The Stock Theatre Companies of George B. Howard

George B. Howard with Ray B. Collins and Charles E. Royal, actors and co-managers of the Empress Theatre Stock Co. (1917-1921). Courtesy: Tom Carter Collection.

George B. Howard (1868-1921) was a well-known figure in Vancouver in the 19-teens and twenties. He got his start in Vancouver at the Lyric Theatre (Pender at Hamilton), moved on to the Avenue Theatre (Main at Georgia) and finished at the Empress (Hastings at Gore). He produced many, many live dramas here and he and his colleagues deserve to be better known in Vancouver today and in the wider world for their work.

Early Years

Howard was born George Howard Bacchus in Norfolk, Virginia in 1867, the eldest of three boys, to James and Virginia [1]. He married Florence Smith in 1890. Howard and Smith both had a desire to be in theatre work, so they teamed up to become the Howard-Dorset Stock Company [1]; Smith took the stage name “Flora Dorset”. Starting in 1898, Howard-Dorset stayed pretty close to home, in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Beginning ca1901, they established a circuit of cities and towns in the Midwest states consisting of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin. This continued until 1907, when the company moved out to California and Nevada and then did some performances in Edmonton and Calgary. Interestingly, Howard-Dorset didn’t play Vancouver.

Sometime between 1907 and 1910, I’m assuming, Howard and Dorset divorced. Howard married a Vancouver woman, Theodora Schroer, in 1910 and had a daughter with her in ca1912 whom they named Virginia Betty Bacchus. Dorset/Smith married Lewis Park Kelly of Peoria, Illinois in 1915 (Fort Wayne, Indiana 15 Feb 1915). Bacchus’s marriage to Theodora lasted less than a decade; she divorced him in 1918. Theodora, like Florence, was an actress; her stage name was Betty Jonson.

Lyric Theatre (1908-1910)

CVA 99-4107 – Original site of Lyric Theatre (1906-present) at Pender and Hamilton (known as the Odd Fellow’s Hall – although, I don’t think it hosts the IOOF today). 1931. Stuart Thomson photo.

Howard began his dramatic work in Vancouver at the ‘cosy’ theatre known as the Lyric [2]. The capacity of this space would have been very limited; perhaps 250-300 people. As is visible in the image below, there was no ‘theatre seating’; the audience was seated on chairs at a single level.

From the.1908 Vancouver Elite Directory (Thanks to Tom Carter for directing me to this terrific interior image of the Lyric).

Howard’s company began performing at the Lyric on November 18th, 1907 with the four-act society comedy, “Christopher, Jr.”, with Howard in the title role. This was followed in rapid succession on November 28th by the 3-hour comedy, “Hello Bill!”. Other productions followed with similar frequency. This was typical of the Howard company; they would run a new play every couple weeks. It is staggering to me how the cast was able to memorize lines for a new production so often!

Most of Howard’s productions at the Lyric tended towards the comedic/farce end of the dramatic spectrum [3]. But his company was capable of taking on heavier subjects, too (e.g., “The Young Mrs. Winthrop” and “An Innocent Sinner”). These weightier-themed productions might fairly be called melodramas.

Members of Howard Stock Company at Lyric Theatre [4]

  • Stella Adams
  • Oliver Bailey
  • Huron L. Blyden
  • Virginia Brissac
  • Dorothy Davis
  • Marion Dunn
  • Arthur Elton
  • Frank Fanning
  • Hilda Graham
  • Betty Jonson (Betty Jonson was her stage name; her actual name was Theodora Schrorer — George Howard’s second wife) [5]
  • Guy Kitner
  • Thomas H. Kruger
  • Harry Lewin
  • Godfrey Mathews
  • Dorcas Matthews
  • Charles Marion
  • Charles E. Murphy
  • Ernest Murphy
  • Charles Norton
  • James Barrie Norton
  • Adelaide Power
  • Abel Preston
  • Stella Razeto
  • Maybelle Thompson
  • Noel Travers
  • Norma Yeager

The Howard company finished their time at the Lyric in 1910 not with a single play, but by putting on four of their all-time audience favourites: The Man From Mexico, Father and the Boys, Other Peoples’ Money, and the very popular, Charley’s Aunt. The last of these was perhaps the most popular of all the Howard productions and could be counted on regularly to pack in sell-out crowds.

Avenue Theatre (1911-1913)

CVA 99-121 – The Avenue Theatre (1910-1935) at Georgia and Main. It was replaced by a Standard Service Station in 1925, and today is the site of BC Hydro’s Murrin Substation). 1918. Stuart Thomson photo.

Howard took a break from Vancouver after finishing at the Lyric. He took his company to Alaska (where they had a limited run) and Honolulu (where they spent 3 months). They came back to Vancouver after doing Hawaii where they put on a few old favourites at the Lyric. Then, not to be an idler, Howard took his company to Southern Alberta for a limited run at theatres in Calgary and Lethbridge.

In May 1911, when his new theatre, The Avenue, opened at the SW corner of Main and the first Georgia Viaduct, he started a “new” stock company there, opening with Father and the Boys. Like the Lyric, this theatre was also described in press clippings as being ‘cosy’, but the audience capacity was much greater (World April 11, 1911). The Avenue was estimated to hold upwards of 1200. Unfortunately, construction wasn’t quite finished before the curtain went up:

To the tune of hammering and pounding from the back of the curtain, George Howard came to the front and made a really excellent little speech asking his patrons to be patient with him and all would be well. He also expressed his intention of living and dying right in the theatre if the people of Vancouver would only give him their support.

World. April 11, 1911

Members of the Howard Company at The Avenue

In 1911-1912, Howard served as lessee and manager of The Avenue. From 1913-July 1917, however, he didn’t have his own stock company in Vancouver and he gave up his position as manager of The Avenue. However, he remained an Avenue stockholder for the rest of his days.

Empress Theatre (1917-1921)

Item – Bu N134 – Empress Theatre (1908-1940), just before its demolition in 1940 to make way for retail space (and, much more recently, for a housing development). W. J. Moore photo.

The Empress Theatre was dedicated in June 1908. It had a stock theatre company for a few years that was led by Lawrence and Sandusky.

By 1917, the Empress Stock Company was co-led by “the big three” shown in the first photo in this post: Ray B. Collins, Charles E. Royal, and George B. Howard. The company and its leadership would be among the most successful ever to operate in Vancouver. Indeed, it was believed by some to be the best stock company on the Pacific Coast.

The sheer volume of plays produced at the Empress [6] and how many of the stock company went on to have film careers (which you can get some sense of by clicking on the links in the lists of members), I find remarkable. Vancouver and the Empress Theatre Stock Company, in particular, was an un-acknowledged nursery for Hollywood in those early years.

In many of the ads for Empress Theatre plays, added to the text can be found “Not a moving picture”, to make it abundantly clear that what were being advertised were live productions.

Members of the Empress Stock Company

  • Byron Aldenn
  • Robert Athon
  • Sherman Bainbridge
  • Marie Baker
  • Janet Cathro
  • Ray B. Collins (Collins most famous role was as homicide detective Lieutenant Arthur Tragg in the CBS Perry Mason series in the 1960s)
  • Daisy D’Avara (Alf T. Layne’s wife)
  • Etta Delmas
  • Eddie Edward
  • Edythe Elliott (Charles Royal’s wife until their divorce – in 1925?)
  • Charlotte Fletcher
  • Mary Fletcher
  • Thomas Foster
  • G. Richard Frazier
  • Eva Goodrich
  • Evelyn Hambly
  • Rodney Hildebrand
  • George B. Howard
  • Val Howland
  • James Kirkwood
  • Charlotte Lawrence
  • Eddie Lawrence
  • Robert Lawrence
  • Alf. T. Layne
  • Joe Lawless (also a scenery artist)
  • Junius Leonard
  • Margaret Marriott (Ray Collins’ wife until their divorce in 1924)
  • Dorothy Mitchell
  • J. Barrie Norton
  • Freda Padmore
  • O.S. Penny
  • Alice Round
  • Charles E. Royal
  • “Little” Edith Royal (Edythe’s & Charles’ daughter)
  • Howard Russell
  • Jerome Sheldon
  • Walter Seigfried
  • Jim Smith
  • Jessie Ward
  • Peggy Webster
  • Louis Weithoff

Deaths


George B. Howard died from a stroke two hours after playing “Cappy Ricks” on March 17, 1921. It was a sudden and quick end for the 53-year-old actor/manager.

An appropriately theatrical funeral was held on March 22:

Vancouver paused awhile this afternoon while the curtain was being slowly and reverently lowered on the last scene of the last act in the drama of the career of George B. Howard. As the mournful strains of “The Dead March in Saul” floated through the air, and the muffled drum of the B.P.O.E. band heralded the approach of the cortege shortly after 2.30 o’clock from Christ Church, thousands of citizens in the busy downtown section of the city left their places of business, made their way to the streets and stood with bared heads while all that was mortal of the stage favorite passed on to its last resting place in Ocean View burial park.

World. 22 March 1921

But even in death, George Howard took a curtain call.

It seems that he had been on good terms for awhile prior to his passing with Charlotte Sophia (“Dot”) Williams, Percy Williams’ Mom (Percy was the “world’s fastest human” in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games). Whether Howard and “Dot” were romantically involved or not, isn’t clear. “Dot” worked in the Empress Theatre box office, and Howard wrote a codicil to his will, leaving his residence at 196 West 12th Avenue to her. When the existence of the codicil became known, his second wife, Theodora Stoddard (nee Schroer) sued his estate on behalf of their daughter, to whom he’d initially left his Vancouver home. The judge ultimately squashed the suit, as Howard had left Virginia Betty Bacchus very well provided for.

Williams was allowed to keep the home on 12th Avenue and when she died in 1980, her final resting place in Ocean View Burial Park was adjacent to that of George B. Howard (Sun 7 Dec 1922, p.11). [7]

The Empress Stock Company carried on for several years after Howard’s death. But by 1940, live theatre had been eclipsed by motion pictures and in May of that year, the Empress was dead; demolished, just 32 years after it had been built. [8]

Notes

  1. Howard’s companies of stage players were “stock companies”. By the 20th century, I think “stock” had come to mean “house” players in a particular theatre. In other words, the opposite of a “traveling” company.
  2. This Lyric Theatre shouldn’t be confused with another, later, theatre on Granville Street at the site of the earlier Vancouver Opera House.
  3. Indeed, the tag line on Lyric ads during the time of Howard’s company was “If you want to laugh, go to the Lyric”.
  4. Not all company members served at the same time. This list (and others like it) shows all company members over the period treated.
  5. My thanks to Robert Moen for digging up this info.
  6. For the lists of company members, I have leaned heavily on The Vancouver Daily World, The Province, and the Vancouver Sun.
  7. Thanks to Neil Whaley for drawing to my attention “Dot” Williams’ role in this drama.
  8. This demolition seems utterly pointless, as the lot was not developed until 1987.

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