The big news in Canadian radio last week was the announcement that popular radio morning man, Terry DiMonte, is leaving his job in Calgary to return to Montreal. Why is this big news? Because Montreal is a city like no other. When an anglophone comes home, people talk.
Montreal, and indeed the province of Quebec, have seen a great deal of turmoil over the last generation. Many of the historical wrongs against the majority French population have been addressed, but with a price. Anger, riots, bombs. Neighbour against neighbour. It hasn’t been easy. Yet, still, the city remains a spectacular international destination for business, travel and most importantly, for the fiercely proud people who call Montreal home. To this day, there are lingering issues that have changed the course of many lives.
Montreal, more than any other city in Canada, has been forced to bring confrontation to the kitchen table, particularly in the Anglophone community, as family after family since the 1970s grappled with decisions people in other cities never had to think about. Where will you move after you get your degree from university? What will you do when your company moves to Toronto? How will you adapt your business to comply with the demands of the language police? And of course, it often came to: what do you think your prospects might be “Out West”. (Out west meant Alberta or BC. Saskatchewan and Manitoba played little part in the dream of Montrealers starting a new life.)
When Terry DiMonte left his Montreal morning show almost four years ago, it left a hole in the fabric of Montreal. People missed him. Many saw his move as a direct loss to the English community. One more comfortable and familiar voice was gone from a community that had been made to absorb too many tiny cuts along with hard changes over the last several decades. Now, many will see the return of a beloved broadcaster as bringing a little bit of “Montreal as we remember it” back to the present day.
In reading about Terry DiMonte’s decision to move back to Montreal, I came across this very interesting documentary produced by the Montreal Gazette in 2009. Nine people from Montreal, including Terry, reflect on their decisions to move “Out West” and provide frank comments on how things worked out in their lives.
I’m quite certain that there are a great many people in Calgary who will miss their morning man when he leaves Alberta. Some of them may even be inspired to start conversations in their own homes about whether it is time to move back to Montreal.
For more information about Terry DiMonte, see Steve Faguy’s blog. Steve is a freelance journalist in Montreal who has created a real news hub for Montreal stories.
On this day, 99 years ago, the Titanic sailed out of Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage en route to New York. Joyous celebrations accompanied her departure as people shouted and sang. Well-wishers hugged their families and friends and bade them farewell as they boarded the ship. Passengers and onlookers alike marveled at the most luxurious and fastest steamship ever built as cameras rolled for the newsreels to carry the images to a public clamoring for details of the historic crossing. It was a glorious Wednesday.
On Sunday, April 14th, Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. It was shortly before midnight. The ship started taking on water and it soon became apparent to the captain and senior officers that the Titanic would sink. A call went out to get the women and children up to the lifeboats.
There had been no boat drills. There was no house address system to convey information to the passengers. And worst of all, there were not enough lifeboats to carry all of those on board. Information about the dire state of the foundering vessel was slow to get to the passengers according to testimony given in both the American and British Inquiries following the disaster. Many of the immigrants in third class remained below decks. Some historians believe the third class were barricaded behind gates, others say they were stalled by language barriers and fear of being separated from their families.
The crew struggled to ready the unfamiliar lifeboats on the new ship. Some of the first lifeboats to be lowered away were only half-filled. Then the rockets were fired to signal the need for help from any nearby ships. Panic broke out on the Titanic, now rapidly sinking by the head.
Within three hours of striking the iceberg, the Titanic broke apart and slipped beneath the sea, taking with her the lives of over 1,500 people on board.
A final note about the video featured in this post. The British Pathe website advises that some of the footage seen in the early parts of this film are not the Titanic, but are, in fact, her sister ship, the Olympic.
My sisters and I have hands like our great grandmother. I know this, not because I remember her so well, but because I can see her work-worn hands resting quietly in her lap in a photograph that was taken in 1936. It must have been a Sunday, according to my mother, because they never worked on Sundays, and because she was wearing shoes. Her name was Aksana Shmigelsky and she was married to Nykola Strumbicky, who loved her with all of his heart.
Aksana is sitting in a kitchen chair outside her house at their farm near Vita, Manitoba. Nykola, is standing next to her. They were Baba and Gedo to their many grandchildren and great grandchildren. But to my mother, Mary and her cousins, Aksana was affectionately known as “Fat Baba”, to distinguish her from the other babas: Aksana’s mother and mother-in-law, both of whom were thin.
Kind and hard working, Aksana was barefoot all summer long, unless she was in church. She was known for making bread, cranberry jam, and whiskey, which she only served on special occasions or to important company. The bread was made in an outdoor oven called a pich.
I look at the photos and I think of the work that passed through Aksana’s hands in the harsh winters and blistering hot summers of Manitoba. In the picture with Nykola, she is the same age as I am now.
Some of the work she would have done is familiar to my brothers and sisters and me. Our hands have comforted children, planted marigolds in May, and have even kneaded dough for bread. But her hands were talented in ways that ours are not. Baba’s hands could pluck a chicken, plait garlic pulled fresh from the earth, and make intricate cross stitch patterns in a white cloth for an Easter basket.
My mother was 5 years old in 1936.
She was raised on this farm with her older sister Elsie. Everyone spoke Ukrainian. Mom learned English only when she moved to Winnipeg. The first home she lived in had a thatched roof and a mud floor.
Her grandparents had lived in the traditional Ukrainian style of shelter for more than 30 years before they built their “modern” house when my mother was a little girl. She remembers the new wooden house being built.
She also remembers how wonderful summers were at Vita because her cousins, Bob and Lug Harcott, who were close to her age, would come from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, with their mother, Ann Harcott, to spend the summer at the farm with her.
Canada was deep into the depression in the 1930s, and there were no luxuries on the farm, but there were plenty of good times and they never went hungry.
Some years later, the little brothers would come along to join the gang, Bill Harcott and Bill Bachynsky.
Their mothers, Tillie Bachynsky and Ann Harcott, seen here in 1928, dressed for the camera, remained very close all of their lives.
Aksana and Nykola married in Vita. They had both come to Canada with their families. In the “old country” they were from villages a few miles apart, Zalischiky and Blyschanka in Galicia, Austria, now in the westernmost part of Ukraine.
Nikola came to Canada before Aksana did. He was the eldest of five children and a young adult when his father Petr Strumbicky, then 60, heeded the call of the Canadian Government, offering free land to immigrants with hopes of putting a large “producing population” on the prairie lands of Western Canada. The government was anxious to establish a grain industry, and more importantly, to populate the prairies to prevent the Americans from annexing the region. Free land was offered to the immigrants. For a ten dollar registration fee, each family was granted 160 acres of land.
Petr Strumbicky, together with his wife, Irena Goyman, and their children came to Manitoba with the first group of 27 Ukrainian pioneer families that settled at the Stuartburn Colony, an area more familiarly known as Vita, today. The group sailed on theSS Sicilia, which docked in Quebec City in late July. They traveled by train to Winnipeg and spent a week at the immigration shed on the east side of the CPR station. By the time the exhausted colonists trekked out to their homesteads they had been traveling for two months. It was August and too late to plant a crop. These resilient people put their faith in God and each other. They carved homes out of the earth, and hunkered down to get through the winter with little more than their fierce determination to make it in the new country.
The land they settled had to first be cleared of stones and bush before they could plant crops.
All of the children worked alongside their parents, pulling rocks from the soil.
They suffered many hardships, but they stuck it out. Success was measured by mere survival, and in the small joys of laughing children, hearty meals, and time to visit to sing and tell stories with family and friends.
To this day, Mary, Bob and Lug share stories of their shared childhood. They consider themselves to have been blessed with memories of kindness, generosity and the strength of their grandparents.
In 1993, my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. I interviewed my mom and her cousins about those summer days long ago, for a family history film, called Korinchikeh. In this segment we get a glimpse of their special times together at Vita.
My mother, Mary (Bachynsky) Krawchenko, turned 80 on April 2. In honour of her birthday, I posted an excerpt from my novel, Ravenscraig. It is a chapter called “Stalwart Peasants in Sheepskin Coats” and is inspired by the story of Aksana and Nykola and their start in Canada.
Gillian Laub is a photographer and multimedia storyteller whose work deserves a wide audience. From striking portraits to documenting the lives of families, she compels us to stop and think as she brings us to places that are often far removed from our own reality.
I am starting a new category- Storytellers- on this blog so that I have a special place to share the work of outstanding artists, writers and filmmakers.
As someone who has worked in television journalism and related pursuits throughout my career, I have a deep appreciation for strong storytelling and especially for the talent of the person looking through the lens. Documentary production is a team sport and the strength of the story is ultimately dependent upon the images that are captured.
The works I intend to feature here will largely be films that bring us a glimpse into the daily lives of ordinary people. I call it social history in the present tense. Most important, these works represent moments that most of us would miss because we don’t know how to see them, or because we don’t go to places like this to meet people like this.
I’ve chosen Take Care, to be the first film to feature because to me, Gillian’s gift is the blend of a fearless approach with a compassionate touch in bringing truth to her audience.
Click on the image below to see the film.
Take Care was produced in a one-week work shop by MediaStorm. The workshop team included Gillian Laub, Henrik Björnsson, Elena Ghanotakis, and Laura Varma, as well as associate producer Brad Horn. It caught my attention because it was selected by Time magazine as one of the best of 2010, in Time’s list of Top 10 Talented Web Videos. Good choice. Great film. I would have ranked it much higher than 9th.
Gillian’s love of storytelling and family narratives led her to begin photographing her own family while studying at the International Center of Photography in New York. 2005 she was the recipient of the Nikon’s Storyteller award for her work in the Middle East. With the support of the Jerome Foundation Laub’s first monograph “Testimony” was published by Aperture to critical acclaim. This body of work is comprised of portraits and testimonies of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians all directly and indirectly affected by the complicated geopolitical context in which they live. In 2007, Laub received Aperture’s Emerging Artist Award. Her work is widely exhibited and her gallerist is Bonni Benrubi. Laub graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in comparative literature and lives in New York City. She is currently working on a project in the American South and continues to explore the family with her camera.
Only four people from Winnipeg, Canada, made it home after escaping the sinking of the Titanic. In all, there were about thirty people on the ship who were heading for Manitoba. Some were residents, others were immigrants, and still others were planning to stop and visit relatives while on their way further west.
All four survivors from the province of Manitoba were women, all from the same family: Mary Fortune and her daughters, Mabel, Ethel and Alice. Two other family members were lost in the shipwreck. They were Mary’s husband, Mark Fortune, a Winnipeg real estate tycoon, and their youngest child, 19-year-old Charles, affectionately known as Charlie.
The Titanic was the most luxurious ocean liner in the world. It left Southampton, on Wednesday April 10th, amid a great deal of fanfare and celebration for its maiden voyage to New York. The press had widely praised the ship as “unsinkable”.
According to newspaper reports, the Fortune women were incredulous that the Titanic sank before a rescue ship could arrive to save everyone who was on it. Two thirds of the 2,200 people on Titanic died as the vessel drifted down to the bottom of the ocean in a sea filled with icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland. It was a tragedy of colossal proportions.
Shocked and grieving the Fortunes returned to the new home Mary’s husband had so proudly built for his large family. With thirty-six rooms the wood and stone mansion at 393 Wellington Crescent was a very impressive addition to the exclusive Winnipeg neighbourhood on the Assiniboine River. It was a home built for parties and celebrations, and the laughter of grandchildren yet to be born. In the aftermath of the catastrophe it was a huge empty house, painfully silenced by the aching grief that came home with Mary and her daughters. The dramatic change in their lives was nothing they ever could have imagined would happen.
The Fortunes had left Winnipeg three months earlier. They had traveled by train to New York where they boarded the Franconia, bound for Trieste, a popular landing point for tourists, and the main seaport in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were in the company of several friends, who were also well-known in Winnipeg: Thomas McCaffry, J.J. Borebank, and Thompson Beattie. Together the group was embarking on the Grand Tour, a fashionable extended vacation enjoyed by the wealthy class in the Gilded Age.
Throughout the early months of 1912, the Fortunes traveled to many places in Greece, Italy and France and toured exotic locations in the Middle East. The holiday was Mark Fortune’s gift to his family. Charlie had recently graduated from Bishop’s College in Lennoxville, Quebec and was planning to continue his studies at McGill. Mark Fortune may well have considered this to be the ideal time, and perhaps his only opportunity, to persuade his adult children to join him and their mother for such a tour. His two eldest children, Robert and Clara had already married and declined the invitation to join them. Two of the Fortune daughters, Ethel and Alice had fiancées waiting for them, and Mabel was said to have been in a serious relationship with a jazz musician her parents did not approve of.
The Fortune family vacation was apparently splendid. They trekked through Egypt to see the pyramids, and toured ruins, museums and chateaus throughout Europe. They stayed at the finest hotels and the ladies shopped for high fashion and the latest in trousseau trends in Paris. It appears they were denied nothing.
Their tour ended in London where they rested for a few days and celebrated Easter with a fantastic dinner at a London hotel. From London, they took the boat train to Southampton and witnessed the Wednesday festivities to launch the magnificent new ship. Titanic fever was running high throughout the country. Alice was even able to persuade a fellow tour companion, William Sloper, to change his ticket from the Mauretania so that he might enjoy her company on the crossing.
From Wednesday through the end of the weekend, the experience on Titanic was everything the passengers had believed it would be. There were sumptuous surroundings, fine entertainments and exquisite meals for the first class passengers. Throughout the ship there was much to admire about Titanic. Even the third class passengers were treated to steerage accommodations that were widely hailed as well superior to the norm.
By Sunday night, April 14th, Titanic was in the North Atlantic approaching Newfoundland. The temperature had plummeted to near freezing. Dark and cold was the night when the ship steamed into the ice field. Warnings of ice had come from ships in the area, but were not heeded by the captain. No order to slow the engines was given.
Many years ago I was on a bus on Graham Avenue, a very well known street in downtown Winnipeg. I was seated next to a man who knew a lot about Winnipeg history. As we passed the Eaton store, he said, “Graham Avenue is named for a man who went down on the Titanic. His name was George Graham and he worked for the Eaton’s Company. Did you know that?”
I didn’t, and said so. I was eleven and terribly impressed by the story. I knew about the Titanic, but to think there was someone from Winnipeg in the great ship disaster was very exciting indeed.
It was decades later that I became truly captivated by the Titanic, in doing research for my novel, Ravenscraig. I read books, articles and old newspapers, watched every movie, documentary and video clip I could find, and I became totally immersed in the articles and discussion boards on the website Encyclopedia-Titanica as I learned the stories of Winnipeg passengers such as Eva Hart and the Fortune Family. I came across the story of the Graham Avenue tribute to the Titanic passenger countless times.
All the while I was adding to my collection of rare books from Manitoba. One day, while visiting Burton Lysecki’s book store in Winnipeg, Burton handed me an old book of maps he thought I would find interesting: Winnipeg in Maps 1816-1972 by Alan F.J. Artibise and Edward H. Dahl.
In peering at the maps in the book I came across the startling revelation that Graham Avenue had nothing to do with George Graham.
The street had been called Graham for forty years or so before the Titanic sank.
The evidence is seen in this map from 1874, “Plan of the City of Winnipeg”.
The map was compiled and drawn in 1874 by John D. Parr and is made available by Manitoba Historical Maps on Flickr.
More on the person for whom Graham Avenue was truly named later, but first, the story of George Edward Graham:
He was born on a farm near St. Mary’s, in southwestern Ontario, on June 11, 1873, the sixth of seven brothers. As the story is told, he was 17 when he went to work as a clerk at a hardware store. He went on to become a salesman in Galt and then, in 1903 he moved to Toronto and began working for the Eaton’s Department Store. Timothy Eaton, the founder of the successful enterprise also had a history in St. Mary’s. It was the location of his first dry goods store before he bought the Toronto store in 1869.
George did well. He married Edith May Jackson from Harriston, Ontario and a year later, in 1906, he moved his bride to Winnipeg, having accepted a promotion and transfer to the big new Eaton’s store on Portage Avenue where he became the manager of the fine china and crockery department. Life was bustling and interesting for the wealthy class in Winnipeg in the years the Grahams lived there. It was a fast growing city filled with vibrant attractions in theatre, fine restaurants, musical societies and many entertainments to be enjoyed.
While George’s career was soaring in Winnipeg, the couple also was made to suffer heartbreaking losses. Their three year old son, John Humphrey, died in 1911. Edith became pregnant again a few months later, but miscarried.
One can imagine the discussion in the Graham home when George was told Eaton’s needed him to go on a buying trip to Europe in 1912. According to family reports, with Edith still frail and recovering, the couple decided it would be best for Edith to stay with her family while he was abroad, so Edith returned to Harriston.
George boarded the Titanic at Southampton as a first class passenger. According to family legend, he was scheduled leave on the Mauretania three days later, but changed his ticket to the Titanic to get home sooner. He spent time with other traveling salesmen. They had dinner together, and each signed the back of a menu.
George was one of the many passengers on Titanic who dropped by the wireless room, Sunday, April 14th, to send a marconigram to his wife. The message went out just hours before Titanic struck the iceberg in the North Atlantic.
“New York Wednesday Morning, Wire Me Sandy Hook. Well.”
It was Sunday afternoon when Mrs. Graham received the Marconigram given above. She had come down from Winnipeg a few days previously to meet her husband, and was planning happily the return journey when she retired Sunday night. On Monday morning came the terrible news of the collision. Later despatches roused in her heart a hope–more, almost a certainty–that her husband would be saved. This morning, weeping, sorrowing as bereaved ones alone can sorrow, she has learned what took place off the Newfoundland Banks.
Edith was never to see her husband again. We know that George Graham did take time to strap on a life jacket. His body was recovered by the MacKay-Bennett (#147). He was wearing a black overcoat, and a blue serge suit. He was carrying the following items – Memo book; cheque for $300.00; pocket book; credit book, T. Eaton & Co.; silver pencil case; fountain pen; pencil case; keys; gold watch; fob and locket; 7 shillings and 3 pence; $105.00; 2 pocket knives; 1 gold collar button.
George Graham had also taken time to look after one more piece of business before he set sail on Titanic. He dashed off a quick letter to a business contact and popped the letter into the mail before the ship sailed. The letter was written on Titanic stationary, and is famous for having fetched the largest sum ever paid at auction for a letter associated with Titanic.
To learn more about Canadian passengers, I highly recommend Alan Hustak’s excellent book: Titanic: The Canadian Story, in which he details the lives of 130 Canadian passengers on Titanic.
Now for the matter of Graham Avenue in Winnipeg.
It is named for James Allan Graham, a fur trader who worked for many years with the Hudson Bay Company. The Manitoba Historical Society Website has details of his life and his contributions to Manitoba.
Graham Avenue has its roots in the Hudson Bay Company (HBC). Named after an HBC factor, or trader, James Allan Graham, the prominent department store still anchors one end of the avenue. The City of Winnipeg designated the street as a central bus corridor in 1994, and the Graham Avenue Transit Mall was born. Today, 29 of Winnipeg Transit’s 87 routes converge on the avenue. The area is popular with surrounding downtown workers, shoppers, people attending medical appointments, area residents and loyal customers.
In closing, if you are new to Titanic enthusiasm, please do visit the Encyclopedia-Titanica website, which I have found to be tremendously helpful in my research.
I happened across this short film by Arthur Burrows and Jean Palardy filmed in 1947. I am sharing it for anyone who loves Montreal, and social history. Filmed by the National Film Board, two years after the end of WWII it shows a sparkling view that could only have been created for mass audiences. It isn’t quite fiction, but it is far from documentary in approach. It would have served well as a travel film, encouraging visitors to enjoy the excitement of this cosmopolitan centre. Click here to see the film.
The National Film Board describes Montreal by Night this way:
This short film showcases the city of Montreal on a summer’s night. What was once a small Indian village is presented as a pot-pourri of contrasting sights and sounds. It is North America’s second largest port and, after Paris, the world’s largest French-speaking city. With its warehouses, offices, homes, clubs and amusement parks, the city serves as a bright backdrop for a happy couple out on the town.
The happy couple is French speaking Collette, and her English speaking boyfriend, Jacques, from Dauphin, Manitoba. I had to watch the film twice to fully enjoy the glimpses of flashing street signs on Ste. Catherine, the cars, fashions and the stiffly staged dialogue sequences. The film may well have been made with the sole purpose of promoting the city of Montreal, and in this sense it perhaps captures the post-war attitude of the day. Shiny and bright, with a bold, blockbuster sounding music track, we see a variety of carefully managed scenes to show the contrasts of life in the city. We see the vibrant night life of St. Catherine Street, the cleaners sweeping up the stock exchange floor, and the smiling residents of a working class neighbourhood where everyone has clean shoes, nice clothes and a friendly demeanor.
Montreal By Night also features Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde who had been elected four times prior to being succeeded by Jean Drapeau. The film depicts the mayor as quite a celebrity arriving in movie star style to the applause of his adoring public.
Long after streetcars no longer operated in Winnipeg, my grandmother, whom we called, Baba, still called buses streetcars, and bus tickets car fare. She was born in 1909, so she had always known public transportation in Winnipeg as the streetcar. I never really understood that until this week, when I stumbled across this 1953 film by Roman Kroiter, called Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman. Not only is this a compelling story about a hard-working, dignified man, but it shows us some amazing scenes of daily life in Winnipeg in the post World War II years of prosperity.
I never rode a streetcar in Winnipeg, but I have ridden on plenty of trolley buses, and Kroiter’s lovely film prompted some reminiscing.
When I was little, we lived on Gallagher Avenue in Winnipeg, near Weston School. When I was nine years old and in grade four, I was transferred to Principal Sparling School on Sherburn near Notre Dame, a school I attended for the next three years.
This meant I would be taking the bus to school. It was tremendously exciting, because this wasn’t a school bus, it was the regular city bus that grown-ups took to work, and mini-skirted teenagers took to Tec Voc School. Looking back, I have many fond memories of that ride on the trolley bus that went down Logan, then left at Keewatin and headed east on Notre Dame.
I was a short kid. I stood third in line in those curious school lineups that compelled administrators to assemble children from shortest to tallest. The divide between the sexes at Principal Sparling was prominent. The school had one door for boys and another for girls, despite the mixed classes. The school had strict rules in other areas, too. Under Miss Wasserman’s watchful eye, the girls learned to curtsey, dance the Schottische, and to serve tea, should we be asked to help out at an official function: the kind where you would wear white cotton gloves and a puffy crinoline under your skirt.
I don’t know what the boys learned, but I seem to remember they also got roped into that Schottische business along with the girls. At least the boys could wear pants. The girls were required to wear skirts at that time, even in the coldest weather. So, to deal with this dress code in the days before snowsuits, we had to wear heavy snow pants over our tights and under our bulky winter coats. Our mothers were mostly in their twenties and early thirties then, and apparently lived in fear of whooping cough. From October to May, in addition to the coats and pants, our winter protection included hats with ear flaps, mittens on strings, and scarves wrapped double to cover our faces and protect us from the weather or perhaps germs.
The bus, at that time, was a trolley bus, riding on big tires and powered by electricity fed through long antennae-like poles that reached up to the power lines. The trolley poles would spark and crackle on the wires in snowy weather, and sometimes a pole would drop and the bus would stop. The bus driver would hustle outside and guide the pole back into place and we’d soon be on our way.
The doors of the bus folded back, exposing steep steps up into the car. The ribbed rubber mats were wet and gritty. Costumed as I was, against the wrath of winter, and carrying my school bag on my shoulder, along with my lunch pail and violin case, the very act of climbing up into the bus and getting settled was very cumbersome. But, I loved the bus ride. Here, for twenty minutes, I was immersed in the world of strangers and came to appreciate the many benefits of eavesdropping on the other passengers. I learned that people who took the bus to work in offices downtown didn’t talk much. They read books and newspapers. The teenage girls on their way to Tec Voc wanted nothing to do with me, but had lively conversations that bubbled over each other. These girls left me envious for both the things they had to giggle about, as well as the length of their legs, planted firmly on the floor while mine dangled in the air as I sat back on the seat buried beneath my heap of belongings.
The people I almost always found to be the most interesting were older. They often had much to say about the price of groceries, their neighbourhood gossip, and sometimes the city issues they had heard discussed on the radio or in the newspaper. While they spoke in English, they invariably had accents. Ukrainian, Polish, Yiddish, among many others. I had never heard a person with gray hair speak clean English. Naturally I assumed that I, too, would have an accent one day, and it made me wonder what that accent would be and when my speech would change.
But that is another story, for another day.
If you would like to learn more about early public transportation in Winnipeg, you will enjoy John E. Baker’s book, Winnipeg’s Electric Transit.
If you can’t find it, check with Burton Lysecki at his book store.
I expect that most people who would find this page have seen, or at least know of, the incredible 1959 film, Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston. The hair-raising chariot race has been heralded as one of the most exciting scenes every filmed, and with good reason.
Long before it was a film sensation, Ben Hur was a popular novel written by General Lew Wallace. Published by Harpers and Brothers (1880), it benefited from excellent promotion. Excerpts were placed in schools to gain a young audience.
In late 1899, Ben Hur opened on Broadway as a “triumph of theatre technology”. It was, in every way, spectacular. The Klaw and Erlinger production went on tour and ran for 21 years reaching more than twenty million people.
My interest in the production came from learning about the fantastic impact Ben Hur had on Winnipeg audiences in 1909. It was staged at the Walker Theater, a splendid, opulent house that had opened just two years earlier. Billed as “fire proof” the Walker was built with fine acoustics and a massive stage that ran 80 feet wide and 40 deep.
In reading the reviews of the play that had 200 cast members, 100 crew, twelve horses and a camel, one can only imagine the excitement of being in the audience for the Winnipeg performances staged March 8-13, 1909.
It was impresario C.P. Walker’s intent to bring theatre to the common man and indeed his magnificent house welcomed patrons that ranged from the finely dressed members of the carriage trade to the draymen, railway workers, and “hello” girls who worked as telephone operators. These were the people who climbed the steep steps of the Walker to sit in the “gods” seats. During the run of Ben Hur in Winnipeg, these straight back hard wooden benches up near the roof line were filled with new theatre goers, many of whom gave over a week’s wages to experience the most gripping show that had ever come to the prairie’s centre of the arts.
The Manitoba Free Press review of the Winnipeg opening was written by “E.B” and published on March 9, 1908. This is an excerpt:
“Only the language of the superlative with frequent notes of exclamation can possibly describe all of the glories of “Ben Hur” produced at the Walker Last night. From a staging and scenic point of view it is easily the most elaborate presentation ever given in Winnipeg and it should be a matter of pride to ever patriotic citizen that only in about four theatres in the States would it be possible to as adequately mount the play as was the case last night.
“It is impossible to do otherwise than first refer to the magnificence of the mounting of the drama and the wonderful spectacular effects obtained, for they are conceived in a spirit of opulence and carried out with an elaboration of detail and a barbaric splendor calculated to almost take one’s breath away. The eye is dazzled by the wealth of color and the ear tickled with the beautiful musical accompaniment, sometimes heard as themes and again with the voices of the chorus, which was admirably trained. To the music lover the music will prove an added attraction for the compositions of Edgar Stillman Kelley are done thorough justice to by the greatly augmented orchestra.
“After the impressive prelude with a curtain symbolic of Rome and Jerusalem, and in which three wise men from the west are seen in an attitude of adoration, the curtain rises on the roof-top of the Palace of Hur, and one is immediately struck with the huge proportions of the Walker stage, and can readily believe the claim that it is made for it, that it is one of the finest on the American continent.”
Conway Tearle, who later became a screen idol, played Ben Hur in the touring show that came to Winnipeg. Mitchell Harris played Messala, Anthony Andrea was Simonides, and Alice Haynes was Esther.
The Walker Theatre was reported to be one of only four theatres on the continent that had a stage large enough to accommodate three chariots, each with four horses abreast. The horses were set on treadmills so as to allow a full gallop. Winnipeg theatre patrons smugly pointed out that no theatre in New York could accommodate more than two chariots for lack of space. E.B., the reviewer for the Manitoba Free Press was greatly impressed.
“I have left to the last, the description of the celebrated chariot race because it is no easy thing to tell about. To see three chariots each having four horses attached racing madly across the stage with the drivers lashing and cracking their whips to the accompaniment of hoarse cries of triumph and hatred and the tumultuous applause of the audience is no light task. The people in front simply hold their breath, while their eyes almost start out of their heads with the excitement of the frenzied scene, and the climax is reached when the wheel is cut off one of the chariots and the driver is thrown to the track, and the trials and tribulations of Ben –Hur are almost brought to an end through the injuries to and ruin of his enemy. Had the race continued for another ten seconds the audience would have been standing up in the seats. I have seen many exciting moments in plays but never one quite equal to this. Again there is nothing but praise for the stage management and the the stage hands for with the exception of one tiny hitch the piece went with a smoothness which was astonishing for a first night in a strange theatre. In a word, from a spectacular standpoint Ben-Hur is a gorgeous and soul satisfying experience which no person having the faintest interest in things theatrical should by any means miss.
“So much having been said of the play from a purely mechanical and scenic outlook, it must not be imagined that therefore the dramatic niceties of the production have in any way been allowed to suffer. On the contrary, a very capable company has been sent out by Klaw and Erlenger and not a lot of third raters as is sometimes the case with these spectacular pieces.”
A final word for film buffs. There were two early silent films (1907 and 1925) made of Ben Hur. The 1925 version, directed by Fred Niblo starred Ramón Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur andFrancis X. Bushman as Messala. It was the most expensive silent film ever made and is reported to have cost between 4 and 6 million dollars. Here is the chariot scene from Ben Hur, (1925). It is well worth seeing the whole film.
Another classic film. Ted Baryluk’s Grocery is a beautiful short film, made in 1982 by John Paskievich and Mike Mirus for the National Film board. It is an absolute gem. It depicts honest, unvarnished truths of life in a Point Douglas grocery store and is both poignant and haunting. Warning: the politically correct may find much to complain about in this film, especially those who are running out to purchase the cleaned up version of Mark Twain’s work.
The film features Ted talking about his store, the changing neighbourhood, and his hope that his daughter may take over the store after he has gone, even though she wants to move away. The work received numerous awards including a Genie Award in Toronto, and was chosen to represent Canada at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival.
Bravo to the NFB for making these films available for us to enjoy with the click of a mouse.
A background article on the film, by Lois Siegel, was published in Cinema Canada in May, 1982. Click here to read it.
Filmmaker/photographer, John Paskievich, has published his work in a coffee table book: The North End.