a part of a larger complex, including a hotel, and retail space. This plan never came to fruition, and the exterior of the Burton Cummings Theatre still features those tall brick walls.

The interior features an ornate, column-free, vaulted ceiling that contributes to the building’s terrific acoustics. It is also as fireproof as a theatre can be, and the 1,798 seat auditorium was one of the most luxurious amphitheatres in North America.

The Walker Theatre enjoyed a quarter-century of success hosting ballets, opera, and Broadway-style shows. But hard times were coming.

Talkies doom the Walker

Despite initial success and high-quality performances from high profile performers, the advent of film cinema meant that more and more people were going to see these talking movies, or talkies as they were known, and fewer people were going to see live theatre. The American theatre industry all but collapsed in the 1920s. Walker compensated by bringing in more British entertainment, but the stock market crash of 1929 signalled a death knell for the Walker, which closed in 1933 and it was acquired by the City of Winnipeg in 1936 due to unpaid taxes.

The Odeon cinemas era

From 1936 to 1944 the Walker sat empty, until Henry Morton purchased it. After a false-roof was installed to cover the top balconies, the newly-named Odeon Theatre played movies for decades until it too closed its doors. The Odeon Theatre logos are still visible on the exterior of the building.

The Walker reborn

A not-for-profit group called the Walker Theatre Group for the Performing Arts Inc. purchased the building in 1990. Out went the false roof and in went the original Walker Theatre name, and the venue began seeing live entertainment again in 1991. That year, the Walker Theatre became a National Historic Site of Canada, and was also named a Grade One Heritage Building by the Province of Manitoba.

The Walker becomes “The Burt”

The Burton Cummings Theatre for Performing Arts was named after Burton Cummings in August 2002, a Winnipeg-born performer, and former lead singer of the Guess Who.

The entrance of True North

True North Sports and Entertainment was approached a few times over the past decade to look after the management of The Burt by the not-for-profit that owned the Burton Cummings Theatre as well as by the City of Winnipeg. For a number of reasons, TNSE declined. The first time was because they were new to the entertainment venue business, and had just opened the MTS Centre. The second time in 2010 was related to the opening of the MTS Iceplex, and a year later, the third time they were asked, well they had just acquired the Winnipeg Jets. With all that activity going on, there was no time to devote to The Burt.

In 2014, the timing was finally right and TNSE assumed management of the venue through a lease agreement.

Kevin Donnelly is Senior Vice President, Venues and Entertainment with TNSE, and explained what it was like to take over the century-old theatre’s management.

“We, TNSE, finally felt grounded in our ability to look after this venue, in addition to the venues we already owned,” said Kevin. “There was a seemingly endless list of major and minor immediate repairs that were needed, and we were able to make reasonable improvements as a tenant.”

One of the first things to see improvement was the general cleanliness of the building, including bringing the washrooms and concessions to higher standards as well as disposing of old flammable materials in storage.

“We imposed a set of priorities in regards to cleaning,” said Kevin. “The words ‘out of order’ were not acceptable. If things needed fixing, including plumbing and electrical, we fixed them.”

Some of the repairs needed were going to require a large investment, which didn’t really make sense from a business standpoint if TNSE was only going to be leasing the property. However, TNSE had the option at the end of their initial two-year lease to purchase The Burt outright, and they exercised that option in the spring of 2016.

“We were confident, and remain so, that we could sustain and grow the business, while increasing traffic and gaining confidence in our business model,” said Kevin.

Kevin says TNSE is still on a mission to repair and upgrade every seat in the building, including the pews in the second balcony, with the goal of making people comfortable.

“We’d like to add an elevator and a new marquee at some point in the future, but it won’t happen overnight,” said Kevin.

Early returns

Kevin says that there has been a gratifying response from people going to the Burton Cummings Theatre since TNSE took over, and it is everything that TNSE could hope for.

“The industry has taken our lead in being confident in the space. Because we are confident, they are confident, too, which allows us to book the acts we do,” said Kevin. “It’s interesting to see what we can do with our previous relationships and with our ability to accept risk in helping put Winnipeg forward in the entertainment scene.”

Kevin says that Winnipeg can still be a tough sell. The geographical location and exchange rate on the dollar can work against booking, but TNSE is committed to bringing new life to an old space.

“We can’t change the fact that it’s an old theatre and it always will be, but we want to have vibrant, functioning, animated world class facilities.”