Happy 2014! After a bit of a break over the holidays from Vanalogue, I’m ready to get back into the swing of things. I am looking forward to celebrating all things analogue in 2014. The first post of 2014, features a little known performance venue from Vancouver’s recent past – The Georgia Auditorium.
Working as a volunteer for the City of Vancouver Archives affords me the opportunity to be constantly surprised by new facets of Vancouver History. One recent example of this happened while I was working on a card catalogue/database project for the Archives’ pamphlet collection. As I was making my way through my assigned drawer, I came across a series of references to a Georgia Auditorium under the subject heading: Famous Artists Ltd. [a live entertainment production company]. I had never heard of this venue before. The following reference in particular intrigued me…
Sir John Gielgud in “Shakespear’s Ages of Man” at the Georgia Auditorium, November 28, 1958. Sir John Gielgud in Vancouver in 1958? Imagine that!
Featuring a selection of Shakespearean soliloquies and sonnets exploring the journey of life from birth to death, Ages of Man was performed to sold-out audiences around the world including, it seems, Vancouver.
As I flipped through the cards, I noticed many other famous names that made their way to Vancouver via the Georgia Auditorium – Jack Benny, Marcel Marceau, Mantovani and Jeanette MacDonald. Time to find out more about the Georgia Auditorium and its place in Vancouver’s history.
Vancouver, known as the “gateway to the Orient”, was a stop on the world tour of live entertainment since the late 19thC/early 20thC. This was primarily due to the fact that Vancouver, as a CPR terminus city, was geographically positioned on the main route from London to the “Far East”. Vancouver was also one of the cities along the west coast (San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Victoria and Dawson City) that saw their populations soar as a result of the Klondike Gold Rush and the increase in trade that followed. The CPR’s (second) Hotel Vancouver opened in 1916 at Georgia and Granville streets beside the (first) Orpheum Theatre (later known as The Lyric – 761 Granville Street) which originally opened in 1891 as an opera house. World class artists like Anna Pavlova, Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt and Canadian-born Vaudeville entertainer, Eva Tanguay made their way to Vancouver during this period.
Vancouver’s live entertainment scene was set by the time the Georgia Auditorium was built (originally as the Denman Auditorium) in 1927 at the corner of West Georgia and Denman. The former site of the Georgia Auditorium is now part of Devonian Harbour Park. A historical marker in the park, put up by the Vancouver Historical Society, reveals the rich history of the area.
In 1911, brothers Frank and Lester Patrick built the Denman Arena on part of the former Kanaka Ranch site. The ranch was settled in the 1860s by several Hawaiian families, who grew fruit and vegetables, and produced charcoal, on the site beside Coal Harbour. The Denman Arena was one of the world’s largest indoor rinks at the time, able to hold up to 10,500 people. It was the home to Vancouver’s first professional hockey team, the Vancouver Millionaires who won the Stanley Cup in 1915 [the only time Vancouver has won the Cup, thus far]. The the brick clad, wooden arena burned down in 1936.
The 2,500 seat Denman Auditorium (aka the Georgia Auditorium), which Frank Patrick built alongside the Denman Arena in 1927, survived the 1936 arena fire. In its early days, the multipurpose auditorium hosted boxing and wrestling matches, rallies and other similar attractions. During World War II, the Auditorium was taken over by the Canadian navy and was temporarily used as storage by Boeing Aircraft. In 1945, Lester Patrick sold the former Arena site and the Auditorium building to Vancouver theatre owner, H. M. Singer. Initially, Singer hoped to build another sports arena on the site, however this project never came to fruition. In 1952, the Denman Auditorium was renovated as a concert venue. It re-opened in September of that year as the Georgia Auditorium. Singer managed the Auditorium as a concert venue until it hosted its final event on June 19th, 1959 – a free show by the CBUT Talent Caravan. It was torn down in September of 1959 and was replaced by a parking lot, a very common occurrence in Vancouver at that time.
In its 32 years, the Georgia Auditorium had seen several owners and had been used for many things, but in the end it was destined to wind up as a parking lot. Its seemingly early demise could be directly attributed to the opening of the modern, 2,765 seat, Queen Elizabeth Theatre on July 5, 1959. The profound impact of the Georgia Auditorium on the local live entertainment scene really only lasted seven years, but what a seven years it was!
On its stage have appeared some of the world’s greatest singers, musicians, dancers, comedians and theatrical performers. Politics have also been an important part of the Georgia Auditorium. In 1957, John Diefenbaker started one of the greatest political sweeps of Canadian history on the stage of the Georgia Auditorium. In that same year, Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent made one of his last public appearances on the federal campaign trail. In the 1950s, BC Premier W.A.C. Bennett and the Social Credit party held many rallies and annual meetings at the Georgia Auditorium.
Other groups also held their important events at the Georgia Auditorium. For several years the student nurses from St. Paul’s Hospital held their graduation ceremonies at the Auditorium. The Labour Council held public meetings concerning growing unemployment. And ethnic and religious groups used the Georgia Auditorium for festivals and pageants.
The Auditorium hosted everything from political rallies to revival meetings. But, probably its greatest role had been that of concert hall. In its heyday the Georgia Auditorium was the “showplace of Georgia Street”.
In July of 1958, the Vancouver International Festival presented The World of the Wonderful Dark, a stage play by Lister Sinclair, at the Georgia Auditorium. The show was directed by Douglas Seale and starred Canadian actor, Barry Morse. The Vancouver International Festival invited Lister Sinclair to write a play incorporating the history of British Columbia. In 1958, BC was celebrating the centennial of its establishment as a British Colony. Sinclair ended up writing a play about the Kwakiutl people of the northwest coast, which I’m sure raised a few eyebrows when he first presented the play to the VIF. Nonetheless, the play was produced (and somewhat predictably for the time) under the leadership of a British director with an all-white cast in bronze body makeup.
The iconic Red Robinson got his start at the Georgia Auditorium at the age of 16. In 1953, he recalled he made his first public appearance on the stage of the Georgia Auditorium “as a guest of the Al Jordan show Theme For Teens. Al broadcast “live” from the venue and our special guest was Frankie Laine”. Two years later, Robinson emceed a show at the Georgia Auditorium called Jazz At The Philharmonic. Jazz greats Lester Young, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald all appeared on the bill.
Robinson was also the emcee for a great early Rock n’ Roll show in October, 1957. Held at the Georgia Auditorium, it was billed the Show of Stars for ’57 and featured Paul Anka, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Knox,The Drifters, Eddie Cochran and many more. Admission to the show was $2 with a top ticket price of $3.75.
Reviews of the show in the local newspapers the next day reveal much about how Rock n’ Roll was contributing to the “generation gap”.
October 24, 1957, Vancouver Sun – Alan Hope, Sun Staff Reporter:
The high priests of rock n’ roll held court in the Georgia Auditorium Wednesday night. They performed the stiff-legged, spasmodic rites of the cult with an unimaginative sameness that makes their wide appeal an enigma. The audience was warned before the show got underway that dancing was forbidden.
On October 24, 1957, The Province Newspaper notes:
The young patrons, the great majority in the 15-year-old bracket, sat through two hours of brash musical noises highlighted by Fats Domino. The first show started at about 7 p.m. and the Auditorium was cleared to allow another show to go on at 9:30 p.m. The Audience was amazingly well behaved as special duty policemen patrolled the aisles. Guitarist Buddy Knox, who rose to fame with a record called “Party Doll” did three songs and was well received.
Red Robinson interviewed Buddy Holly backstage at the Georgia Auditorium on October 23, 1957. The interview can be purchased on iTunes for 99 cents, or heard on YouTube here:
And so, though time for the Georgia Auditorium was fleeting, it certainly made its mark in Vancouver’s entertainment history.