Victoria Theatres and the “Flu Ban” of 1918

Now showing, a four-reel melodrama of adversity against all odds…

Victoria B.C., Fall 1918, the fourth year of the Great War.

On the Western Front, Allied troops are fighting to the finish. On the Home Front, Victorians are going to the theatre. Far from the trenches, it’s a world of high-class vaudeville, stage plays and photo plays replete with numerous thrills.

Our heroes and heroines are exquisitely costumed trapeze artists, capricious and lovable tenement girls, Rocky Mountain cowboys and German spies. The exploits of the troops match those of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Baby Marie Osborne, whose adventures appear daily from 1 o’clock – 11 o’clock p.m. on Victoria screens.

A widowed mother, Mrs M, waiting for a son to return, escapes from daily chores to the moving picture shows. Two plucky young girls, Ethel and Edith, work as theatre ushers to help support the family while Dad is somewhere in France.

Suddenly, in the face of an epidemic of world-wide proportions, the theatres go dark. What will happen?

At the Playhouses – Meet the Victoria theatres

In Fall 1918, there were several theatres and “places of amusement” in downtown Victoria, a mix of cosy (small) early 1900s former vaudeville theatres and modern glamorous picture palaces. Almost all the theatres were showing the “movies”. Fire insurance plans surveyed in 1911, updated in 1913, show all the “moving picture houses” that were in Victoria in Fall 1918 (though some under different names). So this shows a well-established motion picture business in Victoria – had been popular with the public in the early 1910s.

Image from Henderson’s Greater Victoria 1918 Directory. (The New Empress is listed but was not in operation as a theatre in Fall 1918)

The Royal Victoria Theatre (still standing today as the Royal Theatre) was considered “the” theatre of the city. “The Royal Victoria is a theatre of which Victorians are justly proud. From an architectural viewpoint, its structural plan is splendid, while its artistic interior design and the harmonious furnishings are equal to those in any other city on the Coast. Its facilities for the proper presentation of legitimate dramatic offerings have won encomiums from distinguished actors and theatre folk who have appeared here.” (The Daily Colonist November 24 1918) The Royal Theatre had 1558 seats, a full orchestra pit and an ornate interior composed of marble, blue brocade wall panels and murals and frescoes (Read more about the interior on the Royal Theatre website)

A pretty nice place to work? In 1918, my great-grandma and her sister Ethel (17) and Edith (15) Gilman were ushers at the Royal Victoria Theatre. While the theatre had opened with “legitimate” drama, by 1918 it was showing movies.

Ethel Gilman was an usher at the Royal Victoria Theatre in 1918.
Edith and Ethel Gilman listed as ushers in the 1918 Directory

The Royal Victoria’s “rival” in terms of size and sumptuousness was the Pantages Theatre (now the McPherson Playhouse). The Pantages Theatre, opened in May 1914, was purpose-built for the “illegitimate” vaudeville performances as part of the Alexander Pantages’ vaudeville circuit. The theatre had a fabulous Baroque Revival interior and was completely fire-proof – a fire curtain between stage and screen was painted with a view of Shawnigan Lake, a then-popular tourist destination. The theatre had 1000 seats, 450 below and 550 in the balcony.

“The aisles are wide, the seats are large and well upholstered, and there is roominess between the rows that will commend itself to all patrons who have ever, anywhere, had to sit with their knees jammed up against the back of the seat in front.” (Victoria Daily Times May 19 1914).

On Labour Day Weekend 1918, the Pantages was showing jolly holiday entertainment with headliners Josie Flynn and her Minstrels in “a revue of songs, dances and comedy, combining beauty with talent.”

Victoria Daily Times September 3 1918
Kinemacolor Motion Picture Theatre shown on a 1911-1913 Fire Insurance Map of Victoria. Photo credit: Victoria Fire Insurance Plans, University of Victoria

Across the street from the Pantages was the Variety Theatre, originally the Kinemacolor Motion Picture Theatre (pictured on fire insurance maps in 1913). The Daily Colonist November 15 1913 reported: “This luxurious picture theatre will open under entirely new management with two acts of up-to-date vaudeville and four reels of first-run motion pictures.” The Variety was the “Home of Paramount Pictures”. In September 1918 the Variety drew crowded houses for “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin”.

Entertainment at the corner of Yates and Blanshard: The Princess Theatre showing plays and the Dominion “De Lux” Theatre showing moving pictures. Photo credit: Victoria Fire Insurance Maps collection, University of Victoria

Up on Yates Street was the “Dominion De Lux” Theatre, purpose-built in 1913 as a movie theatre. The Victoria Daily Times May 16 1913 describes the sumptuous surroundings: The floors and aisles (made of “fireproof” concrete) were covered with rich regal blue Wilton carpeting. The upholstering of the (960) seats was in old rose velvet, in the walls the prevailing tones was sepia. The walls were panelled with a landscape view. There was dull gold in the capitals of the columns and ornaments in the friezes running around the walls…“the whole color effect is most artistic.” A couple of other features of note at the Dominion — Karn-Morris organ and an “innovation,” a ladies rest room with tables and facilities for writing.

The Dominion was “noted for its high-class picture plays” (the terms “photo plays” and “picture plays” seem to be used at this time to denote more dramatic, artistic type of shows, sometimes adapted from stage plays).

Victoria Daily Times May 13 1918

Next door on Yates Street was the Princess Theatre, “a cosy family theatre” created from the turn-of-the century A.O.U.W. Hall. The Ancient Order of United Workmen (A.O.U.W.) was a fraternal organization providing social and financial support to its “brothers” (My grandfather’s family were members and often acted on the A.O.U.W. Hall’s stage in early 1900s amateur dramatic productions) During the War, the Princess Theatre was used for patriotic fundraising shows. In September 1918, the popular R.N. Hincks and the Red Cross Players, “a galaxy of talented artists,” performed the farcical romance in three acts, “His Excellency the Governor.” They were accompanied by Mrs. Gertrude Huntly Green and her splendid orchestra.

The stupendous success, “His Excellency the Governor” by the Red Cross Players showed at the Princess Theatre in September 1918.

The “cosiest” (a.k.a. smallest) movie theatres were the Columbia and Romano Theatres on Government Street, managed by Eugene Clarke. The Columbia Theatre building appears to have had several earlier 1900s incarnations at the Grand Theatre and the Empress. When it opened as the Columbia in December 1914, the theatre was showing vaudeville but by March 1915, “Charlie Chaplin was drawing big crowds” as the theatre mixed singing acts and films. By 1918, the Columbia showed movies: “almost exclusively Vitagraph, Metro and Jewel productions.”

The Romano Theatre, “Victoria’s Family Theatre”, opened in June 1909 had a specially-designed Italian style frontage, a special upstairs gallery and “up to date seating”. In 1918, the Romano was described as “a cosy little theatre and enjoys regular patronage of film fans, to whom its features are most attractive.” (The Daily Colonist April 21 1918) In September 1918, the Romano was showing the screen’s greatest sunshine bringer, “Baby Marie Osborne”.

How did the playhouses advertise the shows?

The Victoria daily newspapers carried regular features on the latest shows. The pages were filled with advertisements for movies and vivid descriptions of the movies’ plots. The placement of advertising in the entertainment section also gives us some ideas about who was going to shows.

The Daily Colonist, a Tuesday – Sunday morning paper, had a section called “At the Playhouses”. Here is September 20 1918, nestled amongst ads for stylish coats and handsome new wool jersey dresses, suggesting the main newspaper readers (and movie goers) were women with leisure and disposable income.

The Victoria Daily Times, published every afternoon (except Sunday), showcased “Attractive Features at Local Theatres”. The Times was a more “popular” paper with a focus on human interest stories, entertainment and has larger picture advertisements for films. Note the front page of the Times with heading box “Where to go to-night”

See this double page in the Times from September 16 1918. It’s a totally different look for the same shows featured in The Daily Colonist but the usually florid descriptions were the same as they came from the movie companies. Notice also the advertisement  “A Sunlight Wash Day is free from the toil and labour usually associated with washing….” suggesting the potential audience were using the movies as escapes from reality) Given the amount of space offered to the movies, it’s probable that the Times readers made a large number of the Victoria audiences (and was a good money maker, advertising-wise for the newspapers).

Page 2 – Meet the audience, The Malon Family