McPherson Theatre survived a long line of owners

We call it the McPherson Playhouse today, and it is a symbol of stability on Centennial Square. But oh, what a difficult past that building has had.

In its first century it had seven names and two dozen managers. It also sat unused for at least 15 years. Really, it should have been torn down years ago.

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The fact that it still stands is a testament to the stubbornness of Thomas Shanks McPherson, who built the theatre with partners R.T. Elliott and Herbert Fullerton and was its sole owner for many years.

The original plan had been to erect an office building, but McPherson, Fullerton and Elliott changed course when impresario Alexander Pantages asked them to create a new location for his Victoria Theatre.

Pantages, who had worked as a cook in the old Maryland Restaurant on Government Street, was renting a small space at 566 Johnson St. as part of his vaudeville circuit.

Vaudeville featured a wide variety of entertainers, including monologuists, tap dancers, gymnasts, jugglers, trick bicyclists, trampoline performers, cellists, musical saws, singers and hypnotists, as well as seals and, at least once on the Victoria stage, an elephant.

Pantages wanted a location more in keeping with the high-quality vaudeville shows he was bringing to Victoria, and he thought the new building might fit the bill. So he signed a lease, and the building was given his name.

The theatre was designed by Jesse Milton Warren, who was born in San Francisco and trained in New York. In 1911, at the age of 22, he moved to Victoria, and stayed here for five years before moving on to Seattle. His first major building here was the Central Building, the first building to go up after View Street was extended west as a result of a fire that destroyed the Spencer building.

The Pantages theatre opened on May 18, 1914, with premier Richard McBride officiating.

That was, for many years, the highlight of the building’s history. The theatre was in Chinatown, far from the downtown core, so it was difficult to draw crowds.

Making matters worse, the outbreak of the First World War took away some of the potential patrons. The war was followed by the Spanish flu epidemic, which closed public gatherings of any sort.

Still, Pantages tried, offering motion pictures and vaudeville acts for a decade under managers James H. Rice, Frank Steinfeld and Robert Jamieson. In 1920, amateur groups rented the theatre to present their own shows.

In 1925, several players from the Playhouse — which was being converted to a movie theatre — formed the Victoria Dramatic and Operatic Company and signed a deal for the Pantages.

Under manager Frank Allwood, who was also a performer, the Pantages became the Coliseum. It offered live theatre as well as silent films until it went under in early 1927.

The next operator was William P. Nichols, who also ran theatres in Vancouver. He had at least three managers over the next few years, but the theatre was closed more often than it was open. In the Depression, people didn’t have money to spend in theatres.

By 1932 the Coliseum had been renamed the Empire, but the new name did nothing to help the theatre’s location. It was closed for most of the latter half of the 1930s.

 

On Nov. 29, 1940, the theatre opened with another new name: The York, featuring Charlie Chaplin’s new movie The Great Dictator. The York remained open through much of the Second World War, under manager Arthur C.V. Molesworth. By 1949, however, it was closed again.

Then, in the early 1950s, Rev. Reginald Carbol came to the rescue, opening the building again for his Calvary Revival Way. That didn’t last, and neither did Carbol’s career in the ministry. He died in 1976 from injuries suffered in an accident in the transport truck he was driving.

In the summer of 1952, the building was leased for live theatre, using the name York Theatre Company. Its first show was Curtain Up, which began its run on Oct. 16, 1952. Premier W.A.C. Bennett and his wife May attended, along with a large group of leading citizens.

The following May, the theatre ran into trouble with police when it staged the play Tobacco Road. City police and Mayor Claude Harrison objected to the profanities being uttered by actor Bruno Gerussi. Gerussi compromised by saying “By gad and b’Judas” and “an old slut” in the place of more provocative terms.

The theatre must have known that the show would cause problems. The morality squad in Vancouver had stopped its run there, and the book Tobacco Road had been banned in both Vancouver and Victoria.

In the summer of 1953, the Totem group from Vancouver, owned by Thor Arngrim and Stuart Baker, leased the theatre and started renovations to ensure that live theatre remained. The theatre was given the Totem name, and became home to a group of players from Vancouver.

The first show, Gigi, opened on Aug. 14, 1953.

It was a bold gamble. It meant that Victoria was home to the nation’s only year-round professional theatre.

The two owners cut costs to the bone. Many of the performers stayed in auto courts along the Gorge, and were given their rent free. But the Totem ran into financial trouble within a few months, and closed for good on May 22, 1954.

Arngrim and Baker moved the players back to Vancouver and went broke again by August.

With the closure of the Totem, the theatre was empty — and it stayed that way for a decade.

By 1960, there was serious talk about demolishing the theatre, but Thomas Shanks McPherson, who lived in a tiny room at the Union Club, was not about to let that happen. He had been the sole owner of the building for decades, and apparently hoped its value would rebound.

His theatre was still closed, though, when he died in December 1962. With no close family, he made the entire community his beneficiary.

The University of Victoria received enough money to start the McPherson Library. The City of Victoria was given the theatre he had built almost a half-century earlier.

The city decided to make the theatre a key part of the Centennial Square redevelopment, and it became the McPherson Playhouse.

The theatre was opened on Feb. 26, 1965, with George Pearkes, a longtime theatre supporter, officiating in his role as B.C.’s lieutenant-governor.

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