Why I Love Vaudeville Theatres

The Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver. 1927.
The Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver. 1927.

I’m writing this post as a break from what I should be doing, which is either preparing my next lecture, or revising a chapter about commemoration on the Plains of Abraham. I’m feeling a bit worn out by both projects, so I hope it’ll cheer me up to write about something I like.

Not like, even. I love Vaudeville theatres.  I love them so much that I’ve written a novel about an imaginary theatre called the Temple, in an imaginary version of Vancouver. My inspiration for the Temple came from the Orpheum and Pantages in Vancouver and the Paramount in Seattle, the McPherson and the Royal in Victoria. There’s a touch of London’s Grand Theatre about it, too, and maybe a little of San Francisco’s Castro (though that one was always a movie palace).

I owe much of my love for these buildings to my early education. This probably begins with The Muppets and their awesome run-down variety show, which we watched every week when my brother and I were little.  It’s also inherited it from my mother, whose love for Hollywood nostalgia musicals meant I saw dozens of Vaudeville movies as a kid, films like Mother Wore Tights, For Me And My Gal, Yankee Doodle Dandy. Though I can’t dance, I know all the words to dozens of Tin Pan Alley standards.  I was too late, of course, for the sister acts and the acrobats and the tenors and the yodeling tapdancers, but some of the buildings have survived.

Pantages Theater advertisement.

A lot of this affection comes from my Grandmother. For years during my childhood she took me out to see plays in Victoria, once every summer and once over my Christmas vacation. Usually we went to the McPherson Playhouse.  It was built in 1914, a relict of the Pantages Circuit, which dominated west coast Vaudeville a century ago. The oldest Pantages theatre in North America used to stand near the corner of Main and Hastings in Vancouver, but despite local efforts to preserve it, it was torn down last autumn.  For now, it’s captured in Google Streetview, still intact, but covered in the posters that protested its transformation into a demolition site, and then a condo, or a parking lot, or whatever they’ve since made of it.

The Pantages Theatre. Vancouver, BC. 2010.

Sorry for the aside.  I’m still sad we lost the Pantages.

Anyway. About my Grandmother and the McPherson Playhouse.  She took me to kid’s plays like Beauty and the Beast, musical reviews, Agatha Christie mysteries, A Christmas Carol or The Messiah. There were a lot of things I enjoyed about those trips.  I loved staying in a hotel, just the two of us, eating in restaurants, walking around Victoria in the twilight, because that was my Grandmother’s favourite time to be out in the city.

What I remember best, though, was the feeling I had at the very beginning of the show, before anything had happened.

The McPherson Theatre. Victoria, BC.

I loved magic, and to a goofy nine-year-old, it was magical that you could walk in through ordinary double doors on the street, and through the ordinary lobby to the auditorium.  But that the auditorium could be something so different, this huge, mysterious room that seemed far away from the rest of the world, that was dressed in gold paint and red velvet, that seemed larger on the inside than the outside.

You would be your regular self—but extra excited, talkative, happy—and then suddenly the lights would dim, then go out.  You’d wait for the auditorium to grow quiet, and then for the curtains to part in the proscenium.

The stage lit up, and whatever happened there was magic. I was not a discerning child, and I loved each and every play we went to in the same way that I loved all stories indiscriminately.  I wish I could recapture the uncomplicated pleasure I felt, but I think that’s something we lose with maturity.

Whatever happened on that stage—singing, dancing, murder, adventure, mystery—possessed me so totally that when it ended I felt I had traveled lightyears from my ordinary life.  Leaving the theatre afterward always felt strange, as though my heart and mind hadn’t quite returned to the everyday yet, and I was still half in that other world, the one I could only see, and never visit.

To this day I am irrationally convinced that theatres—recovered Vaudeville theatres in particular, even when the gold paint is chipped and the red velvet worn, even when they’re condemned for demolition—aren’t quite in our world, but straddle some threshold between here and someplace else, a threshold marked by the gilded proscenium arch.  I’m pretty sure that this unshakeable conviction goes back to being a nine-year-old at the McPherson playhouse, in the moment after the lights dimmed, just as the curtains parted.

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