Burton Cummings Theatre
364 Smith St, Winnipeg, MB
An historic Canadian venue. Like Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre or Toronto’s Massey Hall, the Burton Cummings Theatre has, for over a century, passed through various owners, been used for several purposes, and undergone its fair share of deterioration and restoration.
The theatre was the brainchild of impresario Corliss Powers Walker, a Vermont native who moved to Winnipeg in 1897. Walker, who owned several theatres along the Northern Pacific Railway route - which ended at Winnipeg - wanted to bring to the city “a new style of professional-level entertainment,” which would bring “ballets, operas, and Broadway-style shows to Winnipeg” (burtoncummingstheatre.ca). He hired Montreal architect Howard C. Stone to design a fireproof theatre, a decision that was made in light of the Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903. Although there were plans to build an entire hotel/office/retail complex, only the theatre was completed. Thus, the exterior walls are to this day quite plain - for other buildings were meant to be attached, but this never came about.
On February 18th, 1907, Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly was performed at the newly opened concert hall - then known as the Walker Theatre - to celebrate its grand opening. During the suffragette movement, the venue was used for mock parliaments (in which famed first-wave feminist Nellie Mclung took part), and throughout the 1920’s, it hosted political rallies and debates, live theatre, and symphony orchestras. However, during the Great Depression it was closed, and was subsequently seized by the city of Winnipeg due to unpaid taxes. The theatre was eventually converted into the Odeon Cinema in 1945, and served as the city’s most popular single-screen movie theatre for almost 50 years. However, during its conversion to a cinema, many of the building’s original surfaces were covered up - a false ceiling, for example, was installed to close off the upper balcony. In 1990, the theatre was purchased by the not-for-profit Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group (WTPAG) and designated a National Historic Site of Canada, as well as a Provincial Heritage Site. The building’s original architectural features - such as the Italian marble surfaces, ornate plaster work, (many of which bear relief sculptures, friezes, and other such ornamentation), gilt trim surfaces, velvet carpets, silk tapestries, murals, crystal chandeliers, grandiose loges, and 70’ vaulted ceiling - were restored and it reopened as a venue for live performance in 1991. In 2002, it was renamed after Winnipeg-born musician Burton Cummings, former lead singer of The Guess Who.
In 2014, under a lease arrangement from the WPTAG, the Winnipeg-based company True North Sports + Entertainment assumed management of the Burton Cummings Theatre (by now known as “The Burt”), and now provide “programming services and entertainment expertise” to the 1,579-person capacity concert hall (burtoncummingstheatre.ca). The venue’s webpage goes on to say that, after acquiring full ownership of the building from the WPTAG in 2016, the True North company “invest[ed] significant time and resources, [and] set forth on a long-term project to refurbish and rejuvenate the theatre.”
The venue’s current setup consists of the main floor, two loges, and two balconies. There’s an impressive array of flown, curvilinear loudspeakers that are suspended on either side of the stage. As a tribute to its long standing success as a cinema though, many of the original, 1940’s era Odeon logos are still visible on the outside of the building. However, by way of updating the interior, The True North company has replaced many of the theatre’s seats, and reupholstered many more. In addition, they have introduced a new feature, the “Burt Backyard”: named after Burton Cummings’s 1976 song “Your Backyard,” this space is located across the street from the theatre in the Odeon Park, and offers a “casual neighbourhood space where you can gather with friends, ticket-holding or not, for food, beverages and entertainment. This licensed area will feature bar service, food offerings and live music on an outdoor stage” (burtoncummingstheatre.ca) The idea of the Burt Backyard, according to the venue’s webpage, is to allow concert “to flow between the theatre and The Burt Backyard throughout the evening.”
Past acts to have taken place at the Burt include Bad Religion, Big Wreck, Rufus Wainwright, Pixies, The Paper Kites, Alice in Chains, City & Colour, Neil Young, The Beaches, Coheed and Cambria, Cheap Trick, Alice Cooper, Weird Al, Lights, Our Lady Peace, Deftones, and The Weakerthans.