“Information on [J. F.] Langer is . . . difficult to find. There’s nothing on him in the City of Vancouver Archives, nothing in the Special Collections Division of the Vancouver Public Library, precious little elsewhere.”
(Chuck Davis, “A Palace of Entertainment: Vancouver’s Orpheum Turns Seventy-Five”. British Columbia Historical News. Vol. 36, No. 2 (Spring 2003), p. 17.)
I was re-reading Ivan Ackery’s memoirs, recently, when I came across mention of a Mr. J. F. Langer. He was the man who built the Orpheum Theatre (B. M. Priteca, architect) and several Vancouver suburban movie theatres (none extant, except the Orpheum).
Why hadn’t I heard of this guy before, I wondered? Surely there must be more to his story.
So I began to dig. And dig. And . . . well, you get the idea. I discovered what Chuck Davis had learned earlier: that the smallest detail about J. F. Langer is hard won (1).
I make no claim to have written the ‘last word’ on Mr. Langer, but I think I’ve filled in a couple of blanks about his life and career.
Joseph Francis Langer was born in Langendorf, Germany in 1872 into a Roman Catholic family (how could they be anything but, with their son having given names that paid tribute to two saints?) Who his parents were and what siblings he had, I haven’t been able to determine. The Langer family didn’t stay in Germany long after John Jr. was born, however. By the time he reached the age of 6, the family was settled in South Africa.
During the South Africa years, Langer apprenticed as a bricklayer and began to take on construction work. Many of his jobs consisted of home-building. But there were other projects that supported the South African mining industry, including construction of a cyanide plant. I wasn’t able to find any details about this job, but then (as now) gold cyanidation was an important means of extracting gold in mining operations.
Langer married Henrietta Maria (Hattie) Langer in 1894 in South Africa (her single surname is unknown to me). She bore 10 kids; 7 lived. They were, from eldest to youngest (with approximate birth year): May (1894); Cecil (1895); Dorothy (1902); Basil (1903); Elaine (1904); Ivan (1906); Irene (1919).
Hattie was a couple of years older than Langer (born ca1870). It looks as though Hattie died in the early ’20s, although that is sheer deduction. I could not find any hard evidence of that.
In 1908 (when Langer was 36), he left South Africa for the San Francisco/Oakland area. There, he continued to build homes for a living.
Sometime in 1911, he moved to Vancouver. During this first stint here, both his residence and business address appear to have been 1715 Woodland Drive (near East 1st Ave. in the Grandview district). (2) He worked as a general contractor, principally on home builds.
Shortly after the Great War began, he left Canada for England. Why? It seems he was flat broke. He said of his financial status upon leaving Vancouver for England in 1914: “I had no money when I went back” (3). If anything, that was an understatement. The fact is, Langer left several creditors in the Vancouver area. (4)
Langer claimed that he was ‘robbed’ by certain Vancouver interests while working here the first time (5). Precisely which firms Langer was pointing at with this claim is unclear, with one exception: he made it pretty plain that he held the architectural firm of Townsend & Townsend to blame for at least some of his financial woes (6). He doesn’t get into any detail about precisely how these architects ‘robbed’ him. It could well be that his antipathy regarding the firm was an extreme case of the not unusual ‘oil and water’ situation between architects and builders. It strikes me as odd that he lashed out at the Townsends, however, as there is no record in the online list of early Vancouver building permits of any projects on which Langer was builder on the same jobs as the Townsends were architects. Possibly, the online record is incomplete. It just isn’t clear.
Langer’s next nine years were spent in England earning, by all accounts, a lot of money in the construction business; his net worth, by his own admission, was in the vicinity of $2 million toward the end of his time in England (7). According to Douglas McCallum, he was a “pioneer in developing planned suburbs, which included sidewalks, gutters, sewers and street lighting.” (8). Presumably that was what he was what he was up to in England.
Setting Up House
By August 1923, Langer turned 51 and that year he took his millions and settled in Vancouver. It seems that his plan upon returning to the Canadian west coast was “not to do anything at all” (9). He was ready to put down tools and enjoy an ‘early retirement’ in the land of the Lotus.
But what was the sense of having millions of dollars and being retired without a classy place to call home, and a wife to lavish his earnings upon? (You’ll recall that his first wife seems to have died by this period).
Shortly after arriving in Vancouver for the second time, he married Jennie Louise Farley (nee Inns). Jennie had just divorced her husband, Harold Farley, with whom she’d had four kids: Jack (1904); Barbara (1906), Harold Jr. (1908), and Frank (1920). Jennie and Joseph were married by a Justice of the Peace in Washington State in May 1925.
In 1924, Langer bought a home for himself and his bride-to-be at 3290 Granville Street (in the tony Shaughnessy Heights district). This was a single family dwelling at the time (in recent years, it has been converted into condominium units). Langer bought the house from Mr. and Mrs. West, fully furnished. And judging from the value placed on the furniture by West and paid by Langer ($10,000), it wasn’t furnished cheaply (10).
Building TheatresAccording to McCallum, during Langer’s second time in Vancouver, he retained his very fruitful business in England. Apparently, among his assets (not necessarily located in the Vancouver area) were “a gravel pit, a cement plant, real estate and mining interests,” his home at 3290 Granville, a black stallion named Salvador that was so impressive that he’d lend it to the City Police for use in parades, and two cars: a Rolls Royce and a maroon Daimler complete with a matching maroon-liveried chauffeur (11).
By 1925-26, despite his later claim that he had intended to “do nothing” in Vancouver, he had built several (cookie-cutter) suburban theatres: the Kerrisdale, the Alma, the Victoria, the Fraser, the Grandview, and the Windsor. These theatres together, briefly, comprised the Langer Circuit. (12) He built the Orpheum in 1927 and leased it to the Orpheum Circuit.
Ivan Ackery, who would take over the management of the Orpheum, outlines what happened next:
“1928 was to be an important year in my life . . . N. L. Nathanson, representing Paramount Pictures and Famous Players Canadian Corporation, arrived in Vancouver for a big meeting at which he announced that Famous Players was going to take over the Langer Circuit and that included, eventually, the big Theatre . . . that had opened on November 27, 1927 – the New Orpheum.” (13)
Langer suffered serious financial losses in the 1929 stock market crash and he returned to England shortly thereafter to rescue his construction company there. (14)
In 1932, there was a report in the Oakland Tribune that Jennie Langer was filing suit against J. F. Langer for “separate maintenance” of $400/month against him. She said that they had been separated since November, 1931.
In describing her husband’s ability to pay for her support, Mrs. Langer states that Langer owns a $50,000 home in Vancouver, B.C., a $20,000 interest in the Bonanza mine in Amador county, $60,000 worth of stocks and bonds bought during the last year, mining machinery in Canada worth $12,000 and the annual income from England of $100,000. (15)
McCallum maintains that Langer died in 1943 in England. But according to documents I have seen, the year of his death was closer to 1948. (16)
Jennie lived until 1954. During her final years alone, her accommodation in Vancouver changed every couple years, evidently slowly declining in quality — from 4911 Blenheim St. (1938) to 1400 W. 8th (1940) to 1465 W 14th (1942) to 1006 W 16th (1943) to apartment living on the east side at #7 – 111 E 26th Ave. (1947) and then back to the west side at 1336 W 13th (1951) and to 4151 Rumble in Burnaby (1954) then to 7042 Bellcara Dr (with her son, Frank) in 1954 and, finally, to the Home for the Aged in Coquitlam, where she died, later that same year.
1. I am indebted to Robert of westendvancouver for contributing to research for this post.
2. There is an odd twist to Langer’s life during this period in B.C. which I haven’t been able to fit into the narrative. The source is a single paragraph in the Omineca Miner (a Hazelton, BC publication) of January 10, 1914. It reads as follows: “J. F. Langer of the B.C. Contracting Co. has returned from a business visit to Vancouver accompanied by Mrs. Langer. They have taken possession of their new residence opposite the Anglican Church. ” There are at least a couple of interesting features in this brief blurb: First, it seems from this that Langer had a home in Hazelton which he shared with “Mrs. Langer” — presumably not Jennie Farley at this very early stage. Second, it strikes me as odd that Langer would be buying a property in Hazleton presumably while owning his Vancouver lot at 1715 Woodland, given his story some years later of being stone broke by the time he left Vancouver in December 1914!
3. Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) Joseph Francis Lagner v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.121. This appeal by Langer to the JCPC of a BC court decision in favour of the McTavish Bros. is a treasure trove of testimony in Langer’s own words. The details of the case aren’t particularly germane to this post, but if interested, they can be found in the early pages of the Record of Proceedings.
4. They included: Everett Sash & Door; Cullen builders’ Supplies & Equipment, Clarke Bros. Hardware; Kydd Bros, Hardware; Wright-Cameron (don’t see this firm in the 1913 city directory); Williams & Co. (this might have been the A. R. Williams Machinery Co.; and Northern Electric.
5. JCPC Lagner v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.122. Note: Upon returning to Vancouver in 1923, he made a deal to pay his creditors; this wasn’t for the full amount owed, but for some fraction of that amount.
6. JCPC Lagner v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.123.
7. JCPC Lagner v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.123.
8. Douglas McCallum. Vancouver’s Orpheum: The Life of a Theatre. City of Vancouver, 1984, 9.
9. JCPC Lagner v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.123.
10. BC Reports Langer v. McTavish Bros. 1932, p. 494.
11. McCallum, p9. Ivan Ackery, Fifty Years on Theatre Row, Hancock House, 1980, p. 84.
12. McCallum, p9.
13. Ackery, p.90.
14. McCallum, p.9.
15. “Wife Sues for $400 a month,” Oakland Tribune 4 Non 1932, p.12.
16. Ancestry.com. England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2007.