In the early days of the Fraser River gold rush, who entertained gold rush miners while they were in Victoria? There was no Victoria Theatre. Amateur musicians and actors gave concerts, readings, and plays in a narrow building sometimes advertised as the ‘Assembly Rooms’ or ‘Assembly Hall’ on Broad Street between Yates and Fort.
Hudson’s Bay Company Warehouse Transformed
By the early 1860s gold miners were coming back to Victoria with plenty of gold dust. The time was right for a professional theatre. Someone suggested that they use the former HBC warehouse on the southwest corner of Government and View Streets. This warehouse was converted into the Victoria Theatre which could seat 600 people. Upstairs was a photo studio which also helped to bring in some revenue.
Outside the theatre, the town-crier would ring his bell at intervals to let passersby know that the doors were open. He would give an entertaining run down of the evening’s program, first in English and then in Chinook. For many this was itself entertainment.
Gold miners sat in the expensive gallery seats with a “quid of tobacco” in their mouths and their feet on the railing in front of them. From below people could look up and see rows of boots of all sizes and shapes. Two private boxes were located on either side of the stage. English actor Charles Kean played there in 1864 and noted “plenty of draughts.”
Fire at Victoria Theatre
The theatre was lit with camphene oil lamps which often went out mid-performance which sometimes caused confusion as people rushed to relight the lamps. Miss Lulu Sweet and other actors were on stage performing the nautical drama ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ when a fire broke out. The Daily Colonist wrote of this incident on October 18, 1860:
“Last evening, one of the swinging camphene lamps in the gallery was accidentally knocked down by some person who was crawling over the backs of the seats to get a nearer view of the stage, and the contents spilled upon the floor, causing a great blaze. A cry of fire was at once raised, and impromptu bucket-companies having been formed, the flames were extinguished without the aid of the engines or truck, which were quickly on the spot. The actors were all on the stage at the time dancing a sailor’s hornpipe, and the greatest consternation was caused for a few moments.”
The Royal Hotel had its own theatre on Wharf Street. John Ducie Cusheon built the ‘Naval and Military Theatre’ adjoining his Union Hotel on Government Street. An amateur group from Esquimalt performed there for the first time on February 15, 1860. Sometimes the location of these venues was in peculiar places. Goodacre’s Butcher Shop had a room downstairs called the New Idea where people could watch minstrel shows and light comedy.
In the fall of 1867, R.G. Marsh undertook an massive renovation of the Victoria Theatre, renaming it Theatre Royal. One of the biggest improvements Marsh did was to install gas burners for heat and light. Also, the Royal Box was decorated with red draperies which featured a golden crown in the centre. A dim narrow passage from Langley Street led directly to The Royal Box and the glare of the footlights.
Theatre Royal opened on October 10, 1867.