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The Haunting of the Burton Cummings Theatre

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The upcoming BMO Night at the Movies may have a few audience members of the ghostly kind...

On Saturday October 29th, BMO Night at the Movies is moving to the Burton Cummings Theatre for Nosferatu.

Just in time for Halloween, and in celebration of the film’s 100th anniversary, conductor Naomi Woo takes a bite out of the silent horror classic, Nosferatu, about a nightmarish vampire named Count Orlock who invades a small town. Movie goers and music lovers will be treated to the original 1922 German film (with English subtitles) on the big screen while the WSO performs the soundtrack LIVE!

Formerly known as The Walker Theatre, the Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts is one of the grand dames of Winnipeg theatres. Its grand opening was held 115 years ago, February 18th, 1907 with Puccini’s new opera, Madama Butterfly. Founded by Corliss Powers Walker and his wife Harriet, the expatriate entrepreneurs dreamed of bringing the very best shows to Winnipeg. The couple brought in the most popular shows touring Europe or the eastern United States. It was where many Winnipeggers were first exposed to the symphony, opera, musicals, and ballet.

The Walker attracted the biggest names in show business of the day, including Harry Houdini, Bob Hope, Louis Armstrong, and Jimmy Durante. The Walker also held many important community events. Harriet Walker was an early suffragette and helped Nelly McClung hold her Women’s Parliament at the Walker.

The Walker’s support for their community went beyond women’s rights. They built the theatre with a second balcony to allow as many people as possible to see the shows. This balcony soon became known as “The Gods”, because patrons were sitting so high up, they must be sitting with the gods themselves. Tickets to “The Gods” were only 25 cents, allowing many people who otherwise could not afford the theatre to attend.

The Walker Theatre

A drawing of what the interior of the Walker Theatre would have looked like in 1907 by Robert Sweeney.

Today "The Gods" are known as one of the spookiest places in the theatre.

Performers have been rehearsing on stage, alone or in small groups, when they’ve heard applause coming from “The Gods” as if there was an invisible crowd watching an unseen show. There are many other strange occurrences at the theatre, mostly at night when the building is empty other than the security guards. Doors that are supposed to be left open are found closed with no explanation. Guard dogs who were normally very well behaved at other job sites would bark at nothing and refuse to enter certain rooms in the theatre.

The haunting of Walker Theatre is often explained as the work of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney, a famous acting couple from England. They had just completed a triumphant North American tour that culminated at the then seven-year-old Walker Theatre.

Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney

The renowned Londoners — he was the dapper, 42-year-old son of the illustrious British actor Sir Henry Irving, the first stage performer to be knighted — had booked passage home to London via Liverpool on the Corsican, but a friend convinced them to transfer to the larger Canadian Pacific sister ship Empress of Ireland.

They would never make it. On May 29th, 1914, the Empress of Ireland sank, resulting in more than a thousand lives lost, including Laurence and Mabel, the most prominent passengers. It remains the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history.

Winnipeg theatre-goers were shocked and saddened by the deaths of actors they had so loudly applauded the previous week during the performances of four plays: Typhoon; The Unwritten Law; The Lily; and the first full production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Before Irving left the grand Walker stage, he bade the audience farewell, saying, as reported by the Manitoba Free Press, that he was departing with only the most delightful memories and he vowed to return with a new stage work.

Irving and Hackney were last seen clasped in each other’s arms as the ship slipped beneath the waves. His body was found still clutching a fragment of his wife’s nightdress in his hand. The 34-year-old Hackney was never found.

After the accident, a shiny copper plaque was put in the lobby of the Walker in their memory.

Irving and Hackney apparently kept their promise to return, becoming the house ghosts of the Smith Street theatre where they last performed together, and they were soon blamed for nocturnal activity such as spooky whisperings, clapping and ghostly sightings.


With files from a post by Matthew Komus who worked as a tour guide in Winnipeg’s Ghost Walk, and an article by Kevin Prokosh (Winnipeg Free Press) on the 100th anniversary  of the passing of of Laurence Irving and Mabel Hackney.

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