Manitoba Historical Society
     Keeping history alive for over 144 years

Events in Manitoba History: Winnipeg Theatre Fire (23 December 1926)

One of Winnipeg’s earliest theatres, the Victoria Hall, was built by businessman Thomas McCrossan in 1883 along Notre Dame Avenue between Adelaide and Charlotte streets. Later renamed the Bijou Opera House, it became the Winnipeg Theatre in 1897 following the arrival of theatrical entrepreneur C. P. Walker. He spent some $75,000 renovating the building into “a modern playhouse, with galleries, sloping floors, stage and dressing rooms” to host theatrical productions, operas, and public lectures. Walker operated the facility until building the Walker Theatre in 1906 then, the following year, he sold the Winnipeg Theatre to William B. Lawrence. In 1911, J. G. Harvey became a part owner, eventually selling his interest back to Walker.

The building’s configuration, with a 1,000-seat auditorium situated on the second floor over main floor shops, was thought to be a fire hazard. On 23 December 1926, these fears were realized when the brick-veneer, wooden building was destroyed during a massive fire. By the time the fire was reported around 10:30 in the morning, it had already been burning for 30 to 60 minutes. Fireman from Fire Hall Nos. 1 and 2 responded but there was little they could do but train water on the burning building from outside. At 11:30 AM, large portions of the south and west walls had fallen.

In the course of battling the blaze, four Winnipeg firefighters were killed when a wall collapsed. All of the dead firemen, Arthur Smith, Donald Melville, Robert Stewart, and Robert S. Shearer, were from Fire Hall No. 2. Newspaper photographer C. P. Dettloff captured the exact moment when the wall fell, and for the remainder of his life he thought of that photo as his most powerful. He would reminisce that “although I consider it the best news picture I’ve ever taken, there was no pleasure in it then, nor since.”

Winnipeg Theatre Fire

The instant that the Winnipeg Theatre building collapsed, killing four firefighters, was captured by photographer C. P. Dettloff (23 December 1926)
Source: Candace Macpherson


“Inquiry started into Winnipeg Theatre fire,” Manitoba Free Press, 24 December 1926, page 1.

On Stage: Theatre and Theatres in Early Winnipeg by James B. Hartman, Manitoba History, Number 43, Spring/Summer 2002.

We thank Candace Macpherson for providing information used here.

This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.

Page revised: 27 May 2018

MHS YouTube Channel

Back to top of page

For queries on the above page, please contact the MHS Webmaster.

Home  |  Terms & Conditions  |  FAQ  |  Contact Us  |  Privacy Policy  |  Donations

© 1998-2023 Manitoba Historical Society. All rights reserved.