Introducing the Pantages Theatre

The Pantages Theatre Arts Society was created to shepherd the restoration and reopening of the theatre to provide the residents of the neighbourhood and the City of Vancouver with a live theatre and an active new performing arts facility

The Pantages Theatre is the oldest vaudeville theatre in Canada and the second of 72 theatres built by Alexander Pantages in North America. The plan is to restore this theatre to its former glory. The Pantages will become a home for groups like the City Opera of Vancouver, playhouse and theatre groups, musical organizations, and other performing arts organizations, particularly smaller groups that have limited resources.

The three resident companies are the City Opera of Vancouver, the Vancouver Cantonese Opera, and Vancouver Moving Theatre. They will be participating with other community groups in the restoration.

The musical agenda for City Opera will be chamber opera works from Monteverdi to Mozart, and Gilbert and Sullivan to contemporary Canadian opera. City Opera also hopes to commission original work for the house.

The Pantages will be equipped as a real-time web, television and radio broadcast facility and recording studio to extend the reach and increase the audience for local, regional and national performing arts groups.


The Pantages Theatre was built in 1907 as part of the Pantages chain of 72 vaudeville theatres by Alexander Pantages. All of Pantages’ early theatres have been demolished, making this the oldest surviving one in North America.

The theatre has operated under many names, most recently as the Sung Sing Theatre and before that, as City Nights. During its time as the Pantages this theatre headlined comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, as well as sports legends Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth. Later it was used as a movie house.

Pantages Theatre taken March 20, 1933 hours after a bomb was exploded in its lobby. Running a theatre has never been easy. Photo courtesy of Ron Injates.

Over the years the interior has remained remarkably intact, despite the change from live performance to playing movies. The theatre closed its doors in 1994 and has twice appeared in recent years on Heritage Vancouver’s annual top ten lists of endangered sites. The theatre also has heritage value for its supporting role among the many fine turn-of-the-century buildings that line this part of Hastings Street.

The rather plain red brick façade of the timber frame theatre structure is significant in that it followed the trend of early theatres, where the office like exterior hid a highly-ornate interior. The exterior has been altered, especially at the ground level, and the original cornice has been removed.

Inside, the more ornate auditorium typical of vaudeville theatres of the day, includes such original decorative elements as a curved ceiling in plain plaster with classical, baroque and Moorish details, and plaster decoration. The wood floors, balconies, and murals have remained astonishingly intact. Although designed primarily by Edward Evans Blackmore (1878-1929), Alexander Pantages himself is credited with considerable input into the theatre’s plans.

Who is Involved
The Pantages Theatre Arts Society, a non-profit society, has been incorporated and has entered into a lease with the owner to manage the project during this period.

The developer, who specializes in the restoration of old buildings, is currently restoring and redeveloping the Koret Lofts project on East Cordova Street. Marc Williams and Helen Song are responsible for managing the project.

Proscenium Architects, who were involved in the successful restoration of the Pantages Theatre in Victoria now called the McPherson Playhouse, as well as a number of other theatres in Vancouver, will be engaged. The architects and developer will work closely with the Heritage Department of the City of Vancouver , as well as the federal Department of Canadian Heritage to restore as much of the original theatre as much as possible.

The plan is to hire a number of the community groups who are already working in the area to participate in the restoration and learn something completely new to build a different kind of excitement that people might not have an opportunity to experience.

Signing the Agreement

On April 18, 2006, the long-term lease agreement between the Pantages Theatre Arts Society and the owner and developer Marc Williams was signed in the company of representatives from Vancouver Moving Theatre, Vancouver Cantonese Opera, and City Opera of Vancouver. These companies will be resident at the theatre together with numerous other community and arts groups to make use of this 650-seat proscenium house.

On Saturday, October 28, 2006, shortly after noon, the Pantages Theatre presented its first concert in over 50 years as part of the Heart of the City Festival. Soprano Diana Oros-Wilder and pianist Michael Onwood performed music from Broadway to opera for an appreciative audience after an historic walking tour conducted by John Atkin of this once bustling theatre and vaudeville circuit area that included the Harts Opera House, the Grand, the Empress, the Imperial, the Rex, the Chung King Opera House, and among others, the Pantages Theatre.

The Pantages Theatre Arts Society

Members of the Board of the Pantages Theatre Arts Society

Peter Fairchild, Chair, Pantages Theatre Arts Society and Treasurer, Community Arts Council of Vancouver
Colin Browne, SFU School of Contemporary Arts, Board Member, Vancouver City Opera, active participant in Woodwards Building Redevelopment
Barbara Clague, educator and singer actively engaged in community development
Duncan Low, former Executive Director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre
Grace Wong, Director of the Chinatown Branch of VanCity Credit Union
Robert Eberle, professor, UBC Theatre Department, nationally recognized expert in theatre operations, design and management.

Council of Advisors

Donna Spencer, Artistic Producer of the Firehall Arts Centre
Ethel Whitty, Executive Director of the Carnegie Centre
Susan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance
David Y. H. Louie, impresario
Nora Kelly, Past President of the Strathcona Residents Association
Dawn Brennan, General Manager of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company

What’s Next
The theatre has been in a state of disrepair for many years. The developer took it over in October and immediately sealed the roof to stop the extensive water damage, tightened it up to stop further deterioration, and secured the building.

The theatre has spectacular murals on the walls that are currently covered with canvas. The original capacity of 650 people will be reduced with the installation of new chairs that provide the level of space and comfort audiences have now come to expect.

The new entrance will be from the adjacent building where some social and affordable housing will also be created, leaving the theatre space as intact as possible for restoration to the best of its original form.

Not only will the theatre be fully restored, the stage area will be modernized, increasing the orchestra pit. There is at present room for a fifteen person orchestra pit. The pit will be expanded from access below into the house to provide three configurations seating twenty, thirty and up to forty musicians.

The acoustics in the theatre are the best in the city. The acoustic qualities of the wood and plaster construction work really well, unlike much of current day theatre design and construction.

The stage left area will be expanded into the property next door to provide wing space, a staging area, a green room and a place for performers in addition to the space below the stage.

The stage tower is sixty five feet and is solid and intact. It, along with the rest of the building, will require restoration to the twenty-first century. Fortunately, the seismic upgrade can be accomplished through the exterior wall on the west side leaving the interior walls intact.

The house will be wired to create a real time broadcast studio. Capacity will be provided for CBC Radio in a special residency. The Pantages Theatre will invite the CBC Radio Orchestra and others to perform free concerts for broadcast on radio, television, and the internet. People will be able to tune in through their computer and see what is going on at the theatre.

Having the house wired and cabled with built in sound and video recording equipment creates a facility for groups with recording projects to use when the theatre is not active.

An agreement has been reached with EasyPark for the first three years of the operation of the theatre that everyone who purchases a ticket for the theater will get free parking at the 950 space Chinatown Parkade two blocks away, and at the Gastown Parkade two blocks in the other direction, with free shuttle service to and from the theatre and the Parkades for one hour before and after the performance.

The theatre will be structured to provide local residents with tickets to encourage them to come and experience things they might not necessarily have the opportunity to do. Having a theatre in the community can create a different attitude and level of comfort in participating and experiencing the arts. Giving people in the community the opportunity to participate will create more pride in the community and another wonderful dynamic that will improve the area.

The theatre will be available for rental and presentation. Special benefits will apply to neighbourhood groups and residents.

Once approved by the City, the restoration work will take about two years with a projected opening in the late fall of 2008.

Alexander Pantages’ idea of something for everyone has held true for almost ninety years and is now waiting to be restored and open again in time for its 100th anniversary.