Manitoba History: The Press Club Middle Years

by Sheilla Jones
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 70, Fall 2012

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The story of the middle years of the Winnipeg Press Club is best told in pictures, provided largely by club members who were noted news photographers.

The Winnipeg Press Club found its feet after it was rejuvenated in 1922, and by the time the annual Beer & Skits got underway in 1933, the club had become part of the fabric of the city. Club events often rated a mention in daily newspapers, perhaps because the newspaper editors were typically on the club’s executive and didn’t mind giving the club a little free publicity.

The club raised its profile by hosting dinners starring wellknown guest speakers. In 1924, for instance, the club hosted Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who had once been a reporter for a number of Toronto newspapers, including The Globe. [1] King noted the WPC event in his diary for 4 November 1924. “… the Press Club of Winnipeg tendered us a reception. We met all the members present, about 75 or 100. Made a short speech referring to trip and days on the Toronto papers, was given a good reception.” [2]

During the Second World War years, the Press Club held public events as well. One of the members in the 1950s recalled, “Speakers of international renown were brought here, and on every one of these the club made money. We packed the Civic Auditorium on many occasions, and we gave the public value for its money at fifty cents per seat.” [3]

Of particular note is the Press Club dinner honouring retiring Winnipeg Free Press editor John W. Dafoe, celebrating his sixty years in journalism. It turned into an international event. Public figures and journalists from across Canada gathered at the Royal Alexandra Hotel on 16 October 1943. It also attracted Vories Fisher, photographer of Life magazine, and four men from the National Film Board. As the Free Press reported in the Monday edition, “Modern camera appliances, including Klieg lights, kept the room in alternate light and dusk, and a public address system carried the speakers’ voices until it was turned off during the CBC broadcast which gave Dr. Dafoe’s address over the national network.” [4]

In his speech, which aired live on CBC Radio, Dafoe recalled the influences of some of his early colleagues at the Free Press, such as editor Archibald McNee, who had urged him to come to Winnipeg, his “chief” Walter Payne, and William Luxton, founder of the Free Press. Luxton was, said Dafoe, a man whose “language was the most explosive I ever heard” but who was, nonetheless, “a generous square-shooter.” [5]

In a measure of the Press Club’s esteem for Dafoe, the members present unanimously voted to award him an honorary lifetime membership in the club, thereby relieving him of paying membership dues he had been paying almost every year since being a founding board member in 1887. [6] (The benefit for Dafoe was short-lived as he died four months later.) Dafoe reminded the journalists in the audience that, whether they were aware of it or not, they were writing history. “I would suggest to any young newspaperman that he take special notice of the historic value of the news he is handling. It is all in the day’s work at the time. You write an article, and it goes into the paper, and that is all there is to it—at that time. But you must remember you are dealing with history; you are dealing with things that are a turning-point in the history of your country.” [7]

Journalists are still writing history, as they were then. The Press Club stayed in the public eye and became part of the historical record, particularly during the club’s busy middle years from the 1950s to the 1980s, thanks to members such as columnists Gene Telpner (WPC president 1963) and Jimmy King (WPC president 1985).

Many news photographers were members of the Press Club, including Lewis Foote, Hugh Allan (WPC president 1958) and Les Doherty (WPC president 1957), and that meant there were lots of pictures being taken. The Press Club also recorded its affairs in the Beer & Skits programs, which also served as the Press Club’s yearbooks from about 1951 through to the early 1980s. The following pages combine the photo and yearbook history of the club as it grew and sought to reach for the stars.

Upstairs, Downstairs: Rooms for the Club

Winnipeg Press Club members had very nice quarters in the brand new City Hall in 1887, but that only lasted a few years. After that, the newsmen met at restaurants or members’ homes. Or they held events at various restaurants and hotels, such as the baseball wrap-up parties at the modest Vendome Hotel or grand dinners at the upscale Fort Garry Hotel.

The newsmen—and now radio men— found a place of their own in 1953 in the Northern Life Assurance building at Main and Graham streets. But to reach the 3rd-floor club meant climbing a lot of stairs … 61 to be exact. It was up to the younger and fitter members to haul cases of beer up all those stairs for the club’s bootleg operation. With a $15,000 mortgage from Eaton’s, the club was able to turn their rooms into a model of modernity.

In 1961, the club opted for a more accessible location, this time down the marble staircase to a new club room with a licensed bar in the basement of the Marlborough Hotel. The furniture remained much the same, but with its brick and beams, the club looked more like a traditional men’s club.

It was time to move again in 1971, this time up to the mezzanine level in the hotel. The club’s beautiful stained-glass windows made it a most attractive location for the men—and now women—members from newspapers, radio, and television. For the official opening in 1972, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau performed the ritual christening of the club. The club presented him with an engraved pewter stein, and he used it to pour beer on the carpet, thus signalling the club was officially open.

The club returned to the Marlborough basement for a few more years before giving up its club rooms for good in 2007. The Press Club once again meets in hotels, restaurants and bars.

61 Steps. In the 1950s, members in the Main Street club rooms had to climb the dreaded 61 steps up to the bar. These two unidentified rumps are rumoured to be Eric Wells of the Winnipeg Tribune (WPC president 1953) and brother Jack Wells of CJOB Radio.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Two unidentified reporters interview Major General E. H. Macklin in the Press Club rooms downstairs in the Marlborough Hotel, circa 1962.
Source: University of Winnipeg, Western Canada Pictorial Index

In 1972, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau “christens” the floor of the Press Club with his beer, under the approving eye of WPC president Dave Bonner.
Source: University of Winnipeg, Western Canada Pictorial Index

The Newspaper Wars: Press Club Neutral Ground for Reporters

The Manitoba Free Press (founded in 1872) and The Winnipeg Tribune (founded in 1890) were bitter enemies, right from the start. Depending on the fierceness of the editor of the day, reporters caught fraternizing with the enemy risked being fired on the spot.

The Winnipeg Press Club was a safe haven … neutral ground. Trib and Free Press reporters could share a story and a beer without fear of losing their jobs. It helped that the Press Club, after 1953, was just a short walk from both newsrooms in downtown Winnipeg.

The Free Press and Tribune were forced to call a temporary truce in 1945 due to a labour dispute with their typesetters. The two rivals put out a joint newspaper for several months … after which the regularly scheduled newspaper wars resumed.

Rivals find common ground at the Press Club. Competing editors share a chuckle at the Press Club in 1975 over the first 1945 edition of the joint Free Press/Tribune newspapers. Left, Gordon Sinclair (1951 WPC president), assistant managing editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and right, Eric Wells (1953 WPC president), managing editor of The Winnipeg Tribune.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

On this side, the Free Press ... (c1939)
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

And on the other, the Tribune ... (1957)
Source: University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections

Giving Back to the Community: Batting for Charity

Baseball has long been a part of Press Club traditions. In 1973, WPC formed its own baseball league, hosting the popular Knuckleball Classic slo-pitch tournament. This annual charity event combined the club members’ enthusiasm for baseball and beer gardens with a desire to give back to the community. For 30 years, the charity tourney raised funds for numerous worthy causes in Winnipeg, particularly the Firefighters Burn Fund and the Lifesaving Society.

A plaque commemorating Morris Duchov, founder of the Press Radio Scholarship Fund for Orphans, was unveiled at the Winnipeg Press Club. In 2011, it was donated to The Winnipeg Foundation.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

The Winnipeg Press Club has a long history of giving back to the community, in big ways and in small, from organizing sports tournament awards to taking a pie in the face to raise money for the disabled.

The Press Club was an enthusiastic participant in the antics at Schmockey Night, an annual family fun night at the Winnipeg Arena. Many of the talented radio and news personalities who honed their comedy skills at Beer & Skits took to the ice against an equally talented team of city and provincial politicians, all to raise money for Manitobans with disabilities. In 1972, the Press Club was awarded the national Ability Fund Award. CJOB radio personality Cliff Gardner, a Schmockey Night original, accepted the award in Ottawa on behalf of the Press Club.

The Press Radio Scholarship Fund for Orphans was founded in 1954 by Morris Duchov, a popular Winnipeg restauranteur, with the help of the radio and print newsmen of the Press Club. Duchov wanted to be sure orphans like him got a good education. The fund endowment of $150,000 that Duchov left to the Press Club went to the Winnipeg Foundation.

Schmockey Night hi-jinx. Facing off on the ice at Schmockey Night at the Winnipeg Arena, where Winnipeg Press Club members joined the media hockey team to do battle against the politicians’ team, and raise money for Manitobans with disabilities.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

The Politics of the Press Club

The Winnipeg Press Club entertained Canadian politicians of all stripes, from prime ministers such as Mackenzie King in 1924 and Pierre Trudeau in 1972, to premiers, mayors and a few Governors General.

The Press Club was certainly the place to be in the fall of 1961 and spring of ’62 when all three federal party leaders became honorary club members. Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker dropped into the club in September, and Liberal leader Lester Pearson showed up a month later, both receiving honorary Press Club memberships. Tommy Douglas, the newly anointed leader of the NDP, didn’t get his honorary club membership until the spring of 1962, when he was the guest speaker at the club’s 75th annual dinner.

A Press Club membership did not, however, bestow upon them great fortune. In the election of June 1962, Pearson failed to defeat Diefenbaker to become prime minister, though the Diefenbaker government was reduced to a shaky minority. Douglas failed to win a seat in Saskatchewan.

During the 1961 visit of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to the Press Club, president Pat Burrage showed him the Tombstone in the Graveyard of Journalism—“30” denotes the end of press releases. Many of Winnipeg’s early newspapers lived only a short time. By 1961, the only two surviving papers were the Winnipeg Free Press and The Winnipeg Tribune. The “Freep” lives on, but the “Trib” went to its grave in 1980, and from its demise arose the Winnipeg Sun.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Liberal leader Lester Pearson signed the Press Club guest book as Bill MacPherson (WPC president 1955) looks on.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

NDP leader Tommy Douglas spoke at the 75th annual Press Club dinner, in 1962.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Celebrity Central

The Winnipeg Press Club has always enjoyed a close relationship with the theatre community. In 1889, the Press Club joined forces with local thespians in a benefit show, staging W. S. Gilbert’s satire “On Guard” at the Princess Theatre. It was not surprising that touring celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin could often be found dining and drinking with Winnipeg’s newsmen.

Celebrities regularly dropped by when the Press Club opened its own clubrooms on Main Street in 1953. Charlie Mazzone, the owner of Rancho Don Carlos, the city’s top nightclub, said he’d be happy to have his visiting celebrities stop in at the club. The club directors liked the idea. As reported by the Tribune, “a quorum was quickly assembled by the club executive to discuss the deal and, as a result, Press Club members can expect to see among their guests Lena Horne, Rudy Valee, the Mills Brothers and their ilk.” When the club moved to the Marlborough Hotel in 1961 it was conveniently handy to the Walker Theatre, the Concert Hall and other downtown venues.

Actors, comedians, authors, singers and even wrestlers brought music, stories and laughter to the club. Singers Juliette and Robert Goulet would drop by, and so would comedians Wayne and Shuster and musician Les Paul. Some of the more interesting guests included singer Maxine Ware (1955); comedian Dave Broadfoot, and R&B group Harry Douglas and the Deep River Boys (1957); TV’s “Mr. Fix It” Peter Whittall (1958); pop group The Crew Cuts, entertainer Anita Bryant, country singers Homer and Jethro, and comedian Bud Abbott (1961); author Pierre Berton (1974); New York madam Xaviera Hollander and porn star Linda Lovelace (1975); wrestlers Gene Kiniski and Mad Dog Vachon (1984); and cartoonist Lynn Johnston (1989).

Actor Ed Asner, 1993.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Actor Larry Linville, 1994.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Cartoonist Ben Wicks, 1998.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Royal Canadian Air Farce members display their honorary Press Club memberships, 1993. L-R, Don Ferguson, John Morgan, Luba Goy, WPC event organizer Mona McClintock, and Roger Abbott.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Bill MacPherson (WPC president 1955) introduces famed photographer Yousuf Karsh to the audience at the 1953 Beer & Skits. Karsh was about to shoot a photograph of the audience from the stage. Unfortunately, that photo will not be found in any Karsh collection because it turned out that someone forgot to load the film into the old Speed Graphic camera.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

The Message from Media Pros: Debate

The Press Club provided a forum for journalists to debate issues of the day, sometimes featuring heated “bearpit” sessions. These enlightening debates allowed politicians to drop their gloves and journalists to speak frankly. Whether it was sharing the horrors of covering wars or clarifying the critical role the media plays during a hostagetaking, journalists shared the good, the bad and the ugly of their profession with each other.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, 2004.
Source: Jason Halstead

CBC hosts Adrienne Clarkson and Lee Major (WPC president, 1989).
Source: John Tyler, Winnipeg Press Club

CBC foreign correspondent Joe Schlesinger, Eric Wells Foundation speaker, 1989.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Los Angeles Examiner editor Jim Richardson, 1958.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Harry Mardon (WPC president 1964) with Lord Devlin (British Press Council), 1963.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club

Bob Woodward and colleague Carl Bernstein are two of the best known journalists in North America, helping win a Pulitzer Prize in the spring of 1973 for the Washington Post for their exposure of the Watergate scandal. Woodward was at the Winnipeg Press Club in November 1973 as the fall-out from their investigation was sending shock waves through Washington. He expressed his concern at how the decline of investigative journalism in the media makes it too easy “for governments to lie to the nation.”

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, 1973.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press

Epilogue: Politics, Sexism and the Old Days

The Winnipeg Press Club struggled through some trying times during its 125 years, particularly when it came to who could join the club and who was shut out.

It took significant persuasion of the Press Club members, dominated by publishers, editors, reporters and photographers from the Winnipeg Free Press and The Winnipeg Tribune, just to open the club to newsmen in the radio business. That didn’t happen until 1953, and only after broadcaster Jack Wells put pressure on his brother Eric, who happened to be the club president in 1953.

Membership rules changed again in 1970, this time to allow women journalists to join, but it did not go down well with the men who didn’t want to see their men-only enclave invaded by women. The sexism issue stirred up a political hornet’s nest, both provincially and nationally.

In January 1970, Winnipeg MP Stanley Knowles protested the barring of women members by Ottawa’s National Press Club, taking the issue to the floor of the House of Commons. Knowles was, however, greatly “vexed” when Ottawa reporters pointed out that the Press Club in Winnipeg also refused to accept women as members. [8]

The issue had made it to the floor of the Manitoba Legislature by June, when an opposition member challenged Premier Ed Schreyer about whether the NDP’s new human rights bill addressed the kind of sex discrimination practised by the Winnipeg Press Club. Schreyer said he didn’t think so, and added, “If the Winnipeg Press Club wants to continue being a mossback institution, [9] I say let them live in the past.” [10]

The Press Club faced pressure from without in the form of women picketing outside the club and pressure from within from members who were quite happy to have women journalists join them. After much heated discussion, members voted 20 to 11 to admit women as members, on 8 October 1970. [11] At least one member was so bitter that he took out a classified ad declaring it was “a cruel and sad end to a glorious era.” [12] There was still the sexism battle to be fought once again as the board running Beer & Skits drew a hard line against allowing women into the show, a battle that they eventually lost in 1984.

Expanding membership to include women turned out to be a good thing for the club. By the late 1970s, the membership had soared to well over 300 members, representing a significant slice of Winnipeg’s media professionals putting the news in print and on the air.

But tough times lay ahead. The Tribune closed its doors in 1980, and was replaced by the Winnipeg Sun, but the Sun soon located a long way from the downtown in an industrial park. In 1991, the Free Press vacated the “Old Lady of Carlton Street” and moved out to the same industrial park.

The Press Club was no longer a handy place where journalists could stop off for a drink—although the Press Club baseball league kept the place hopping on many a night—and the pace and style of the news business had changed. People were also becoming more aware of the issues around drinking and driving, leading them to spend less time and cash at the club bar. It was getting harder and harder to sustain the finances of the Press Club and to pay for bar stock, to staff the bar and to cover the rent at the Marlborough. The pressure to keep the bar financially viable meant opening up membership to just about anyone willing to pay the membership fee. By the mid-1990s, the number of media professionals in the club had shrunk dramatically from the 1970s, so that it was not so much a “press club” as a social club with long media history.

The board in 2004 wanted to close the bar, which had moved back downstairs to its original location in the Marlborough, but there was still a strong desire among remaining members to keep it going. However, when financial reality (and the impact of the smoking ban) made it impossible to continue, the Press Club closed its bar and rooms in 2007. The Winnipeg Press Club was not the only press club in that situation. Many other press clubs in Canada and the US shifted away from the expense of having their own club rooms and met instead in bars or restaurants.

In 2012, the Winnipeg Press Club—meeting in bars and restaurants—is celebrating its 125th anniversary, and looking back on a remarkable history of a club started by newspaper publishers, editors and reporters seeking to nourish a little collegial esprit de corps amid the cut-throat competitiveness of the news business—on a bitterly cold winter night in February 1887.


1. Arthur Milnes, “Mackenzie King : The Young Journalist,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, available on-line at issue.asp?param=142&art=940

2. W. L. Mackenzie King, 4 November 1924, The Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Library and Archives Canada, page 362.

3. Frank H. Williams, 18 April 1953, WPC Yearbook/Beer & Skits program, page 10.

4. Winnipeg Free Press, 18 October, 1943, page 3.

5. Ibid., page 3.

6. Ibid., page 3.

7. Ibid., page 3.

8. Winnipeg Free Press, 28 January 1970, page 1.

9. The term “mossback” refers to either an old turtle with moss on its back or a very conservative, old-fashioned person. The Press Club’s newsletter later took the name “The Mossback.”

10. Winnipeg Free Press, 19 June 1970, page 30.

11. Winnipeg Free Press, 9 October 1970, page 51.

12. Winnipeg Free Press, 10 October 1970, page 41.

Page revised: 15 July 2023