Victoria Theatres and the “Flu Ban” – Theatres go dark

On Sunday October 6 1918, The Daily Colonist predicted that “Mr. and Mrs. Theatregoer would have no difficulty deciding how to spend an afternoon or evening off in the coming week.” (Ironically, they were right, in a way they didn’t expect!)

The Daily Colonist October 6 1918

On the stage of the Royal Victoria Theatre was the modern morality play, “The Unmarried Mother” which dealt with “one of the important questions of the day – what is to become of the war babies and unmarried mothers that are left behind? The author Florence Edna May maintains and shows that the legal stigma of disgrace should be lifted from the innocent children born out of wedlock. No one under sixteen years of age will be admitted” (Victoria Daily Times October 7 1918). As my great-grandma Ethel Gilman was about to turn seventeen, she may have been allowed to usher, but her younger sister Edith would certainly not have been allowed! The play was the second of a series of splendid road show attractions that Royal Victoria Theatre manager Cliff Denham had booked for the current season. 

On the silver screen there was less weighty but equally dramatic fare. At the Columbia Theatre, Manager Eugene Clarke showing Mildred Manning and Wallace MacDonald in “The Marriage Speculation” and the second episode of the Greater Vitagraph serial “Vengeance and the Woman”, while on the Romano Screen, he was showing Baby Marie Osborne in “The Voice of Destiny”.

Up at the Dominion Theatre was the Paramount picture “The Danger Mark” featuring beautiful Elsie Ferguson in the leading role of a wealthy young society women who overcomes by supreme willpower the desire for intoxicants. “Woven throughout the theme is a delightful love story, the development of which is replete with numerous thrills.” 

For something a little less thrilling, the Pantages was presenting Viola Dana in “Breakers Ahead”, a charming story of the sea and seafaring people. “This picture will have a strong appeal to persons familiar with sea life, who will be greatly pleased with the picturesque scenes.”

At the Variety Theatre was the big Jewel production de luxe “For Husbands Only”. “Contrary to its title it is not a sex play nor one restricted to men only, but is one for the whole family, young and old, all of whom will be delighted by its fascinating and tantalizing story” (The story — Mildred Harris played the role of Toni Wylde, a convent-bred girl, who has been taking revenge upon Rolin Van Darcy for making a wreck of her heart) (Victoria Daily Times October 7 1918)

Victoria Daily Times October 7 1918

The “Flu Ban”

An attractive programme at local theatres had been planned, but on the morning of Tuesday October 8 1918, readers of The Daily Colonist learned that “As a precautionary measure against the spread of Spanish influenza which has swept through Canada and the United States during the past month, Victoria will take action today to close its schools, churches, theatres, pool-rooms, dance halls and public meeting places until such time as danger is considered past…It is practically certain that the closing order will take effect today in time to stop the opening of moving picture shows.” (City Will Act to Check Epidemic, The Daily Colonist October 8 1918)

At 10 o’clock that morning the Provincial Board of Health made a formal recommendation to the Government Executive that all communities in British Columbia be given the power to order the closing of theatres, churches and other similar places without definitely tracing contagion to the buildings in question. At noon a special meeting of the Provincial Cabinet was called “to consider the draft of regulations submitted by the Attorney-General, made necessary in view of the absence of requisite by-laws empowering the City Council to take this procedure.” (Victoria Daily Times October 8 1918)

The newspapers outlined the meaning of places of assembly and especially provided the lengthy “legalese” of the word “theatre”. The Victoria Daily Times October 8 1918 wrote: “For the general information of the public it should be noted that the word “theatre”, mentioned as a “place of assembly” includes the building, rooms and places where any play, concert, opera, circus, trick or juggling show, gymnastic or other exhibition, masquerade, public dance, drill, lecture, address or other public gathering is or may be held, performed, or takes place, and the approaches thereto, and the appurtenances thereof.” The Daily Colonist listed the same things but also clarified that it included “any moving picture theatre.”

What was it like in Downtown Victoria on the evening of Tuesday October 8 1918? “The city’s streets were practically deserted during the evening hours, and the few people that populated them drifted about aimlessly and somewhat peevishly. It was a case of “all dressed up and no place to go.” All was dark at theatre entrances, signs being posted conspicuously to the effect they were closed by order-in-council until further instructions.” (The Daily Colonist, October 9 1918)

On Wednesday, October 9 1918, an advertisement appeared in the paper: “Persons who have bought tickets for “The Unmarried Mother” will be returned their money if they apply at the box office of the Royal Victoria today between 10 and 6 o’clock.”

With the stage dark, the live theatre performers were left idle. The Daily Colonist, October 10 1918 commented: “Probably the most lonesome among the people who wandered aimlessly about the streets yesterday [October 9] were the theatrical folk. To them it was a realization of that stirring drama “Stranded”. Jack Claire and Victor Kahn had to be content with an admiring audience of hotel lobbyists. The Hills and the Tivoli girls, however, were entirely out of their element. There was no room for dancing, the streets were too slippery for trick cycling, and they were not in the mood for singing. Other members of the Pantages flock felt equally useless.”

How the epidemic affected the theatres

“Undoubtedly the outbreak will cause a very large economic loss and a regrettable mortality, but the medical experts state that if the people will take due precautions when they feel themselves affected, they can do much of minimizing the danger of the disease.”

The Daily Colonist October 5 1918

The Victoria Daily Times October 9 1918 observed, “That circumstance at present cannot be overcome, and the proprietor of the professional entertainment has necessarily to suffer together with the private citizen whose patronage he relies.” A few days later, the Victoria Daily Times reported: “To the average man in the street, who has been so fortunate as to escape the ravages of the epidemic, the term “Spanish grippe” has represented merely an unknown quantity responsible for curtailing much of his pleasures or at any rate such of his pleasure as lay in the direction of attendance at the picture theatre or the vaudeville show. To the management of these places of amusement, however, the epidemic synchronizes with a considerable loss of money, amounting to far more than is apparent to the casual observer. (How Epidemic has affected theatres, Victoria Daily Times, October 14 1918)

A week after the “Flu Ban”, the Victoria Daily Times spoke with Manager Cliff Denham of the Royal Victoria Theatre. “The mandate prohibiting the holding of public gatherings came into effect of the second day of the booking of “The Unmarried Mother”. After only one performance the theatre was closed under the edict.” Since opening nights are notoriously never full (the public waits to see the reviews before booking a ticket), Manager Denham had not even been able to realize a “full house”. “Despite the edict, however, the management has to accept full responsibility for the expenses of the company while in the city, under the terms of the contract by which the shows are booked.” The ban also had the effect of cancelling four of the road shows with which Mr. Denham had planned to entertain the people of Victoria in the near future (and he couldn’t re-book because they were already committed to other cities).

There was another key problem facing the managers of the “moving picture houses”. The Daily Colonist October 15 1918 explains: “Theatre managements here are losing thousands of dollars as result of the closing-down orders. The moving picture houses have to accept full responsibility for the situation in that they must pay exhibitors for the use of the films, and whether or not they have ‘full houses’ the price is the same. Although they have not had a chance to display the pictures since the ban was clamped down on theatres, they have had to pay.”

As for the staff of the Royal Theatre (like the ushers, my great-grandma and great-aunt Ethel and Edith Gilman), salaries had been paid up to the end of the week. (But Royal Theatre Manager Denham was out of pocket since he wasn’t getting any income from tickets to “The Unmarried Mother”) Denham told the Times he was also faced with the problem of losing his staff, who, in view of the uncertain length of the theatre closure were looking for other jobs.

Theatre closures also had a negative financial impact on the provincial coffers. The Daily Colonist November 19 1918 reported: “Estimates of the cost to the Province of fighting the Spanish influenza plague place the outlay in the neighbourhood of $50,000, if the loss of revenue occasioned by the closing of theatres and public gatherings from which a revenue is secured under the Amusement Tax Act be taken into consideration. Of course, through the increased demand for liquor the revenue from that source may be considered as a set-off against the expense incurred in supervising the Government’s Health work.”

Finally, there was a loss of patriotic funds from theatre performances. (In addition to the ubiquitous “tag days” held all over Victoria, musical and theatrical performances raised money for the Red Cross and Great War Veteran’s Association etc. One popular group in Victoria in the WWI years was Reginald Hincks’ Red Cross theatre company – an amateur dramatic group who did comedies and pantomimes (often written by Hincks). This note appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on November 19 1918: “Among the many ventures that are awaiting the advent of that somewhat elusive period – the lifting of the ban – one of the most popular entertainments will be that to be given at the Princess Theatre by the talented Red Cross Society.”

“Practically ready for presentation when the pall of Spanish “flu” cast its shadow over Victoria, the comedy “All-of-a-Sudden-Peggy” has in the interim gained a smoothness and finish which portends that the new play will eclipse all the previous successes that redound to the credit of this fine company.” So, it seems like the troupe was running rehearsals during the “ban” on public gatherings? This could have been considered O.K. because it was “Red Cross work.” (We’d call this “essential services” for the war effort.) “It had been decided that in view of the sending forward of Red Cross supplies being a matter of national urgency, the work at the various branches and workrooms should not be retarded or hindered in any way….” (Epidemic does not hinder Red Cross, Victoria Daily Times, October 9 1918)

Theatre renovation during the “flu vacation”

“Some of the theatre managers are taking advantage of the movie-less days to effect changes in the interior of their establishments.

The Daily Colonist, October 10 1918

There were, however, some positive aspects to the so called “Flu Vacation”. During the “slackening period of the Spanish Influenza,” the managers were definitely not slack. Cliff Denham of the Royal Victoria Theatre changed the location of the film operating room “which was removed from the balcony to the main floor, resulting in a great improvement in the projection, which is now in direct line instead of following a steep slant from its former position. A new curtain was installed and the auditorium was thoroughly vacuumed cleaned.”

The entire Columbia theatre was renovated. Earlier, just before the “flu ban” on October 6, Manager Clark had promised “…some changes will be made in the interior arrangements of the house to make for greater comfort to the audiences, conspicuous among which will be the installation of a more adequate ventilating system….” Also, a new floor was put in downstairs and in the balcony and comfortable boxes were installed. At the Variety Theatre, Manager Murdoch had been busy. The box office was moved to a central and more convenient position and the Cormorant Street entrance was closed and “closed and altered to include a large check room, where parcels, coats and umbrellas may be left by patrons, who will be free to enjoy the pictures in peace and comfort without the bother of looking after numerous belongings, a feature that will no doubt be greatly appreciated, especially during the wet weather season.” (Theatres Offer New Attractiveness, The Daily Colonist November 24 1918)

Next — The advent of that somewhat “elusive period”…

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