The Dramatic Life of Carl Berch

CVA Bu P190 – Group portrait of the Carl Berch Stock Company standing in front of the People’s Theatre. The gent third from the left is Berch. ca 1904.

Early Years

Carl E. Berch was born ca1866 in Wisconsin. But he wasn’t made for mid-western life. He was made for the stage. Indeed, he seems to have made dramatic gestures throughout his life.

Berch first came to the attention of the press in 1891, when he was about 25. He performed with the Howard Athenaeum Company in Louisville and later in Boston (and presumably, in other centers) in the drama, True Irish Hearts. By 1892, however, he’d moved to the land of greater stage opportunities – California – and during the rest of his life, he performed mainly on the west coast of the U.S. and Canada.

By 1894, he was managing a stock company in San Jose. It was widely reported in March of that year, however, that he’d taken advantage of his position as manager to steal $200 of the company’s funds. Oddly, this event didn’t seem to have a negative impact on his career, and indeed after its initial mention in the press in that month, it seems to have been hushed up and never mentioned again; mind you, he seems to have been removed from his managerial role. 1895 was a very busy year for Berch. He was leading man with the Cooper Stock Company at the Burbank Theatre (Los Angeles Herald 30 July 1895).

1895 was a Red Letter year for Berch in another way. In September, he married actress Carrie Clark Ward. It wasn’t a standard wedding, however. Oh, no. His wedding was incorporated into the play The Country Girl. It was Berch’s first marriage; Ward’s second. She had been married when she and Berch first met, to actor James Ward. Carrie decided that she’d prefer to trade in James for a younger model, however, and so six months before The Country Girl wedding, she’d obtained a divorce from him. Officiating at the ceremony, appropriately, I guess, was a preacher from the “Church of the New Era”!

A novel wedding announcement! Los Angeles Herald 29 Sept 1895.

From 1896-1900, Berch was on the west coast of the U.S. acting in various plays. By 1901, presumably, enough time had passed since the San Jose theft, and he assembled his own stock company: the Carl Berch Company (Sacramento Bee, 4 Oct 1901).

In Autumn of 1903, Berch decided to sign a three-year contract which would make him the lessee and manager of the People’s Theatre in Vancouver (NW corner Pender and Howe).

People’s Theatre Manager, Vancouver

The People’s hadn’t always been so named. The structure was built in 1899 and was initially known as the Alhambra Theatre. Presumably it was its moorish appearance that caused it to be so named. Later, it was the Theatre Royal [1]. Then, it was the People’s Theatre and after that it became the first Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver [2].

Prov 6 Sept 1898. This is an artist’s or architect’s drawing of the anticipated Alhambra Theatre (later Theatre Royal, People’s Theatre and the first Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver). The theatre NEVER looked this good, in reality. See a photo of the Alhambra below for comparison.

The Allen Stock Company was the first theatrical group to play at the People’s during Berch’s time as lessee/manager. More often than not, Berch took a role in whatever was playing.

In the summer of 1904, a Berch School of Dramatic Art, was established. Berch was to take on students in dramatic art, expression, oratory, and fencing. It seems to have been very short-lived, however, as I found no mention of it in press accounts or ads beyond June 1904. Perhaps registrations were dismal.

It seems that Berch’s marriage to Carrie Ward had fallen apart by or (probably) before 1905. This notice appeared in a local newspaper in October 1905:

On and after this date I will not be responsible for any debts contracted by Katherine Brennan, now known as Mrs. Carl Berch.
Carl Berch
Vancouver, Oct 11, 1905

The Province 11 Oct 1905
CVA Bu N424 – Alhambra Theatre, the first name of the People’s Theatre. 1899? The building was demolished in 1914. It was ultimately replaced by the still-standing Stock Exchange building.

The notice suggests that Katherine Brennan (birth name of someone who was later known as Mrs. John P. Dalton) had married Berch at some point and that they were no longer living as husband and wife. Just how many marriages Berch had isn’t clear.

As the end of November, 1905 approached, so did the end of Berch’s three-year lease of People’s Theatre. The theatre was owned by a syndicate of which the controlling interest was held by W. H. Lucas [3]. The new lessees were to be Tim Sullivan and John Considine. On November 24th, the theatre would pass out of Berch’s lesseee-ship and into that of Sullivan & Considine (S&C).

But Berch didn’t see things that way.

In the days leading up to the 24th, Berch was blabbing to anyone who would listen that there was a clause in his lease which granted him the option of a three-month renewal. So confident was he that the terms of the lease were in his favour, that he several times offered to bet Mr. Dorr (who would be acting as local lessee for S&C) $1000 that Berch’s interpretation of the lease contract would carry the day. Dorr didn’t take Berch up on his wager.

On November 24th, the huge headlines (not quite in war-declaration type size, but nearly!) in the Province proclaimed:

CARL BERCH USED GUNS TO HOLD PEOPLE’S THEATRE

The opening of hostilities in the bloodless but highly exciting struggle for the possession of her People’s Theatre occurred at the unearthly hour of 3.35 this morning. The first engagement, as the war correspondents would say, was brief but decisive, lasting only twenty minutes. But during this time firearms were discharged, blows exchanged, doors broken in, padlocks wrenched from their fastenings, and volleys of cuss words exchanged between the opposing forces.

Province 24 Nov 1905

I won’t get into the details of the affair, except to say that Berch seemed not to grasp (or chose not to) the fundamental difference between leasing and owning a property. Lucas was the principal owner; Berch the lessee. As such, Berch had no dog in the fight for ownership of the theatre.

Needless to say, when all was said and done and everyone had had their day (and say!) in court a few weeks later, Berch was no longer the People’s lessee; he was professionally homeless.

String of Misfortune

Carl Berch in middle age. Edmonon Journal 20 May 1908.

After ‘losing’ the People’s Theatre (as he would probably have described it), Berch had a string of bad luck.

Berch expressed early interest in acquiring a theatre site which ultimately was developed by Alexander Pantages for his initial Vancouver theatre on Hastings Street — the ’first’ Pantages (Province 15 Feb 1906). Berch was unsuccessful in his bid for this property.

Berch had another flight of fancy, this time in Edmonton. He also considered building a theatre there. But, like the future Pantages site, this plan also came to naught (Edmonton Journal 20 May 1908).

He was in San Francisco when the big earthquake hit in April 1906 and, according to the World, he lost all his possessions. There was some talk of him settling in Vancouver after that, but he didn’t follow through (World 17 June 1908). Instead, he returned to coastal U.S. cities where he plied his acting trade.

Finally, Berch had the misfortune to be aboard the coastal steamer Alaska when it was wrecked on Blunt’s Reef (near Cape Mendocino, northern CA) in August 1921. He was missing and presumed dead at age 55. Presumably, he was not married at the time, as his sister, Mrs. Edna Berch Corbeau was the one who brought suit for his death in the accident (San Francisco Examiner 16 Nov 1921).

Notes

  1. Tom Carter has made the observation that there have been at least four “Royal” Theatres in Vancouver over the years. This was the first; three other theatres on Hastings were so named at different times. (Email communication with the author, September 10, 2021).
  2. Interestingly, as early as September 1899 (just a few months after the Alhambra first opened), it was advertising itself as “Alhambra, the People’s Theatre” (Province 14 Sept 1899).
  3. Another member of the theatre syndicate (owners of Alhambra/Theatre Royal/People’s Theatre/Orpheum) was that musical fellow around town, Fred Dyke.
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