Vol. 3 No. 2 (Fall 1982)

SASKATCHEWAN'S LAST OPERA HOUSE: HANLEY 1912-1982

Patrick B. O'Neill

The town of Hanley, 20 miles south of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, recently demolished the Hanley Opera House, a theatre and office complex opened in 1915. The theatre hosted professional and amateur companies during its first decade, but thereafter served primarily as a community centre.

La ville Hanley, 20 miles au sud de Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a récemment démoli le 'Hanley Opera House,' un assemblage de théâtre et de bureau ouvert en 1915. Pendant sa décennie debutante le théâtre fus hôte aux compagnies professionelles et amateurs, mais ensuite on l'a employé comme foyer socio-éducatif.

When you read this note, the Hanley Opera House, Hanley, Saskatchewan, will be demolished, her once elegant façade crumbled to lonely dust. But this relict from an earlier time was not always alone. On 26 August 1915, Saskatchewan's Inspector of Theatres and Halls, a Mr Ormand, wrote to J.A. Calder, Minister of Railways, to complain of his workload:


 
As you are aware there are, in round numbers, seventy five incorporated villages in this province; and there is at least on an average one public hall to each town and village, besides those in the seven cities.1


Nearly four hundred licensed theatres and halls in Saskatchewan in 1915, and now the Hanley Opera House, the last of her kind between Winnipeg and Edmonton, has joined the others as a footnote in history.

Scarcely a town or settlement in Western Canada failed to erect a hall for amusement soon after its founding. More often than not, the name Opera House graced this structure whatever its nature. Walter McRaye, who toured with Pauline Johnson throughout Canada, observed:


 
it was a weird array of so called 'opera houses' that we were called to appear in during those early years in the west. Anything from a saloon pool-room to a grain elevator or dining room, anything in fact that would hold a crowd would do for the good natured people who often drove forty or fifty miles to hear us, and seemed to enjoy our efforts to entertain them.2


Each of these Opera Houses was the centre of the social and cultural life of its town, and the home for all forms of entertainment. With a low stage, flat floor, and removable scenery, the Opera House was designed to be all things on all occasions. It was a theatre, a picture show, a ballroom, a lecture hall, a concert auditorium, the chambers of the town council, the site of political rallies, the polling station on election days, and the centre for the 24th of May Celebrations. As these prairie towns grew in wealth and stature, the town fathers would frequently replace the first places of entertainment with magnificent town halls which included a multi-purpose entertainment centre still known as the Opera House. Beginning in the 1850s, this movement reached its zenith in the 1870s and 1880s in the United States.3 With the release of the survey for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway which suggested Hanley as the junction for the Regina-Prince Albert line, Hanley grew at a phenomenal rate during the years prior to World War I. A brochure prepared by the Hanley Board of Trade, The Spirit of Hope in the Land of Promise, reflects the optimism of the region in its invitation to settlers and businessmen:


 
the independence and prosperity which you longed for, fought and struggled for, whatever you have foregathered, all wait you here; here around Hanley where wheat is King, where land is cheap and abundant, where the climate favors the farmers, and where poverty is unknown.4


Spurred onwards by their own optimism, by good crops, and by the proposed northern terminal for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the Town Council of Hanley, led by their Mayor, Dr Brass, proposed the construction of a town centre which would include an Opera House. The Hanley Opera House was one of the last-built examples of that western theatrical tradition.

The building was constructed by Thompson and Crockart 5 of Saskatoon, James Crockart the architect of the project, and R.M. Thompson the consulting engineer in charge of actual construction. The cost of construction included $3200 for the purchase of land from the Dominion Bank at the corner of First and Lincoln Streets. The Opera House would front on First Street, and the Town Office portion of the building on Lincoln Street. The Rural Municipality of Rosedale agreed to fund $11,090.51 and the Town of Hanley $10,626. In By-Law No. 57, the Town of Hanley authorized the borrowing of $10,000 for its share on 15 March 1912.6 The combination of theatre and office space was not peculiar to the West. Writing on theatrical architecture in The Brickbuilder, Clarence H. Blackall noted in 1907 that


 
it is very rare to find a theatre which is a building by itself. It is usually an annex of an office building or a hotel, or is tucked behind commercial structures so that the load which the theatre must carry in order to earn interest on its cost is helped out by stores and offices.7


Thus would it be with Hanley Opera House as we see from this report of its opening in the Hanley Herald of 1 October 1914:


 

Thursday was moving in day - still several good offices to let.

After an apparent long delay owing to a noncompleted state of building, the new hall yesterday received its first occupant when R.N.W.M.P. Chalk took up his abode in the building. The Mason's lodge has also become a tenant of the municipal building by a lease of a large room on the north side of the building upstairs - a magnificent room for the purpose. The third occupant will be Sidney C. Bowen-Smith, Clerk of the town and secretary treasurer of Rosedale Municipality. His office will, of course, be on the ground floor. The fire hall equipment may shortly be moved to its new quarters also. The two leases so far will net the municipalities $35 monthly, or $420 per year made up as follows: Masons $25; Constable Chalk $10.

There are still three excellent stores on the ground floor ready for occupants. The site is splendid and the comfort of a warm building during the next cold six months should be no little inducement for new tenants for these stores or offices. There are rooms especially planned for a dentist's office on the 2nd floor. There is also another room in the building that might be used for various purposes - would make a capital telephone exchange.8


The theatre itself consisted of an auditorium measuring 55'7" long and 32'4" wide. The stage was 22'4" wide and 14'0" deep with dressing rooms in the wings. The proscenium arch measured 6'3" at stage left and right rising to a height of 8'0" at centre stage.9 The audience sat on kitchen chairs (about 200) supplied locally by T.O. Hambre and Sons.10 When not in use these chairs were stored beneath the stage and in the dressing rooms.

Although built late in the tradition of Opera Houses, the Hanley Opera House did not have electricity until the summer of 1924.11 At its inception, the theatre's stage was illuminated by kerosene lamps. The stage employed roll drops for scenery, but lacked a front curtain until 1915. After the appearance of the Players Company on 16 February 1915, the town and municipal councils authorized the construction of a stage curtain prepared locally by Edgar Engle.12 The tradition of painted flats and drops had been replaced by this time in Western Canada by Diamond Dye scenery.13 This system, invented by Jesse Cox in Estherville, Iowa a decade earlier, consisted of dye applied to cloth with soft bristle brushes. Because the dye became part of the scenic fabric, no paint flaked or cracked when drops were folded and packed in trunks. The lightweight backdrops and wing legs could be tied quickly to battens, which one man could hoist easily without complicated counter pulleys. Diamond Dye scenery enabled touring companies on the Prairies in the early twentieth century to travel with considerably less baggage than their counterparts a generation earlier.

For his exterior design, Crockart turned away from the Gothic style of Toronto's City Hall, new in 1899, and the Renaissance style of that city's new Royal Alexandra Theatre, and chose instead a restrained neoclassical vocabulary of pilasters and pediment in two storeys which permitted him to incorporate expanses of plate glass between the pilasters on the ground level. Crockart's design suited its locale. The clean sparse uprights and horizontals of his design for the Hanley Opera House were at home on a prairie landscape where the flat line of the horizon was the only natural feature. The red brick façade has weathered time well and the galvanized iron volute brackets and entablatures withstood the natural sand blasting a prairie dust storm can provide. The successfulness of the design and façade could not, however, offset the inadequacies of the Hanley Opera House's foundation. Rather than sand or gravel, large stones had been used in the concrete mixture with which the foundation walls and piers had been poured. This method was standard in Saskatchewan buildings of the time. The Hanley Opera House was doomed to an early demise before it had risen from the prairie surface. When the cement leeched away from its foundation walls, the building settled unevenly and dangerously as the years rolled by. The tragedy of its demolition was not an uncaring public, but the fatal flaw in its own make-up.

Doomed by its internal weakness, the Hanley Opera House was beset by external factors as well. It would never house many touring professional shows. Although touring repertory companies had been active during the decade prior to the First World War, they never regained their momentum after the war. Moreover, the dramatic-end tent, 14 which could be set up on any open space and thereby eliminate theatre rental fees, increased in popularity after 1905. Theatre trade papers reported the damage suit by Knabershue against the Baker-Lockwood Tent Company regarding the invention of the dramatic-end tent in that year. The court decision declared Knabershue's 1905 patent invalid because tents without a centre pole had been used before that year, and that companies were free to construct dramatic-end tents without payment of licensing fees. In that year, too, the use of a tent for a dramatic performance received continent-wide publicity with Sarah Bernhardt's triumphant North American tour in a tent acquired for her by the Shubert brothers. After the war, many Toby and Tom15 shows toured Saskatchewan by truck and with tents. With stage theatre in tents during the summer months, and silent movies in theatre buildings, Opera Houses in America and Canada entered a period of terminal decline. The Chautauqua movement which aspired to bring culture to the rural masses joined the repertory companies in the move from theatres to tents. Although the Chautauqua appeared in the Hanley Opera House on 23, 24, and 25 October 1917, 16it located itself in a tent when Richard Davis, Magician, the Imperial Symphonic Orchestra, the Westminster Bell Ringers and the play Turn to the Right came to town between 3 and 9 July 1923. 17

Among the few professional theatre companies that would play the Hanley Opera House were the Oliver Eckardt Players, 18 the Juvenile Bostonians under the direction of Bert Lang,19 the United Producing Company's production of Within the Law,20 James Gray Usher in The White Feather, 21 the Fox-Wilson Fun Company,22 and the legendary Harry Lauder. Frequently the touring companies were of such shoddy quality that they themselves contributed to the further decline of the opera houses they visited. The Military Maids on 'their first Saskatchewan tour, after a conquest of the provinces to the West' 23 appeared at the Hanley Opera House on 28 January 1916, but George Collingwood, editor of the Hanley Herald, wished they had not:


 
We apologize to our reader for recommending in any way 'The Military Maids.' Had we known what a wretched performance was to have been given we would not have sold the company advertising space. The show recalled the worst days of country barn-storming. Fortunately but few people were taken in by the show.24


An announced booking of the Musical Mystics three weeks earlier on 4 January, had not materialized and, Collingwood tells us, this had 'failed to thrill an expectant multitude at the Opera House.' 25 A legend associated with the Hanley Opera House claims an appearance at the theatre by Mary Pickford. In fact, her movie, Through the Back Door, was presented on Market Day, 27 June 1922, with free tickets presented by merchants to their customers to promote local sales.26

If the professional theatre troupes did not employ the facilities, local talent certainly did. A month after the opening of the building, the Hanley Amateur Dramatic Club was organized with a membership of thirty: Honorary President, Mr C.H. McIntosh; President, Dr Finnerty; Secretary Treasurer, Mr A.C. Gibson; Stage Manager, Mr George Collingwood. All surplus profits from the group would be donated to the patriotic fund.27 The honour of the first amateur production in the theatre did not go to the Hanley Amateur Dramatic Club, however, but rather to the Amateur Dramatic Club of Gilead who brought their production of Red Acre Farm, a melodrama in three acts, on Friday, 15 January 1915. The production had previously been presented at the Gilead school house.28 After the show, the Black Strap Orchestra, a group of four musicians from Hanley, provided music for an old-fashioned dance. The performance netted about $70 which, the Hanley Herald reports, was distributed among the cast. The Hanley Amateurs made their debut the next week with My Friend from India by H.A. DeSouchet. The audience was augmented by the members of the Gilead A.D.C. The play was a local success:


 
Suffice to say, that if the large and enthusiastic audience that witnessed the performance is any indication of the popularity of home talent plays, the director and stage manager, Mr. George Collingwood, is certainly to be congratulated on the results of his efforts.29


But success exerts a heavy price and at the next meeting of the Hanley A.D.C., Mr Collingwood 'presented his resignation, stating that he cannot find time to give to play direction further.' This forced the amateurs to decide 'not to go ahead with preparations for a second production, in view of the difficulty in securing a stage manager.' 30

Contrary to the dreams of Dr Brass and his councillors, Hanley had not become the rail terminus and Saskatoon had not remained a sleepy college town. With its greater size, Saskatoon already attracted the big professional touring companies. The local paper began to include notices of trips to Saskatoon by Hanley residents to see the performers who would not stop at Hanley: 'Mr and Mrs R.A. Hutchon were Saskatoon visitors Tuesday to see Forbes Robertson.'31 Saskatoon was a source of more experienced native talent as well. To insure a good house, Miss Myrtle Dauncey arranged to augment her pupils' recital in the Hanley Opera House on 5 March 1915 with 'two accomplished entertainers from Saskatoon.' The concert consisted of a piano-forte recital, 'believed to be the first piano-forte recital to be held in Hanley', by the sixteen pupils of Miss Dauncey aided by 'Miss Margaret A. Kinsman of Saskatoon, a lyric soprano of more than ordinary ability, and Miss Edith Spears, an elocutionist who has charmed Saskatoon audiences.' 32

The war years saw a string of concerts, dances and amateur theatricals for patriotic purposes. It witnessed a dance with music supplied by the 65th Battalion Orchestra on 11 February 1916 33 and the Farewell Dance to Hanley's own (Platoon) on 12 May 1916. 34 The tradition of dances continued throughout the 1920s; Hard Time dances followed in the 1930s; Saturday Night Dances throughout the Second World War were attended by large numbers of soldiers from the Dundurn Army Camp. The Hanley Opera House continued to house dances until the 1960s when the building was condemned. Silent movies were shown in the Opera House during the First World War and continued to appear throughout the 1920s. With the depression, the Opera House truly became the focus for the community. Whether housing the Poultry Show in 1931, the Swine Club35 or the amateur actors,36 the Opera House became the centre of the community throughout the depression.

The Hanley Opera House existed in the wrong time and the wrong place. Most 1911 dreams crumbled to dust during the depression of 1913 or during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Hanley Opera House just stood longer, defiant in the face of change until subdued by time itself. The rail junction which would turn Hanley into a Canadian Chicago never materialized, and the era of one-nighter repertory companies playing the small towns had almost passed into history when the Hanley Opera House first opened its doors.

A vital theatre welds a community together, broadens its vision, and bolsters its defences when times are bad. Even if no great drama appeared on its stage, the Hanley Opera House performed this broad general function of a theatre. For fifty years it was the community meeting place and the forum for community ideas and events. Without the physical focus of the Opera House, the town of Hanley itself might have become a depression ghost town. Today the new Centennial Centre serves this function and the residents of Hanley do not mourn the demolition of the old Opera House.37

Notes

SASKATCHEWAN'S LAST OPERA HOUSE: HANLEY 1912-1982

Patrick B. O'Neill

1 The original letter is in the Saskatchewan Archives, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; some of these 'licensed theatres' may have been large rooms.
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2 WALTER McRAYE, Town Hall Tonight Toronto, 1929, p 37
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3 For a discussion of America's Opera Houses see HARLOWE R. HOYT, Town Hall Tonight Englewood Cliffs, NJ., 1955; ERNEST ELMO CALKINS, They Broke the Prairie New York, 1937; JOSEPH S. SCHICK, The Early Theatre in Eastern Iowa Chicago, 1951; LUKE COSGROVE, Theatre Tonight Hollywood, 1952; and M.F. KETCHUM, Born To Be An Actor Newton, Iowa, n.d.
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4 HANLEY BOARD OF TRADE, The Spirit of Hope in the Land of Promise Hanley, 1911, p 47
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5 The original blueprints of the building are filed in the Hanley Town Office.
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6 'Hanley By-Laws,' unpublished
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7 CLARENCE H. BLACKALL, 'The American Theatre. - I' in The Brickbuilder, XVI (December 1907), p 217
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8 Hanley Herald 1 October 1914
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9 See original blueprints.
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10 Herald 19 November 1914
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11 Herald 14 August 1924
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12 Herald 18 February 1915
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13 For a discussion of Diamond Dye scenery see JERE C. MICKEL, Footlights on the Prairie St Cloud, Minnesota, 1974, pp 45-47.
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14 Mickel, p 55. A dramatic-end tent eliminated the centre pole, and allowed for clearer sight lines.
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15 The Toby character was a tradition on the American rural stage in the Yankee tradition. Toby was a red-headed, freckled youngster, who was smarter than he looked. The character probably began with Sample Switchell in the William Pratt version of Ten Nights in a Barroom, first performed in Boston in 1847. A Tom Show was a company that played only Uncle Tom's Cabin.
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16 Herald 13 September 1917
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17 Herald 7 June 1923
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18 The Musical Eckardts was one of the most successful companies performing in Saskatchewan prior to World War I. They had appeared in Hanley at least seven times prior to the opening of the Hanley Opera House. Their performance on 25 January 1915 marked the first professional performance on the Opera House stage. See Herald 14 January 1915.
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19 Another Saskatchewan favourite of the First World War, the Bostonians appeared in their musical comedy, Tipperary Mary, with '16 Charming Colleens', on 18 January 1916. See Herald 13 January 1916.
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20 Herald 6 January 1916
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21 Herald 25 May 1916
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22 Herald 5 October 1916. This company had appeared earlier in Hanley prior to the opening of the Opera House.
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23 Herald 27 January 1916
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24 Herald 3 February 1916
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25 Herald 6 January 1916
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26 Herald 21 June 1922
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27 Herald 12 November 1914
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28 Herald 7 January 1915
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29 Herald 28 January 1915
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30 Herald 4 February 1915
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31 Herald 18 February 1915
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32 Herald 25 February 1915
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33 Herald 3 February 1916
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34 Herald 18 May 1916
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35 Herald 26 March 1931
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36 The Hanley Dramatic Society, organized in 1936, brought The First Dress Suit to the Saskatchewan Drama Festival (Radville) in 1939 and brought The Dear Departed to the SDF (Wadena) in 1940. Mrs R.A. Moore's personal account of these festival entries are recorded in Hanley: The Story of the Town and the District Saskatchewan, 1955, pp 126-28.
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37 'The townspeople are not unhappy about its demolition. The building was unsafe and beyond repair. It had to come down.' - Wilf Resch, Hanley Town Clerk, in a telephone interview, 10 May 1982.
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