by Kaija Pepper
The city's first theatre was called Blair's Hall and it was here that a social group called the Midnight Adieu Club held fortnightly dances. Blair's Hall was followed by the more substantial Columbia Hall, which opened on June 5, 1886, with Webster and Stehle, an acrobatic song and dance team. Unfortunately, eight nights later the two-month-old, mostly wooden city was burned to the ground by the Great Fire, which had been started by some Canadian Pacific Railway workers who were clearing the land near the new Roundhouse site by burning stumps and other forest debris. In less than an hour, 600 to 1,000 buildings were destroyed; of the city's population of 2,000, eleven died.
Despite such tragic set backs, by 1887 the city's population had grown to 5,000, and by 1888 it was over 8,500. An important spur to growth occurred when the Canadian Pacific Railway extended its track twelve miles west of Port Moody to reach Vancouver's Coal Harbour. On May 23, 1887 the first transcontinental train rolled into Canada's new "Terminal City", and by 1891 a rail link to the United States was established via New Westminster. With performers able to arrive in Vancouver by rail, as well as by ship, the city could finally catch up with Victoria's older and more established theatre scene. Victoria, which had become the provincial capital in 1868, almost two decades before Vancouver was incorporated, had its first opera house, the Victoria Theatre, by 1885. New Westminster's first opera house, Herring's, had opened in 1887. Vancouver would have to wait until 1891 for the C.P.R. to build its first real opera house.
Although the Imperial's pre-eminence would end when the Vancouver Opera House opened, until then it was a popular venue for visiting stock companies, offering melodramas, minstrel shows and variety entertainments. There was also the occasional visit from popular contemporary performers, including the tragedian Thomas W. Keene in the Imperial's second run of Richard III in 1891. Local offerings appeared as well, which the press enthusiastically covered. Miss Peters, who had a school at 230 West Hastings Street, and her scholars gave a concert at the Imperial on May 6, 1889. At the Imperial in October, a Central School Concert included recitations, a chorus, solo and duet singing, instrumentals, and a Lancashire clog dance by John Cartmel. There were also a number of tableaux, including a twenty-one cast tableau entitled May Queen, and another called Popping the Question, performed by Hector Stewart and Lizzie Austin.
The press was genuinely interested in and supportive of school offerings, bestowing substantial attention on young people. The extent of their interest is suggested by an article on the Central School exams, in which the childrens' blackboard drawings are described and praised. Miss Peters gave another school concert at the Imperial Opera House, The Sleeping Beauty, on January 13, 1890, and The World gave it front page coverage the following day. According to the detailed and typically unsigned review, the tableau in the first part, "where the princess and her attendants were sleeping their hundred-year sleep was beautiful...." During the second part of the programme, Master John Cartmel again performed a clog dance, for which "he was loudly applauded and compelled to return." Miss Peters is given much praise "for the admirable manner in which she drilled her pupils, and the satisfactory way in which one and all acted the particular part assigned to them."
On November 15, Mabel Atlantis appeared in a new specialty, An Inspiration Dance, for which "(h)er costume was very pretty and her manoeuvres unique and artistic." (November 18, 1898, The Province) "Mdlle [sic] Atlantis introduced a new specialty in the shape of a butterfly dance, which from an artistic point of view probably excels anything she has yet attempted in Vancouver. Her costume, which was gorgeous in the extreme, seemed more susceptible to the beautiful shades of light which were thrown upon it, while her tripping to the music of the orchestra was exquisitely graceful."
Atlantis' act continued to astonish as she ran through her specialty repertoire. Part of her popularity was no doubt the suspense she inspired in an audience, who never knew what she was going to do next. At one performance she appeared "swinging and juggling Indian clubs, balls, etc., while balancing on a revolving globe." The faithful newspaperman obligingly contributes to the suspense: "She will repeat it tonight with a few changes" (November 23, 1898, The Province). The Lindley Company closed their popular City Hall appearance with a four-hour continuous run on November 28 before leaving to play a week in Chilliwack, and then heading to the Interior. When the company returned in March the following year, they opened with On to the Klondike, written by Lindley himself. This was one play that Lindley couldn't have pirated from New York, as it was a local story set in the Klondike gold rush of the 1890's. Atlantis, who closed the opening performance, "held her spectators in suspense for a couple of minutes by controlling the globe up and down a narrow and slanting plank, a difficult and risky act" (Province, March 3, 1899).
Born in Brighton, England in 1885, Gladys Attree completed her dance training in London before emigrating to Canada in 1914. Once she had established her first school, the Attree School of Dance, in Nelson, she gradually expanded throughout the region, and then to Calgary, Lethbridge and Vancouver. Attree's husband, Jack Hirst, played the piano for classes, and her step-daughters, Joyce and Phyllis Hirst, were lead dancers in her Vancouver shows.
In 1927 the Gladys Attree Dancers were at the Pantages as part of the stage line-up (two films made up the screen part of the bill). A newspaper photograph, headlined "Frolicsome Foot-Artists Face Photographer," shows seven pertly posed dancers. The caption reads: Professional terpsichorean artists must look to their laurels. The Gladys Attree dancers, who have been gracing the boards at the Pantages during the past two weeks, have amazed audiences with their artistry, poise and precise rhythm of movement. They are all local girls, although their stage appearance, costuming and settings vie with some of the best terpsichorean vaudeville productions that have come out of New York. (Sun, June 9, 1927)
The Hirst sisters were known as the "Attree Flashes" when they toured in Canada and the United States on the RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum) circuit. Later, the sisters would direct the Vancouver-based Attree School of Dancing, situated at Davie and Granville.
Among the dancers assisting Ruth St. Denis in her fourth Vancouver appearance was one of Attree's Nelson students. On May 20, 1919, The Sun review singles out the local girl: "Miss St. Denis has with her a highly competent group of young ladies, one of whom, Miss Edna Malone, a clever British Columbia girl, reveals marked ability in various ensembles."
The Helen Crewe Dancing Academy was another of the early B.C. dance schools. Helen Crewe, born in England in 1885, came to Canada in 1917. A graduate of Espinosa's British Normal School of Dancing in London, Crewe opened a small dancing school in Prince Rupert in 1922. In 1926 she re-established her school in New Westminster and in 1928 she opened a branch studio in Vancouver, in the hall of St. John's Church of England on West 27th Avenue at Granville Street. On Saturday, December 19, 1930 about sixty of her pupils performed in the Hotel Vancouver's Crystal Ballroom, with proceeds going to the Province Santa Claus Fund. Crewe's scrapbook contains an unidentified review, which says in part: The first number was a class demonstration of drill and dancing given by Mrs. Crewe's pupils, the performers ranging from tiny tots to those of the advanced senior class. A charming picture was created by the graceful figures in costumes of varying shades of pale pink, blue, yellow, green and orchid, the kaleidoscopic effect during the ballroom dance being especially effective. The toy orchestra conducted by little Diana Sky was enjoyed by young and old ...
Crewe was also the dancing instructor at York House School from its inaugural year of 1932 and at the kindergarten at nearby Glen Brae Academy. A Vancouver Stage Academy brochure, circa 1930, lists Crewe as one of their dance teachers (the other was Gabrielle Steedman, who taught stage dancing). The Academy offered music, drama and dancing "for those who wish to dance professionally or for those who wish to dance for pleasure and body culture."
Like many dedicated dance teachers, Crewe took advanced studies throughout her long career. In the summer she would visit the United States or England to keep in touch with the latest developments in dance. Her daughter, Joan Crewe Straight, taught at the Helen Crewe Dancing Academy after a course of intensive study in London with Mlle. Pruzina, a member of Pavlova's original company. Straight opened her own school on Hastings Street in 1940, and did the choreography for Theatre Under the Stars from 1940-43. She remembers one of her mother's early pupils, Kay Armstrong, who is still active today and who taught Straight's own daughters and granddaughters.