Manitoba History: Beer & Skits and the Winnipeg Press Club: A Marriage Made in a Smoky Room
by Scott Edmonds
For most of its more than 70-year history, Beer & Skits was the public face of the Winnipeg Press Club. It was a rouged, sometimes leering face, singing a bawdy song or telling a joke, often at the expense of politicians, judges or other members of the city’s elite, who sat there and laughed or squirmed, with a smile perhaps, usually depending on whether or not they were the target of the pointed satire.
This public face was seen only once a year, in a satirical revue that drew newspapermen and amateur thespians together to clown on stage for a few hours of mayhem. But it became a significant part of Winnipeg’s annual social calendar for much of the 20th century. It drew politicians, judges, lawyers and other movers and shakers, and not just to watch. At least two provincial court judges were active participants: Bob Trudel and Ron Meyers. Trudel was even president of the Press club itself in 1966.
“The best of Beer and Skits is in its satire, and that requires two sets of players—those on stage with words they try to remember, and those in the pit with words they try to forget,” wrote former Manitoba Chief Justice E. K. Williams. 
Only in its last years did Beer & Skits admit women to what started as an all-male evening and it was billed simply as the Winnipeg Press Club “Smoker” when it debuted in the winter of 1933–1934. It didn’t adopt the name “Beer and Skits” on its programs until 1945.
In 1988, in a history of journalism in Manitoba put together by a group of Press Club members and associates, Chris Dafoe recounts one version of how the event got its start. Its origins have always been a bit murky, although the main characters are clear enough: Nathan B. Zimmerman, a Winnipeg Tribune drama critic, and George Waight, an amateur actor and publicist for the Bank of Commerce, were the founders and for many years, the guiding lights of the show.
Old-timers argued for years about the origins of Beer & Skits, but it seems likely that the show grew out of social evenings once conducted in the Sock and Buskin Club, a meeting place for actors and newsmen across Rorie St. from the old Dominion Theatre. Neil LeRoy, an actor who participated in the original Beer & Skits shows, offered what he called the “official version” in a memoir published in 1977:
The Press Club in its early years was still in search of a permanent home. It didn’t find one until 1953 on Main Street; so regular dinners and social functions were how it maintained itself as an institution. The early Smokers were held in the Picardy Salon on Broadway. Beer & Skits put on lots of shows at the Fort Garry Hotel, but the show probably had its longest and most successful run in the Skyview Ballroom of the Marlborough Hotel. It was also in the Marlborough, either in the basement or on the mezzanine, that the Press Club itself found its longest-lasting and most successful digs.
Nate Zimmerman was known simply as Zim and he set the tone for the show, or at least tried to while he lived. He died during a dress rehearsal in 1951.
“There shall be no smut, no religion and no women on the stage of Beer and Skits,” was his dictum.
All except the last were pretty regularly flouted but, while Zimmerman was alive, offenders were regularly punished. Reporter Vic Murray was suspended for life for transgressing the religion rule, although he was pardoned after 15 years.
The show was a product of many hours of free labour. First, there were the writers who put together the script. Then there were the actors and directors who rehearsed the show for many weeks prior to the event itself. Then there were the stage volunteers who prepared the sets, with the stage backdrops designed for many years by The Winnipeg Tribune editorial cartoonist Jan Kamienski.
Beer & Skits was always a mixture of media people and those who just liked to act and sing but the presence of “celebrities” on stage was a big draw. In the beginning, of course, the word “media” didn’t even exist for most people. Beer & Skits was the domain of newspapermen, although broadcasters were eventually admitted as well—male broadcasters, of course.
The show also featured live music and for more than 30 years, starting in the early 1950s, the band leader was well-known local musician Jimmy King, also a regular the club. The band members were the only paid performers.
The ban on women existed far beyond the point at which women were admitted to membership in the Press Club itself (1970). It became a point of friction between the club and the board of Beer & Skits but the board asserted its independence. The event, and particularly the ad-filled program that was produced, helped subsidize club operations. The amounts weren’t huge but for an institution that often operated on a bare break-even basis, the money came to be important. Eric Wells, WPC president in 1953 and long-time B&S board member, noted that the show had generated $120,000 in profits for the club by 1980. He remarked wryly, “The WPC is the only club to make money out of the performing arts.” 
Wells wrote in the 1980 show program that the first murmurs of discontent over allowing women in the show were heard around 1960. “The controversy continued in the club after the 1961 show, and brought this comment from Garnet Coulter, veteran Beer & Skitser, and long-time mayor of Winnipeg: “You can satirize a man before his peers, perhaps crucify him on occasion, but you can’t do either in front of his wife.” 
The show’s humour was often of the locker-room variety and the programs were, bearing in mind the dictates of the times, racy, even when the ads were produced by such staid institutions as Eaton’s.
Even before 1960 there were suggestions, some of that should change. The show itself had carried a fairly lighthearted attack on the ban against women in the program for the 1959 show, written by journalist and later playwright Ann Henry. “Men of Beer and Skits arise! Throw out your pin-up pictures, your thumbed photographs and prove to the women you’re not a bunch of dirty-minded little boys afraid of life,” she wrote. 
The “dirty-minded little boys” resisted her blandishments and in 1970, the show’s program featured its first full-fledged, Playboy-style centrefold, a tradition that continued off and on for many years.
The show itself remained largely unchanged, although Zim’s rule was perhaps more often breached as far as language was concerned. It was a blend of skits and songs, usually focused on something that had made news during the previous year. The songs were a mix of fresh lyrics, written for old standards or show tunes. Here’s a snippet from the 1934 show that satirized Premier John Bracken and the Attorney General W. J. Major scouting beer parlours to see if a law against serving sandwiches and beer was being observed. It was sung to the tune of “I’m Called Little Buttercup.”
Here’s one from the 1994 show that features a song about city councillors and the mayor trying to raise money for projects in the city of Winnipeg by smuggling cigarettes. It was sung to the tune of Leslie Gore’s “Sunshine, Lollypops”:
The tension between the Press Club and Beer & Skits over admitting women—probably abetted to some extent by the declining interest among younger members of the media in taking part in the show—led those in charge to decide they would bring down the curtain with the 50th show in 1983.
“With this performance, Beer and Skits presents its 50th and final show … The show ends in the spirit in which it began under the leadership of the late Nathan B. Zimmerman. Two members of the original cast, George Waight and Bill Metcalfe, are with us tonight. We salute them for starting us off on the long trail of 50 years of laughter, and from all of us to all of you – Thank You Gentlemen.” It was written by CJOB broadcaster Ron Hill, chairman of what they thought would be the last show. 
It wasn’t to be, however. Not long after the “final” show, Winnipeg Free Press writer Tom Oleson, who was WPC president in 1983, sounded out Ian Sutherland (WPC president 1973) about whether Beer & Skits would work with women in the show. Sutherland was sure it would, with the support of Ron Meyers, already a ten-year veteran of the show, and Tom Ashmore, the long-time writing chair. They got seed money from the Press Club and the show was back on. Don Comstock (WPC president 1971) was director of the first mixed show. He had a long history in vaudeville from his days at the Beacon Theatre, and coached the women who were new to the show on the art of skit comedy. Many of the veterans of the show were happy to return for the first show with men and women, both in the audience and on stage.
If anything, however, the show became even bawdier with the new cast, and there was no attempt to tone it down. The Zim rule was not only broken, it was tossed completely out the window. Even the centrefold in the program survived briefly.
But the show continued to offer what the audience had come to expect and, for the most part the audience kept coming, at least initially. There were no doubt some who dropped out but those who were being lampooned, generally invited to sit at the head table, continued to show up and laugh, as did many of the judges and lawyers and other prominent citizens who had been coming for decades.
Slowly, however, time did catch up to Beer & Skits. By the end of the first decade as a mixed show, it was harder and harder to lure new performers from the reporters and other media celebrities in the city. Increasingly, their ranks in the show were filled by people who had some talent but no public recognition.
That no doubt was at least partly responsible for a declining gate, although it may also have been simply that the kind of entertainment provided was no longer sellable, perhaps because it was so widely available that it was no longer novel. Satire has become the staple of shows like “Saturday Night Live” and in Canada “This Hour has 22 Minutes.” Beer & Skits brought that to a local level but, like NHL hockey at the time, it didn`t seem to work financially.
Regardless of the reasons, the show had trouble making ends meet. The club could not afford to subsidize a money-losing institution, even one as venerable as Beer & Skits. The last show was held in 2005 but the story doesn’t quite end there.
Those who didn’t want the show to end decided to bring it back as the BS Comedy Players two years later and it continues to offer a somewhat similar blend of satire and song outside of the Press Club. But the media connection has now been completely severed.
In the Beer & Skits 1983 program, Reg Skene, then chairman of the theatre department at the University of Winnipeg, wrote about the show and how it grew out of a tradition of amateur theatre in the city in the 1930s that followed the collapse of commercial theatre during the Depression years. Beer & Skits outlasted others such as “Mud in Your Eye—A Spring Splash” which had featured many of those who would later be prominent in Beer & Skits. It’s not a bad epitaph, although in 1983 it was more of a call to arms that led to the rebirth as a mixed show. Skene’s story starts by recounting the history of the satirical shows that preceded it and how the “Press Club Beer and Skits soon became the only one in town, and has maintained the satirical tradition in Winnipeg in the ensuing 50 years.”
“Considering its origin in the theatrical movement of the ‘30s,” said Skene, “it is interesting how much the satirical tradition that Beer and Skits has preserved influenced the theatrical revival of the fifties and sixties. Mother Courage and other weighty dramas aside, it was largely with local satirical revues that John Hirsh and Tom Hendry convinced Winnipeg that we could have a theatre with significant local input and relevance to our own lives. Satirical revues still stand out as the major achievement in original Winnipeg theatrical production. It is an important heritage, satisfying a significant Winnipeg theatrical hunger. It is a tradition which should not be allowed to die.” 
1. Christopher Dafoe, “The Press Club; Beer and Uplift.” Torch on the Prairies. A Portrait of Journalism in Manitoba, 1859–1988, 1988, page 6.
2. Ibid., pages 4–5.
3. Eric Wells, “Unrepentant and Unreformed,” Beer & Skits Program, 1981, page 14.
4. Eric Wells, “Looking Backward,” Beer & Skits Program, 1980, page 25.
5. Ann Henry, “Open Beer and Skits to the Girls: Ann” Beer & Skits Program, 1959, page 8.
6. “Beer and Skits Builds a Tradition,” Beer & Skits Program, 1959, inside last page.
7. Beer and Skits Program, 1983, page 3.
8. Reg Skene, “Theatre Life in the City,” Beer & Skits Program, 1983, page 19.
Page revised: 27 November 2017