Vancouver’s Hippodrome Pipe Dream

Exterior drawing of the proposed Hippodrome for SE Corner, Granville & Pacific.
Province. 25 May 1912.

The drawing above is of the planned Vancouver Hippodrome. [1] It was to have been located on the SE corner of Granville and Pacific at the north end of the Granville Bridge #2 (see image near the end of this post for an attempt to show the Hippodrome in geographical context). [2]

London Hippodrome exterior (as it appeared ca 1900).

The Vancouver Hippodrome was to have been one of several similar theatres across Canada (including — depending on which press account you believe — St. John, Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Port Arthur, Moose Jaw (huh?!), Regina, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver). But the Hippodrome was never built in Vancouver, nor in any of the other cities in which construction was planned. [3]

The Canadian hippodromes were together to form a circuit for the exclusive use of English production companies to get Canadian eyes on English-produced plays. The plays would originally have been on English stages, so there were no additional set-up costs for the plays. Once the theatres were built in Canada, there remained the costs associated with travel and shipping. Captain Montague Yates was the Canadian representative of Canadian Hippodromes Ltd. (or, as it was later known, British-Canadian Amusement Co.).

The financing of the scheme was to be borne primarily by un-named English ‘capitalists’. Three-quarters of the capital necessary would be provided by them. (Ottawa Citizen 23 Nov 1911). The balance would come from the city in which the theatre was to be built.

Hippodrome decision-makers would also be English. William Holles, a big name on the English stage, would be the stage manager of the Vancouver theatre. Although Montague Yates was the Canadian connection in establishing theatre sites, he doesn’t appear to have had much of a role in the operation of theatres, once they were constructed.

Motives

The primary motive of the Hippodrome project was, of course, profit. But profit for whom? The way that the scheme was set up, the bulk of the risk was on the shoulders of the English capitalists. Thus, so was any profit (or loss).

But there were a couple of other motives, apparently.

Yates claimed in an early press report in 1911 that:

[M]any of the best people in Canada do not attend the theatre. . . because they can never be sure whether or not they will have to submit to smut on the stage. We shall give the people the clean English play.

Ottawa Journal. 23 Nov 1911 (Emphasis mine).

I question whether there was anything inherently clean about plays that originated in the Old Country (or, for that matter, anything inherently smutty about Canadian productions)!

According to a later newspaper report, another motive of the Canadian Hippodromes was to prevent the domination of Canadian theatres with American productions (Province 25 May 1912). I find this claim more believable. The number of American plays coming across the 49th parallel was increasing steadily by this time. I doubt that the Hippodrome project was intended to do Canadians any favours, however. I suspect this was more a case of the English capitalists identifying a market niche and attempting to fill it.

Begins to Unravel

Initial signs of the unravelling of the Hippodromes project first became evident in central Canada. An Ottawa paper reported that negotiations by Yates for a theatre site in that city had fallen through:

In Ottawa, as in Montreal and other cities Captain Yates visited, [the plan] called for the investment of Canadian as well as British capital he was supposed to have behind him and this is understood not to have been forthcoming readily. Negotiations for a site therefore have been discontinued . . .

Ottawa Citizen. 28 June 1912 (Emphasis mine).

Endures in Vancouver

In Vancouver, however, the hippodrome plan still had life after the wheels had come off in the major centre of Montreal and in Ottawa (and “other cities”). More than a month after the Ottawa report, the Vancouver Sun was crowing with considerable hyperbole, that the city would soon have, in our hippodrome, “the handsomest playhouse in America”. Details about the theatre that were included in the Sun included (Sun 30 July 1912):

  • Construction: to begin in early August 1912 (it didn’t begin then; indeed, it didn’t get underway at all);
  • Completion: 9 months after work begins;
  • Exterior: Terra cotta;
  • Capacity: 3000 people;
  • Features: 1 royal box; 16 private boxes; promenades; lounging rooms for patrons; ladies’ retiring rooms and sitting rooms; gentlemen’s smoking room;
  • Stage: Dimensions 42 feet wide, 72 feet deep;
  • Estimated cost: $500,000;
  • Architect: Monsieur de H. Duval (London);
  • Managing director: William Holles (London); Holles was a big name in London theatrical circles; he produced and directed many plays there in 1880s-1930s;
  • Productions: Only English theatre companies.
  • Actors anticipated: Sir Herbert Tree (chairman, Theatrical Managers Association, England in 1912; owner of His Majesty’s Theatre, London) was expected to open the Vancouver Hippodrome. Others included: Martin Harvey; Cyril Maude; Fred Terry; Sir George Alexander; Laurence Irving; Mary Forbes; and others.
Crop of CVA 99-2245 – The older (1909) Granville Bridge (north end), ca1926. Stuart Thomson photo. Image adjusted by author with pasting-in of drawing of exterior of Vancouver Hippodrome roughly where it was planned to be built: at SE corner of Granville & Pacific.

‘With a Whimper . . .’

Yates had secured an “option” on the SE corner of Granville and Pacific and was negotiating for the purchase of the property soon thereafter (Province 25 May 1912). It isn’t clear to me whether money ever changed hands for the Granville/Pacific property.

It seems doubtful that any headway was ever made on the construction of the Hippodrome in our city, however. In Spring of 1913, Yates finally admitted that the circuit plan in Vancouver (and thus elsewhere in the nation) was dead. Inscrutably, Yates blamed “Montreal interests” for the failure of the Vancouver theatre. Montreal seems to me to have been a convenient scapegoat. As we have seen, the bulk of the financing came from England; and the balance of capital was to be provided by fundraising in the city in which the theatre was to be located. I can’t see what Montreal funds (or lack thereof) would have to do with the failure of the Vancouver Hippodrome (World 25 March 1913).

My suspicion is that the English investors had developed a severe case of cold feet. Frankly, I doubt that the Canadian Hippodromes scheme would have worked even with several of the major Canadian cities still onboard. The capital outlay for the theatres, plus the shipping and travel and other costs across this very large country would have been staggering. I suspect that this aspect was underestimated by the capitalists.

When all was said and done, the whole scheme seems to have been a pipe dream.

Notes

  1. What is a hippodrome? 19th century references were primarily to circuses or to equestrian events or places where such events were held. By the early years of the 20th century, however, the meaning had shifted to refer to a live theatrical location — a playhouse. This was the meaning attached to the Vancouver Hippodrome (and other planned Canadian hippodromes). There was, in addition to the London Hippodrome, a Bristol Hippodrome and a New York Hippodrome (and these are just two examples).
  2. Since the construction of the new (current) Granville Bridge in 1954, Pacific has run beneath Granville (the two streets no longer cross one another on the same level as they did when the older, lower, bridge was still standing).
  3. The drawing of the Vancouver Hippodrome shown at the beginning of this post is the only one of which I’m aware. None of the other Canadian cities seem to have got to the drawing stage.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Vancouver’s Hippodrome Pipe Dream

  1. Neil Whaley says:

    An enjoyable post, Murray. Martin Harvey rears his head again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s