Where Icons & Giants Once Took the Stage in Vancouver’s West End

Detail of 1931 aerial photograph of Vancouver showing Georgia Auditorium (Denman Auditorium) beside Denman Arena. (CoV Archives, Van Sc P15)

Though Vancouver was a relatively small, sleepy city until the 1970s, it has a surprisingly long and rich entertainment history. This was partly due to it being one of the urban centres along the west coast that saw its population soar as a result of the Klondike Gold Rush and the increase in trade that followed (see also San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Victoria and Dawson City). But it was also its status as a CPR terminus city – ideally positioned along the main route from London to the “Far East” – that made it a popular tour stop for live acts in the late 19th century. World-class artists such as Anna Pavlova, Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt made their way to Vancouver when it was just getting started, and the flow of talent has never stopped since.

Vancouver’s live entertainment scene was well established by the time the Georgia Auditorium (originally called the Denman Auditorium) was built at the corner of West Georgia St. and Denman St. in 1927. Frank and Lester Patrick built the 2,500-seat Denman Auditorium beside their Denman Arena (built in 1911) on part of the former Kanaka Ranch site, now Devonian Harbour Park. A historical marker in the park, installed by the Vancouver Historical Society, reveals the rich history of the area.

The Denman Arena was one of the world’s largest indoor rinks at the time, able to hold up to 10,500 people. It was home to Vancouver’s first professional hockey team, the Vancouver Millionaires, who won the Stanley Cup in 1915. The fire that destroyed the Denman Arena in 1936 spared the auditorium.

In its early days, the multipurpose venue hosted boxing and wrestling matches, rallies and other similar attractions. During World War II, it was taken over by the Canadian Navy and was temporarily used as a storage facility by Boeing Aircraft.

In 1945, Lester Patrick sold the former arena site and the auditorium to Vancouver theatre owner, H. M. Singer. Singer hoped to build another sports arena on the site, but this project never came to fruition. In 1952, the Denman Auditorium was renovated as a concert venue, re-opening in September of that year as the Georgia Auditorium. Singer managed the Auditorium as a concert venue until it hosted its final event on June 19th, 1959 – a free show by the CBUT (CBC Vancouver) Talent Caravan. It was torn down in September 1959 and replaced by a parking lot, a common occurrence in Vancouver at that time.

Exterior of Georgia Auditorium with “For Sale” sign, June 1959. (Walter E. Frost, CoV Archives, CVA 447-69)

The auditorium’s seemingly early demise could be directly attributed to the opening of the modern, 2,765 seat, Queen Elizabeth Theatre on July 5, 1959. The significance of the Georgia Auditorium on the local live entertainment scene really only lasted seven years, but what a seven years it was!

Vancouver Archives card catalogue showing listing for pamphlet for Sir John Gielgud in “Shakespear’s Ages of Man” at the Georgia Auditorium, November 28, 1958.

Its stage was graced by some of the world’s greatest singers, musicians, dancers, comedians and theatrical performers. In the City of Vancouver Archives pamphlet collection are programs for a variety of theatrical performances held at the Georgia Auditorium, including one that featured Sir John Gielgud in “Shakespeare’s Ages of Man” at the Georgia Auditorium, November 28, 1958. Sir John Gielgud in Vancouver in 1958? Imagine that! Perhaps Vancouver was not so sleepy after all.

Politics have also been an important part of the Georgia Auditorium. John Diefenbaker started one of the greatest political sweeps of Canadian history in 1957 on its stage. In that same year, Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent made one of his last public appearances on the federal campaign trail there. Throughout the 1950s, BC Premier W.A.C. Bennett and the Social Credit party used the location for many rallies and annual meetings.

People entering the Georgia Auditorium to hear Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, May 1957. (Eric Cable, CoV Archives, Bu P531.1)

Beyond hosting everything from political rallies to revival meetings, arguably its greatest role was probably that of concert hall. In its heyday, the Georgia Auditorium was the “showplace of Georgia Street”.

Georgia Auditorium marquee for St. Pauls Nurses Graduation (still frame from 1959 CBUT news item).

Vancouver radio legend Red Robinson got his start at the Georgia Auditorium at the age of 16. He made his first public appearance in 1953 on the stage “as a guest of the Al Jordan show Theme For Teens. Al broadcast ‘live’ from the venue and special guest was Frankie Laine”. Two years later, Robinson emceed a show at the Georgia Auditorium called Jazz At The Philharmonic. Jazz greats Lester Young, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald all appeared on the bill.

Ad for Show of Stars ’57 at Georgia Auditorium

Robinson was also the emcee for a great early Rock n’ Roll show in October 1957 at the Georgia Auditorium. It was billed the “Show of Stars for ’57” and featured Paul Anka, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Knox, The Drifters, Eddie Cochran and many others. Admission to the show was $2, with a top ticket price of $3.75.

Poster for Show of Stars ’57

Reviews of the show in the local newspapers the next day reveal much about how Rock n’ Roll was contributing to the “generation gap”.

October 24, 1957, Vancouver Sun – Alan Hope, Sun Staff Reporter:

The high priests of rock n’ roll held court in the Georgia Auditorium Wednesday night. They performed the stiff-legged, spasmodic rites of the cult with an unimaginative sameness that makes their wide appeal an enigma. The audience was warned before the show got underway that dancing was forbidden.

On October 24, 1957, The Province Newspaper notes:

The young patrons, the great majority in the 15-year-old bracket, sat through two hours of brash musical noises highlighted by Fats Domino. The first show started at about 7 p.m. and the Auditorium was cleared to allow another show to go on at 9:30 p.m. The Audience was amazingly well behaved as special duty policemen patrolled the aisles. Guitarist Buddy Knox, who rose to fame with a record called “Party Doll” did three songs and was well received.

Red Robinson interviewed Buddy Holly backstage at the Georgia Auditorium on October 23, 1957. The interview can be heard on YouTube below:

Though the Georgia Auditorium’s time as a venue was fleeting, it certainly made indelible marks upon Vancouver’s entertainment history. What is long gone is far from forgotten.

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