Victoria Theatres and the “Flu Ban” of 1918

Page 4 – The Ban is Lifted

It had been an eventful few weeks – on the Western Front the Allies were fighting their way to victory and on the Home Front, Victorians were fighting disease (in October there were 1574 cases of influenza). By the second week in November, “flu” cases were declining. Good signs of drop in “flu” Dr. Price says, The Daily Colonist reported on November 10 1918. (On November 9 there were just 18 new cases.) Dr. Price said that “church, school and theatre would be all permitted to re-open at the same time (whenever that will be).” 

On November 11 1918, the excitement of Armistice led to a surge of crowds all day in downtown Victoria – and a surge in the “flu”. On November 12, 104 new cases were reported. “I am not surprised,” said Dr. Price. “The crowds are to blame; the general progress from day to day shows that. If the people will only realize that the instructions we have given are for their own good, and not simply idle words meant to be disobeyed, we will have the epidemic mastered completely in a few days and it will be possible to lift the ban on meetings, theatres and churches – but not till then.”

That same week, the Victoria business were making an organized effort to have the “influenza ban on public assembly either withdrawn entirely or modified. The claim put forward is that the present conditions are working against the city’s interests and that other methods just as effective could be put in force without a consequent dislocation of business, as at present.” (Will try to have “Flu” Ban Lifted, The Daily Colonist November 14 1918) The businessmen proposed to quarantine families. “Theatres would be released from the effect of the embargo, public schools would remain closed, and public meetings would still be forbidden.”

Dr. Price did not find the plan feasible. He stated: “As a result of the measures we have taken, Victoria still holds the record for comparative immunity from influenza. The situation demands patience. The steps we have taken have proved to be the best. To change our course now would be like swapping horses in mid-stream.”

Late evening Tuesday November 19 1918, Victoria lifted the ban on public gatherings. Dr. Price indicated that he had given in not because he thought it was the best thing to do but because he felt under pressure because Vancouver had just lifted their ban. However, in neighbouring Saanich, the Council was unwilling to lift their ban. “Some discussion arose during the meeting with regard to the lifting of the influenza ban, it being the opinion of the councillors that to reopen the schools, churches and public halls would be perilous until all danger from the epidemic had disappeared. Dr. Vye, Medical Health Officer, it was reported, was extremely non-committal on the matter.” (Victoria Daily Times November 20 1918)

Footlights Flashing After Long Interval

The theatre-going public will welcome with joy the news that after seven weeks deprivation of entertainment the ban has been lifted, and the local theatres and moving picture houses will be open to-day.

Footlights Flashing After Long Interval, Victoria Daily Times November 20 1918
Victoria Daily Times November 20 1918

On November 20 1918, Victoria readers like Mrs. Helen Malon opened their papers to read “Flu” Ban Lifted, Theatres Open Today! As The Daily Colonist noted, “Many Victoria homes will be vacated this afternoon and evening while everyone in the family makes the rounds of the theatres.” The Daily Colonist commented: “recent events have changed the outlook on things and have shown the public how dependent it really is on the entertainment provided by the theatres and it needed the jolt, too. Only a short time ago, Kultur was being found on one continent and Spanish Influenza right here in our midst, but now the Armistice has been signed, the Influenza Ban is lifted, and there’s entertainment, and lots of it, for all.”

Pantages re-opens with a big show of “High Class Vaudeville”

The “flu” lid was off, and the Pantages Theatre re-opened with a big show of “High Class Vaudeville”: “as a curtain-raiser, the wire walking act by the three Bullows sisters was a happy choice, and, despite one little misfortune, showed that they were expert trapeze artists. Their act was well presented and the three artists – all of them pretty – were exquisitely costumed.” (The Daily Colonist November 21 1918)

The Pantages Theatre also re-assured its patrons of a “wholesome and antiseptic atmosphere in the auditorium during performances and at all other times. The special ventilating system with which the house is equipped will make such a course thoroughly possible. Fresh air is drawn from the outside before being circulated throughout the auditorium by means of powerful fans. This will tend to allay a certain amount of the anxiety that may still be felt by some in regard to attending assemblies at this time.” [See also this description in the Victoria Daily Times May 19 1914 from when the Pantages was opened: “The ventilation of the building has been very carefully planned, and by fans which have been installed the air, three thousand cubic feet of it, is completely changed every three minutes.” ]

The Royal Victoria theatre too emphasized this point – “It has the best equipment obtained and the ventilation system is excellent.”  (The Daily Colonist November 24 1918)

That week at the moving picture houses, the Columbia was showing a Vitagraph Feature, “When Men are Tempted” (“a five-reel picture that will surely please you”). The Dominion had Billie Burke, the most charming of stars, in “Pursuit of Polly”. The Romano was starring Harry Carey in “The Scarlet Drop” (“A special feature, one you will like, a genuine western picture.”)

Over at the Royal Theatre, ushers were being hired. Note the ad in The Daily Colonist on November 21 1918 — Wanted ushers Royal Victoria Theatre and cashier (The Romano Theatre was also advertising for a “door girl”). So perhaps Ethel and Edith Gilman got their jobs back?

The Daily Colonist November 21 1918 (the day after the ban was lifted) shows wanted ads for ushers at the theatres. Note also the resumption of “Military 500” card games now that the ban on public assembly had been lifted and the “Card of Thanks” from Mrs. William Herbert Binks.

So, if the Gilman girls were back at work, they would have seen Theda Bara in “The Forbidden Path” (Theda Bara was a popular silent screen star whose name apparently was an anagram of “Arab Death”!)

In this super-production Miss Bara forsakes the costumed productions which she has been appearing in – “Cleopatra” and “Du Barry” – and returns to a story of contemporary life and conditions. Miss Bara takes the part of Mary Lynde, who first sees a glimmer of hope come into her bedraggled life when an artist asks her to pose as a model for a painting of the Madonna. At his studio she meets Robert Sinclair, a wealthy man about town, who immediately sees a new field of conquest in the pretty girl…… (Victoria Daily Times) Of course, Bara is duped and falls from eminence but rises again… “She is once more a tenement girl – a captivating, entrancing tenement girl, who rises from her lowly position to one of comfort and even luxury.” (The Daily Colonist)

In addition to the melodrama, a two-reel Paramount Mack Sennett comedy was also shown, “which stars Ben Turpin, the well-known comedian, and is the cause of a great deal of hearty laughter.”

Went down town in the afternoon with Ruth and Pierre and I took Pierre to see the Variety show.

Mrs. Helen Malon, November 21 1918

The Malon family was once more back at the the movies. They went to see Douglas Fairbanks in “The Half Breed” at the Variety Theatre. “The Half Breed” was “more than a mere story. It is an indictment of the white man’s blindness and indifference to the rights and feelings of the dispossessed Indians. It is a terrific arraignment of bigotry and intolerance.” (The Daily Colonist November 20 1918) Fairbanks played “the pathetic and heart-hungry character of “Low”, scorned and mocked by the derisive white man.”

Before his advent in more romantic and swashbuckling roles, Fairbanks was known as a comedian: “Douglas Fairbanks has won his fame through the comedy roles and his golden smiles. How many realize, however, that he is a great actor, capable of interpreting the serious and pathetic roles…poor “Low” found a great interpreter in the comedian with the happy smile.” (The Daily Colonist November 21 1918) “The Half Breed” was also an exercise in realistic production values — Triangle found it necessary to film a Redwood forest actually ablaze — “In the course of filming, Sam de Grass and “Doug” lost their eyebrows and eyelashes from the singeing flames, and their hands were badly blistered. The flames could not singe Fairbanks’ famous smile, however.”

“A snappy, twentieth century, high-geared romantic-comedy drama travelling at high speed all the time.”

Review of “Bound in Morocco”

It was definitely a good week for Fairbanks fans! At the Royal Victoria Theatre later in the week, Douglas Fairbanks starred in “Bound in Morocco”, “A snappy, twentieth century, high-geared romantic-comedy drama travelling at high speed all the time.” This thrilling story of Algiers allowed “Doug” to present several new stunts: “One stunt, worthy of mention, is a dive that Mr. Fairbanks made from the top of a high sand dune to the shoulders of Fred Burns, who is passing by on a speeding horse. This is followed by an exciting hand-to-hand fight which is said to be a thrilling affair.” The show also starred Helen Jenner as one of the harem girls who interprets a famous Arabian dance and Mildred Lee, who won the Beauty and Brains contest recently conducted by the Photoplay Magazine. (The Daily Colonist November 26 and 27 1918)  

“Live” theatre was up and running again too. The Red Cross Company opened the postponed “All of a Sudden Peggy” at the Princess Theatre on Tuesday November 26 1918. The play starred local popular soprano Eva Hart, “the leading lady of the Red Cross Company, as the capricious and lovable heroine who lands herself into several compromising situations from which she naively expects the hero [Reginald Hincks] to rescue her.” Mr. Hincks, “man of the world”, the Honorable Jimmy, “made a delightfully convincing hero of the “matinee idol” type.”

The advertisement said “Have a good laugh – you need it” and perhaps the casting was meant to be comical with the casting of “older” leads. Eva Hart was in her mid 30s and Hincks was 48 (though obviously if most men were off at war perhaps he was the youngest available!) Note – the amateur theatre company appears to have been made up of civil servants (a clerk of the Supreme Court and a clerk of the Land Office were in two comic roles).

Gregarious gatherings and re-opening the schools

“Have a good laugh — you need it?” But would children be laughing if they got the “flu” after going to the theatre? The Victoria School Board held a special meeting on the afternoon of November 21 to consider the reopening of the Victoria schools. November 25 had been the planned day for back to school but the Board postponed opening until December 2.

The Board wanted a “test period” to elapse – “Now that the theatres and other public entertainments are restored to favor, a few days will suffice to prove whether or not the withdrawal of the quarantine has been premature. By Monday any infection which may have resulted in the return of gregarious gatherings will just have had sufficient time to “incubate” and only in the succeeding days will the health officer be in a position to indicate whether or not the lifting of the ban has been deleterious.”

On November 25 1918 Esquimalt opened their schools, but the Oak Bay School Board decided to keep the “lid” shut on schools for the time being. Saanich Council gave their Medical Health Officer J.P. Vye full power to set the date for school re-opening. The Daily Colonist reported on December 1 1918 that Dr. Vye “has decided that the time has not yet come for the pupils to return to their studies.”

On Saturday December 7 1918, while their mother cooked and cleaned, Pierre and Yvonne Malon went to another show. They may have seen Charlie Chaplin as a doughboy in “Shoulder Arms”; Hughie Mack, the 350 Lb. comedian, in “The Geezer of Berlin”, a three-reel satire on “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin”; or Monroe Salisbury, a Scottish homesteader who fights the cattle barons who are trying to drive him from his land claim, in “Winner Takes All.”

Many Victoria school children may have been at the movies that same weekend. After one week, schools were closed on December 10 1918 until the New Year (and in fact did not open until mid-January). Though the schools were officially closed “simply as a precautionary measure,” The Daily Colonist reported: “it is understood that influenza has broken out among the school children.”

In December 1918, there was a second wave of the “flu” in Greater Victoria, this time affecting children — Yvonne and Pierre Malon both got sick all over the Christmas holidays. The new wave of flu impacted the Red Cross Company’s annual pantomime. The Victoria Daily Times December 28 1918 promised: “Victoria kiddies are to have the opportunity to see a real Christmas pantomime of the old-fashioned variety.” But see this notice from January 8 1919: The Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe” has definitely decided to take up her abode in Victoria at the Princess Theatre on Saturday evening January 11 and will be in residence for ten nights and one matinee. Somewhat belated owing to the unavoidable postponement of the production….”

The pantomime charmed its audience on opening night with “sparkling patter, very tuneful songs, captivating dances and an “abundance of clever allusions to Tanlac, Government jobs, the epidemic and other features of topical interest … Little Boy Blue provided endless entertainment with a small horn and a pail of disinfectant.”

Page 5 – The Show Goes On into 1919 and 1920