Manitoba History: The Performing Arts as a Field of Endeavour for Winnipeg Women, 1870-1930
by Carol Budnick
In the period 1870 to 1930, Winnipeg gradually acquired commercial amusements and various musical and dramatic societies. This paper will examine the part women played in the creation of these cultural organizations. It will be a survey limited to a discussion of institutions and women’s careers which represented a trend. The first part will be devoted to professional theatre; the last section will consider women’s participation in local dramatic and musical organizations.
The driving of the last spike on the Pembina Branch rail line on December 3, 1878 made it possible for touring professional performers to visit Winnipeg with relative ease. The spread of railways across the North American continent to connect new centres and the growing population in them made it possible, and often profitable, for an enterprising actor or actress to lead a company of performers on a tour across the country.
The first touring companies to appear in Winnipeg played in a hall attached to the City Hall, known as the City Hall Theatre. Some of these companies were headed by women. Phosa McAllister leased the City Hall in 1882 for the months of May and June. She and her company did such standard plays as the Collen Bawn, The Two Orphans, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In her advertising she tried to appeal to women by offering a Saturday matinee, referring to the City Hall as the “Family Theatre of Winnipeg,”  and announcing that in Camille she would display some of Worth’s finest Parisian costumes. 
One of the most popular companies to play the City Hall was that headed by actor-manager Eugene McDowell and his wife, Fanny Reeves. The seasons the McDowells presented in 1879 and 1880 probably did much to win respect for the drama and convince local businessmen that it would be profitable to build an opera house in the city. Much of the success of the McDowell Company can be attributed to the presence of Fanny Reeves. To commentators in the Winnipeg press she seemed to be the embodiment of ideal womanhood. When she appeared in Winnipeg in 1886 she was described as “even more artless and sweet and pretty than ever.”  Among the roles she played during that visit was the beautiful, wronged but forgiving wife in Anselma. She was a success in it, according to the critic for the Manitoba Sun, because she had “plenty of the true woman in her to interpret the role, as well as artistic talent to pull through with it.”  Three years later, a reviewer smitten with the attractions of Miss Reeves wrote that “her voice is as charmingly mellow and rich as ever, and it is a treat to hear her merry ringing laughter fill the opera house.” 
The City Hall Theatre may not have been a very popular resort for the ladies of Winnipeg. In 1882 a letter appeared in the Winnipeg Daily Times praising the McAllister troupe and wondering why more Winnipeg ladies did not visit the City Hall. Since the McAllister troupe’s performances were quite proper, the writer suggested it must be the hall itself that ladies found objectionable.  The City Hall seemed to have been anything but an elegant place of amusement. Charles Wheeler, the architect and writer on theatrical and musical matters, who arrived in Winnipeg in 1882, found the City Hall “a scrubby sort of place, not much on scenery, stage, or fancy fixings, and with a queer smell coming at times from the rotten garbage and green stuff below,”  caused by the hall’s proximity to the Market. On the other hand in a frontier town, where men greatly outnumbered women, the latter would not likely be prominent in the audience at the City Hall Theatre. Around this time newcomers and visitors to the city were also struck by the fact that they saw few women in the streets  or in church. 
In the spring of 1883 Winnipeg acquired a theatre that its management hoped would be patronized by all of the city’s best people. This was the Princess Opera House which was inaugurated on May 14, 1883 by the Hess Opera Company in Iolanthe followed by tragedian Thomas Keene in a series of plays by Shakespeare.
Now that Winnipeggers had an opera house, there appeared in the local newspapers suggestions as to what was appropriate conduct in such a building. If the opera house was to be a comfortable place for respectable ladies, certain standards of behaviour had to be maintained. Men were asked not to smoke  and not to wear their hats throughout the performance.  In addition there were complaints about the men who went out between acts for a drink, who returned after the performance had started to interrupt the show and to trample on the dresses of the ladies in the audience.  Concern was also expressed about prostitutes occupying the most expensive reserved seats in the opera house. The presence of two “notorious” women in a box was denounced as a “disgraceful exhibition” which was an insult to every lady in the theatre.  The manager of the Princess announced he would not sell tickets for the better seats to these women.  Three years later, the manager was still wrestling with this problem, which he decided to solve by screening off a corner of the theatre to make a special section for prostitutes.  Since the presence of ladies in the audience conferred respectability on a show and a theatre, making women feel comfortable in the theatre was important.
In their opera house Winnipeggers expected to see the best touring attractions obtainable. Although the isolation of the city made this difficult, in the first three years of the operation of the Princess the management was able to bring to Winnipeg such attractions as comedian Sol Smith Russell, Calender’s Georgia Minstrels, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and the young tragedian Walker Whiteside. Female stars of repute also appeared on the stage of the Princess. In 1883 Winnipeggers enjoyed Emma Abbott and her Grand English Opera Company, French actress Rhea, and the charming soubrette Katie Putnam. Two years later they were visited by the Fay Templeton Opera Company, Polish actress Janauschek, and Kate Castleton, who scandalized them by brawling in public with her manager husband. 
There were also long periods in which the opera house was dark because the management was unable to book attractions. In order to be able to provide continuous entertainment the management of the Princess arranged in 1887 to have a stock company take up residence at the opera house. This company was headed by Frank G. Campbell. The actors in the company were not local people but actors and actresses Campbell had hired in New York. 
The fortunes of the Campbell Company in Winnipeg are interesting because they give some idea of what it was like to be an actress in the nineteenth century. One of the leading actresses in the company was Gabriella McKean, Frank Campbell’s wife. In February 1890, the Winnipeg Tribune reported that Gabriella McKean had almost died from an accidental overdose of chloroform. She claimed to have taken the drug because she was nervous and tired but could not sleep.  This incident may be insignificant or it may be indicative of what it was like to share Mr. Campbell’s life.
Actors and actresses in the Campbell Company had to work hard to be able to present a new play to the public each week. To demonstrate that the life of the actor was not all glamour, Charles Handscomb, who was then working for the Manitoba Sun, wrote an article in which he described a typical day in the life of a member of the Campbell Company. The actors attended a rehearsal that would go from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. without a break, in a cold dark theatre. At three o’clock the actors had a break, which they used to study their parts rather than to return to their hotels to rest. By seven o’clock they had to be at the theatre to prepare for the evening show.  The actors had no holiday when touring companies visited the Princess, as they then toured centres in southwestern Manitoba. They also toured throughout the summer. In addition Gabriella McKean assisted her husband to ingratiate himself with local amateur performers. She took charge of the costumes for the Winnipeg Operatic Society’s production of Said Pasha. 
The Campbells received little financial reward for all this hard work. Although praised for the high quality of its work, the company could not attract good audiences after its first season. By the summer of 1890 Campbell was deeply in debt. In July of that year, when he left Winnipeg, he had no job prospects and only nine dollars in his pocket. 
Variety theatres flourished in Winnipeg between 1882 and 1885. They were chiefly notorious for the type of employment they offered women, most of whom were performers imported from the United States.  These theatres offered entertainment that took the form of a vaudeville bill or olio. At the Theatre Comique, for example, on the bill for March 18, 1884 were musical sketch artists Miss Georgie Kane and Lester Howard, the plantation team Jen and Georgie Powers, Miss Lena Rivers, who was a lightning change artist, Lambert and Marr, who did knockabout songs and dances, Miss Celia Iferd, who did songs of the day, and Thomas Dalton, who performed Irish songs and comedy. The bill concluded with a comic sketch entitled the “Crowded Hotel.” 
It was the off-stage duties of the female per-formers that caused W. F. Luxton, editor of the Manitoba Free Press, to denounce the variety theatres as “shops of harlotry” which should be suppressed.  Some idea of what these duties were can be obtained from testimony given during trials held when Dan Rogers, the owner of two theatres, was sued by actresses.
Two such cases were tried in provincial police court in January, 1885. Nellie Fillmore and her husband, Charles Raynard, sued Rogers for wrongfully dismissing them. Rogers had fired Mrs. Raynard for being intoxicated. In the course of the trial, the terms of employment outlined in the contract Rogers had with the female performers he hired were revealed. This contract stipulated that appearing on the stage was only a portion of a female performer’s duty. Once the curtain went down actresses were to entice men into the wine room attached to the theatre and there cajole them into buying drinks. In turn, Rogers was required to pay actresses a percentage of the cost of the drinks they sold. In addition, the contract gave Rogers the right to fine female performers who left the theatre before he ordered them to do so. Police Magistrate Moore decided against Rogers and ordered him to pay the $40 in wages the couple claimed was owing them for one week’s work.  Earlier in the month, Rogers had been sued by a vocalist from whose salary he had deducted $10 because she had refused to agree to stay after the show and dance with patrons of the wine room. 
City Council responded to public opinion and passed a bylaw which prohibited the sale of liquor in a place of amusement. When this bylaw was enforced in 1885, the operators of the variety theatres were forced out of business. It was the sale of liquor that made the variety theatres profitable. With the passing of the variety theatres, Winnipeg lost a form of entertainment that was intended to appeal to the large male population of a frontier town.
After 1900 the number of theatres in Winnipeg increased as the rapid growth of the city’s population made it profitable for promoters to provide more and better amusements. Women were an increasingly important part of the audience for these amusements. Household help and the ability to purchase many items that used to be made in the home had given women more leisure. In addition an increase in the number of women in the labour force meant more of them had money to buy theatre tickets. These women had a wide choice of entertainment to select from. Before the end of the first decade of the twentieth century had elapsed, a woman in Winnipeg could choose between sensational melodrama at the Grand, “high class” vaudeville at the Orpheum, standard dramas and comedies presented by the resident stock company at the Winnipeg Theatre, and the best touring companies at the Walker Theatre. All of these theatres had matinees for women and children, and ticket prices that were probably within reach of most people. The least expensive seats at the Orpheum were 10 cents and at the Walker 25 cents.
Harriet Anderson, the wife of C. P. Walker, was the most interesting woman involved in the theatre in Winnipeg in the years shortly before the Great War. The Walkers arrived in Winnipeg in 1897 when Mr. Walker, who was the manager of the Fargo Opera House, leased the Bijou Opera House on Notre Dame and Adelaide with the intention of adding it to the circuit of theatres for which he booked touring American companies. He renovated the Bijou and renamed it the Winnipeg Theatre. The Walkers were determined to bring Winnipeggers the best touring companies obtainable. Their success made it possible for C. P. Walker to build a fine new theatre. This was the Walker Theatre, now the Odeon, which was formally opened on February 18, 1907. Mr. and Mrs. Walker seem to have worked as a team in operating their theatre. Mr. Walker took care of the business end, while Mrs. Walker, as press agent for the theatre, sold the product to Winnipeggers. This meant she wrote all the material given to Winnipeg’s three daily newspapers and several weekly papers. 
Harriet Walker was probably the best saleslady the theatre could have had, for she knew the theatre and loved it. She had spent her childhood in New York as the daughter of a talented amateur entertainer, and this gave her a chance to see a great deal of theatre.  At the age of thirteen, Mrs. Walker joined A. M. Palmer’s Union Square Company. During the two years she played children’s parts for this company, she had an opportunity to observe and meet some of the leading actors on the American stage. In 1882 she joined the Bride-Goreham Company which was a comic opera troupe that toured in the eastern United States and Canada. She also toured at the head of her own company in such works as Hoyt’s Bunch of Keys.  This background enabled Harriet Walker to acquire the knowledge and experience of good theatre she needed not only to be able to advise her husband in his booking and to do her work as a publicist for the theatre, but also to be an excellent music and drama critic. If she was not the best commentator on the theatre writing in the Winnipeg press at that time, she was certainly the liveliest and the most fun to read.
Mrs. Walker’s drama criticism was written as a letter to the editor of Town Topics, the city’s weekly society paper. It was written under the pen name, “Rosa Sub, the Matinee Girl.”  She began writing this column in 1898 and continued it for almost the entire life of the paper which was published until 1913. In this column she adopted the personality of a giddy young girl whose letter to the editor combined shrewd comment on the theatre she was seeing with references to the beaux who were taking her there. Neither the editor of Town Topics, Charles Handscomb, nor her own husband knew she was “Rosa Sub.” Shortly after she began writing, there was speculation upon the identity of the “Matinee Girl.” Some correspondents to the paper suspected she did not wear skirts because she knew too much for a matinee girl.  By 1906 it was an open secret that Mrs. Walker was the “Matinee Girl.”  Over the years the “Matinee Girl” matured as Mrs. Walker gradually abandoned the character of the flirtatious young girl and began to provide more serious comment on drama, music, and current events. According to her daughter, Mrs. Walker began the column because she needed a creative outlet that her press work for the theatre was not providing. 
Being the wife of the most prominent theatre manager in the city and a drama critic does not appear to have put Mrs. Walker in a position of conflict of interest. She does not seem to have abused her position. A description she gave her colleagues in the Canadian Women’s Press Club of the qualifications of the good theatre publicist suggests she knew the value of integrity in selling. Mrs. Walker’s ideal press agent was to possess imagination and the ability to stick close to the truth in his writing. This would enable him to write a notice which would attract the public and at the same time preserve their faith in the word of the management of the theatre. 
Eventually Mrs. Walker purchased a quarter interest in Town Topics.  Whatever her reasons were for becoming involved in Town Topics, Mrs. Walker must have been aware that her writing for the paper was an excellent way for the Walker Theatre’s press agent to reach the women who were an important segment of the audience for theatre. For potential advertisers Town Topics described its estimated readership of 10,000 as largely femalewomen of culture and means who had the money to purchase what they desired.  In her column, writing as a woman for other women, Mrs. Walker was able to depict theatre going as an important part of a fashionable woman’s social life.
Mrs. Walker is also interesting because she was typical of the Winnipeg women who supported the campaign for votes for women. She was an energetic woman who needed to develop interests outside the home and who worked with other women for the causes she believed in. She was a member of the Women’s Musical Club, and she had served on the board of the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital Board and had been president of the Women’s Branch of the Humane Society. As a member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, in which she held a number of executive posts, she demonstrated that she knew the value of networking. Membership in the Canadian Women’s Press Club must have been professionally useful to her, judging from the number of times the minutes of the Winnipeg Branch record meetings devoted to entertaining performers appearing at the Walker and grateful acknowledgements for the gift of theatre tickets to the membership.  It was also as a member of this club that she had the chance to work with women like the Beynon sisters, Nellie McClung, Cora Hind, and Kennethe Haig, all of whom were active in the Political Equality League. By the end of 1913 Mrs. Walker was also participating in the work of the League.  She and her young daughter appeared in the successful performance of the Women’s Parliament at the Walker Theatre on January 28, 1914.
Participating in amateur theatricals and making music were leisure activities in which some Winnipeg women could gain recognition and socialize with their friends. Organizations such as the Amateur Literary and Dramatic Association, the Philharmonic Society and the Operatic Society were able to provide these kinds of pleasant social experiences.
One of the first ladies to grace the amateur stage in Winnipeg was the second wife of Edwin Frederick Thomas Brokovski, a local businessman and publisher of the Manitoba Gazette. Mrs. Brokovski, who was from Toronto, arrived in Winnipeg in 1876 as a new bride.  Her husband had been active in the fall of 1876 in the establishment of the Winnipeg Amateur Literary and Dramatic Association,  of which he was president, and the Winnipeg Philharmonic Society which he served as secretary.  Early in January 1877 Mrs. Brokovski played Polly Picnic in The New Footman which was the first entertainment to be presented by the Amateur Literary Dramatic Association. The Manitoba Free Press greeted her performance with enthusiasm.
The novelty of seeing a local woman on the stage may have been one reason for the pleasure the Manitoba Free Press took in the performance of Mrs. Brokovski. In amateur theatricals up to this time women’s roles had usually been taken by men because theatre had been the favourite winter recreation of the various militia units stationed in the area.
Women participated as performers in the city’s musical organizations. However, they did not play a leading role in the management of these associations. Early in the 1880s when an Oratorio Society and an Operatic Society were founded and the Philharmonic Society was re-established, leading business and professional men took the initiative for the creation of these organizations and assumed all of the key positions on their executive or management committees. Most of these men were either interested in music or enjoyed singing, playing instruments or acting. Some of them had well established reputations as competent amateur performers. If women participated at all in the management of these organizations, they did so on minor committees or helped with social events intended to raise funds. Membership fees for ladies in these organizations were often waived or lower than those for men. The annual subscription fee for the Oratorio Society, for instances, was five dollars, but ladies who sang were admitted free.  This special treatment recognized that women were essential for the kind of performances the society wished to mount, but they were unlikely to have the independent income that would make a financial contribution possible.
When the drama and music critic for the Manitoba Sun wrote that “Winnipeg young ladies, especially those who can sing and are pretty, will be in great demand both for drama and opera,”  he summed up what women were expected to contribute to the Operatic Society. Women like Mrs. Hugh Sutherland, Mrs. Hugh John Macdonald and Edna Lander distinguished themselves in this way, but it was not until Harriet Walker became stage director for the Winnipeg Amateur Operatic Society that a woman made her mark in any sphere other than performance. Mrs. Walker began her association with the society by directing The Chimes of Normandy  in 1908. She followed this by directing several more operettas for the society and plays for the University of Manitoba Dramatic Society. Mrs. Walker’s past had qualified her for directing, and in her criticism she had demonstrated that she had valuable advice to give amateur actors. 
Women of course did take charge in organizations whose membership was exclusively female a phenomenon that proliferated after 1900. The Women’s Musical Club was such an organization. This club grew out of the music making women whose parents could afford it had received. The Women’s Musical Club began when six women throughout 1894 and 1895 met on a regular basis to study and practise in order to keep up their music. Gradually the club grew and became more businesslike. To ensure that the social aspect of the club did not interfere with its serious musical work the meetings were transferred from members’ homes to a hall in the Y.M.C.A.  At the weekly meetings members performed and read papers. In addition the club sponsored concerts by well known artists and encouraged young music students. The women were aware of the opportunity the club gave them to assume a managerial role in public. A woman writing the history of the club in 1911 expressed her pride in the management ability of the women of “broad culture” who had served as presidents of the club and the “keen business acumen” of the women who had served as treasurers. 
With the founding of the Community Players of Winnipeg in 1921 men and women shared more equally in the tasks of directing, managing and performing. It was two young lawyers, H.A.V. Green and Alan Crawley, who suggested the creation of a little theatre in the city.  They set up a committee of Mrs. R. F. McWilliams, W. J. Healy, the provincial librarian, and Prof. J. Heinzelmann to help them make their project a reality.  The woman they selected had been active on the executives of the University Women’s Club, Women’s Canadian Club and the Local Council of Women.  The experience and contacts her club work had given her probably made Mrs. McWilliams an ideal choice. The little theatre organization these people created had as one of its aims the development of Canadian culture. The Community Players announced that its purpose was to produce plays written by Canadians and to work towards the establishment of a Canadian theatre where Canadian performers could practise their art in their own country under the direction and control of their own countrymen.  These goals were a reaction against the old system of touring that had been controlled from New York and which, by 1920, was no longer able to provide Winnipeggers with the quality entertainment they had enjoyed before the war. By 1930 women like Nancy Pyper, Irene Craig, Margaret Tupper, Edith Sinclair and Tannis Carson had all produced and directed plays for the Community Players, besides, of course, performing.  The Community Players’ dedication to the development of new Canadian talent probably contributed to making this possible. Also, by 1930 membership on the general committee and production committee of the Community Players was pretty well equally divided between men and women. 
Throughout the period under discussion the way in which professional theatre was organized made participation by Winnipeggers, whether male or female, unlikely. To do so they would have had to leave the city. The women of Winnipeg participated by sitting in the audience. They did see actresses who no doubt brought glamour into their lives and represented working women whose talent had given them a measure of economic independence. After 1900 Winnipeg women saw such famous performers as Sarah Bernhardt, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Nazimova, Olga Nethersole, Vesta Victoria, and Maude Adams. Among these performers were such Canadian actresses as Margaret Anglin and Marie Dressler. The early history of the performing arts in Winnipeg, however, does suggest that women’s participation in the management of the city’s cultural institutions was shaped by the social and economic conditions of the time, for these conditions determined what was expected of women. For this reason, even in a frontier community where it might be assumed men were too preoccupied with material concerns to devote much time to the development of cultural institutions, women did not play a leading role in the organization of dramatic and musical societies.
9. J. C. McLagan, “Description and History of Winnipeg,” in John Macoun Manitoba and the Great Northwest: the Field For Investment; the Home of the Emigrant (Guelph, Ont.: The World Publishing Company, 1882), p. 520.
Page revised: 21 November 2019