The Greatest Show on Earth

24 July 1895

The late nineteenth century marked the golden age of the American circus. Travelling the railroads that had just been laid down during the great railway boom, as many as fifty circuses crisscrossed the continent, bringing excitement, diversion, and sometimes education, to towns and cities throughout North America. With popular entertainment in short supply in those days before television, radio, and motion pictures, the arrival of the circus each summer was a much anticipated event. Of all the circuses of that era, the greatest of them was probably the Barnum & Bailey circus, billed as the Greatest Show on Earth. For once, the hyperbole so loved by circus promoters was accurate. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Barnum’s came six times to Ottawa, with each show arguably more fantastic than the previous one.

The Barnum & Bailey circus was brought to the world by two of the greatest showmen and circus impresarios of all times—Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum and James Anthony Bailey. Barnum, who was born in 1810, got his start his start in New York where he acquired Scudder’s American Museum in 1841. Modestly renaming it after himself, the museum, which was a mixture of menagerie, aquarium, museum, lecture hall and freak show, became famous for its display of the FeeJee (Fiji) mermaid. The mermaid, which was much hyped by Barnum as the mummified remains of a mermaid supposedly discovered in the Pacific, captured people’s imagination and drew tens of thousands to Barnum’s American Museum. In actuality, it had been created by stitching together the head and upper body of an ape with the lower body and tail of a fish. Human “curiosities” were also showcased, including “General” Tom Thumb, a 25-inch tall dwarf (who appeared in Ottawa at Her Majesty’s Theatre in October 1861), a “man-monkey”, who was in reality a microcephalic black man, and the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker. Originally from Siam (Thailand), they were the source of the term “Siamese twins.” After his New York museum burnt down, Barnum went into the circus business, establishing P.T. Barnum’s Grand Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome in 1871. He is credited for being the first to use the railway for transporting his circus from city to city. He also began to call his circus “the Greatest Show on Earth.”

James A. Bailey was born James A. McGinniss in 1847. Orphaned as a child, he adopted the last name Bailey to honour the man who got him started in the circus business. In the early 1870s, he was a partner in a travelling circus known as the Cooper & Bailey Circus, and was in competition with Barnum.  Bailey linked up with Barnum in 1881. The merged company retained the advertising slogan of “the Greatest Show on Earth,” though it wasn’t to use the joint Barnum & Bailey name until 1888, sticking until then with the better-known Barnum name.

The newly merged company quickly gained international notoriety for buying Jumbo, an African elephant, from the London zoo for £2,000, then equivalent to almost $10,000.  Jumbo was a sensation wherever it went. The huge elephant, billed as the largest outside of Africa, came to Ottawa in 1883 and 1885 as the prime exhibit of the grandly named “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and Howes Great London Circus and Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie.” The 1885 Ottawa performance occurred just days before Jumbo died in an accident in a rail yard in St Thomas, Ontario.  While accounts vary, it appears that Jumbo and another elephant called Dwarf were struck by a freight train. Jumbo was killed instantly, while Dwarf sustained a fractured leg. While viewed as an “irreplaceable loss” by the circus, Barnum, the perennial showman, had Jumbo’s skeleton and skin preserved and put on display in the circus. Jumbo’s remains came back to Ottawa when Barnum’s returned to the capital in 1887. The circus’s advertised that JUMBO was “as Large as Life and Quite as Natural,” and was the “Only Elephant Skeleton on Exhibition Anywhere.” He was accompanied by Alice his “Affectionate and Distressed Companion.”

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Barnum and Bailey Circus Advertisement, The Evening Journal, 23 July 1895

Of the six Barnum circuses that came to Ottawa during the late nineteenth century, the greatest was probably the 1895 edition that arrived in town in the early morning of Wednesday, 24 July. With Barnum’s death in 1891, the circus was now run solely by James Bailey who had bought out his partner’s share from Barnum’s widow. The show remained, however, Barnum & Bailey’s Great Show on Earth, giving the famous dead showman top billing. It advertised that its capital was $3.5 million, with daily expenses of $7,000.

So huge was the Barnum & Bailey circus that it took four specially-equipped trains of 68 cars to transport performers and other personnel, animals, including a “monster” herd of twenty-four elephants, sideshows, and tents and other equipment from Montreal to Ottawa on the Canada Atlantic Railway (CAR), pulling in at the Elgin Street station (Catherine Street at Metcalfe Street). But so organized were the roadies responsible for setting up the circus that the tents were raised and made ready for the day’s performances in under ninety minutes at the old race track opposite the Exhibition Grounds at Lansdowne Park on Bank Street. The Ottawa Evening Journal commented that the “easy way” that the workers put up the big tents “demonstrated that they have the thing down to a science.” In preparation for the thousands of spectators that would be heading to the temporary circus grounds, the Ottawa Electric Railway Company “watered” Bank Street (still a dirt road at that time) from the CAR tracks to the circus venue at its own expense to ensure that the street was in good condition. It also put on extra trams on the Bank Street route from downtown.

At 9.30am, the circus paraded through Ottawa as was customary at that time, in front of thousands of excited onlookers, including many drawn into the city from surrounding villages by advertising posters that said “It is worth coming miles to see and once seen never forgotten.” One newspaper story only half-jokingly commented that there was a high demand for children that morning by usually “sedate” citizens who wouldn’t otherwise appear alone at a circus.

The parade’s Order of March gives a sense of the awesome scale of the circus.

Military Band

Gentlemen Fox Hunters and Cavaliers

Lady Performers and Side-Saddle Experts

Band Chariot drawn by ten horses

Menagerie

Open Den of five tigers and trainer

Open Den of four lions and trainer

Open Den of six leopards and trainer

Open Den of six panthers and trainer

Open Den of six hyenas and trainer

Open Den of four bears and trainer

Open Den of six wolves and trainer

Band Chariot drawn by ten horses carrying Euterpe (muse of music)

Mounted Ladies of the Hippodrome

Mounted Gentlemen of the Hippodrome

Three teams of Standing Roman racers

Three four-horse Roman chariots

Twelve performing elephants

Twelve dromedaries with Asiatic riders

Dragon chariot with harnessed camels

Chariot of India drawn by ten horses

Floats

Cinderella’s Fairy Coach

Bluebeard

Old Woman who lived in a Shoe

Santa Claus

Little Red Riding Hood

Sinbad the Sailor

Mother Goose

A Steam Calliope [a very loud musical instrument that uses steam to power large whistles]

The Crowned Heads of the World accompanied by correctly uniformed military retinues

Emperor of China

King Thibaw of Siam

Khedive of Egypt

Mikado of Japan

Sultan of Turkey

Infant Queen of Holland

King Leopold of Belgium

King Oscar of Sweden

Infant Queen of Spain

King Humbert of Italy

Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria

Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany

Queen Victoria

American Allegorical Chariot with representatives of the Army, Navy, Washington, Lincoln, Uncle Sam and the Goddess of Liberty.

The parade route took the band wagon, floats, animals and performers from its grounds down Bank Street to Albert Street, turning onto Lyon Street, and then along Wellington Street in front of the Parliament Buildings before crossing Sappers’ Bridge into Lower Town, passing down Cumberland, Clarence, Sussex and Rideau Streets, before retracing their steps along Wellington and Bank Streets back to the circus grounds. The procession through the streets received a rapturous applause from onlookers, though the Journal noted some casting problems, wryly commenting that it’s impossible to make an Irishman into a Chinese dragoon.

forepaughsellsc-1905deptofminestechnicalsurveyslacpa034081

Parade along Wellington Street of the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus, c. 1905 with the East Block of Parliament Hill in the background. This circus company, originally a competitor of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, was purchased by James Bailey in the late 19th century and was later acquired by Ringling Brothers following Bailey’s death. Forepaugh & Sells made three visits to Ottawa during the early 20th century. It folded in 1911. Dept. of Mins & Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada, PA-034081.

Later that day, the circus put on two performances. Tickets were 50 cents, 25 cents for children under nine years of age. Reserved seats could be purchased at Rosenthal & Company’s Jewellery Store at 89 Sparks Street. There were 110 acts performed in three rings and two stages used simultaneously. Barnum’s advertised that their circus was the only one to have a lady ringmaster and a lady clown. The Journal reported that the performance was a “kaleidoscopic display of leapers, tumblers, gymnasts, equestrian, hurdle riders, aerialist, trapezists and clowns.”  If there was any complaint it was that here was too much to see. Among the aerialist performers were The Three Dunbars and The 3 Flying Dillons. The Meer sisters, Marie and Ouika, billed as Europe’s greatest lady equestrians, also performed. They were reputedly hired at an enormous salary of $100 per day. Swimming exhibits were held in a large tank in the middle of the main tent. Louis Golden dove into a five foot deep tank of water from the top of the tent, fifty-one feet in the air. The wild beasts performed in a special steel-barred arena. Other acts included Johanna, the only giantess gorilla in captivity, chariot races, and champion log rolling.

The featured sideshow was a great Ethnological Congress displaying representatives of “strange and savage tribes arranged in their barbaric clothes.” The people gave exhibitions of war dances, and religious ceremonies using “their own peculiar musical instruments.” Among the peoples exhibited were “Hindoos, Pagans, Cannibals, Idolaters, Vishnus, Buddhists, Mohammedans, Fire and Sun Worshippers.” The Journal highly commended the show as “educational and instructive.” Typically degrading and racist, such “human zoos” were very popular in North America and Europe during the late nineteenth century.

While the circus was only in Ottawa for one day. The food bill for the performers and animals was gargantuan. It was reported that Barnum’s ordered twelve tons of hay, four loads of straw for bedding, fifty bushels, large quantities of vegetables, and 1,400 pounds of meat for the lions and other carnivores. Meanwhile, Ottawa butchers Slattery and Terrance supplied 800 pounds of beef, pork, lamb and other meats for circus members. Twelve cooks made the troupe’s dinner, with sixty waiters serving more than 300 people.

The Barnum & Bailey circus, which went on a five-year tour of Europe, did not return to Ottawa until 1906. Following Bailey’s death in 1906, the Ringling Brothers, who operated the Ringling Brothers Circus, bought Barnum’s. The two circuses were merged in 1919. In mid-January 2017, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that owing to declining attendance and rising costs it would close in May, bringing an end to the Greatest Show on Earth after 146 years.

Sources:

Jando, Dominique, 2016. “Short History of the Circus,” Circopedia, http://www.circopedia.org/SHORT_HISTORY_OF_THE_CIRCUS.

Circus Historical Society, 2002. http://www.circushistory.org/.

Conover, Richard E., 1957. The Affairs of James A. Bailey,” http://www.circushistory.org/Pdf/ConoverJAB.pdf.

Global News, 2017. “Ringling Bros. circus to close after 146 years,” 15 January, http://globalnews.ca/news/3182186/ringling-bros-circus-to-close-after-146-years/.

Springhall, John, 2008. The Genius of Mass Culture, Show Business Live in America, 1840-1940, Palgrave MacMillan: New York

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1887. “Barnum Coming,” 16 July.

———————————–, 1895. “A Costly Pageant,” 23 July.

———————————–, 1895. “The Circus In Town,” 24 July.

———————————–, 1895. “Barnum and Baily Show Arrives,” 24 July.

———————————–, 1895. “Things Strange and New,” 25 July.

 

 

June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus

12 August 1851

Life was hard in Bytown during the mid-nineteenth century. The small community, which was to become Ottawa, had perhaps 7,000 souls. People laboured long hours, six days of the week, for low pay. For tired workers after-work entertainment options were limited. Many simply repaired to their neighbourhood watering hole. For the well-to-do, Hough’s Dramatic Company, a troupe of five ladies and ten gentlemen, put on dramatic productions—tragedies, dramas and farces—at the Union Hall. A seat at their performances cost 1s. 3d., the equivalent of 25 cents. Those looking to improve themselves could join the Mechanics Institute and Athenaeum or l’Institut canadien français d’Ottawa. Both organizations, which were established in the early 1850s, put on edifying lectures and organized reading rooms and small libraries for their subscribers. For the sportsman, pigeon shooting on Major’s Hill was another popular activity during the annual spring and fall migrations—at least it was until most of the trees were cut down sometime before 1860 destroying the birds’ roosting sites.

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Advertisement for the June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus, The Ottawa Citizen, 26 July 1851.

Given this limited range of entertainment possibilities, imagine the excitement when a circus came to town. For most people, it was their only exposure to the outside world, enabling them to see exotic animals, mysterious peoples, and astonishing acts that they could otherwise only dream about.

The first circus on record to find its way to Bytown was June & Company’s Great Oriental Circus operated by James M. June with his partner Seth Howes. The circus was called “oriental” because the bandwagon used in the parade was drawn by eight camels instead of horses. Typically, the June circus travelled from town to town through New York and New England. But, in 1851, its itinerary included Canada, with stops in Montreal and Toronto before coming to Bytown for a three-day visit from the 12 to 14 August, 1851. As the railway had not yet linked Bytown to the outside world, the circus must have travelled to the town by road—an onerous journey given the quality of inter-city highways of that era. The entrance fee was 1s. 3d. There was no price reduction for children; early circuses did not cater to youngsters.

The June & Co circus entered Bytown with the band car in front drawn by its eight Syrian camels “imported at vast expense expressly for this Establishment.” The circus’s advertisement also promised “a greater variety of startling and attractive entertainments than ever before been given by any single Troupe, for the effectual production of which an ‘Unparalleled Array of Talent’ has been secured.” As you can see, circus bombast started early. Most of the circus performances were equestrian in nature. Featured artists included Laverter Lee, the “great English EQUILIBRIST and DOUBLE RIDER, and his Talented Children.” The very large Lee family, which had immigrated to the United States in the 1840s, was a notable show family that provided a number of fine equestrians. The family is also reputed to have invented the “perch act,” where one performer conducts a series of acrobatic tricks on top of a pole that is being balanced by another performer. William H. Cole and his wife Mary Anne also performed. William Cole was a famed contortionist and clown. His wife was a renowned equestrienne who was billed to have come from Astley’s Amphitheatre in England. Astley’s was a famed London circus performance venue during the nineteenth century. Mary Anne Cole was the star of a show called “EXERCISES OF THE MANEGE.” Other featured equestrians were Mrs Caroline Sherwood, Mr. Lipman, “the distinguished dramatic rider” and Mr Sherwood, “the rapid rider.” The acrobats Messrs MacFarland and Sweet also performed. MacFarland was renowned for having executed eighty-seven successive somersaults. To round out the show was the clown John Gossin. Gossin, who was coming to the end of his career when he performed with the June circus, was a witty raconteur as well as a rider and tumbler. In the course of each performance, which started at 2.30 pm and 7.30 pm each day, the camels were introduced in “a new and magnificent Oriental Pageant” called the Caravan of the Desert, “representing the means of travelling in in the East and an Encampment of Wandering Arabs.”

News of the circus’s arrival in Bytown prompted controversy as well as excitement. A week prior to its appearance, a small critical article appeared in The Ottawa Citizen. It read “He of the Gazette,” in noticing the June & Company’s advertisement in the newspaper, invited readers to “a lecture on the immorality of such exhibitions.”  While unnamed, “he of the Gazette” was William F. Powell, a prominent Bytown citizen who had been the editor of the Bytown Gazette. He was to become the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carleton Country in 1854. (Powell Avenue in the Glebe neighbourhood is named in his honour.)

Robert Bell, the reformist and liberal-minded editor of The Ottawa Citizen, mocked Powell. He opined that June & Co. was a “most respectable company,” and that he was “at a loss to appreciate justly the various performances, and the decent and becoming manner with which it was carried on.” He added “Really the Editor of the Gazette is impayable [priceless], when forgetting who he is, he robes himself in the garb of the casuist, and decides for the spiritual benefit of his townsmen, what sort of amusement they are to have, and what are those which might prove detrimental to their morals.” Given the warm reception given to the Circus by Bytown’s residents, Bell said Powell was “preaching in the desert.”  Bell described the performance of Mrs Cole as “lady-like,” and that she had managed her spirited horse in an elegant manner. He also thought Mrs Sherwood was a good equestrian performer. As well, he praised highly the performance of the circus men especially that of John Gossin who Bell described as “a spirited and merry Clown of the troupe who kept the audience in a constant fit of laughter.” In one of the Circus’s performances, Gossin’s jokes about Powell, elicited “a roar of laughter.” Bell hoped that that would teach Powell that his position in the community “is not such as to warrant his giving advices as to what is morally becoming to the ladies of Bytown.”

If June & Company was the first itinerant American circus to make its way to Ottawa, it was far from the last. Until World War I, few years went by without at least one circus stopping in Bytown and later Ottawa. Once the city was accessible by rail, productions also became bigger and more elaborate owing to both supply and demand reasons. Rail service lifted the constraints on what travelling circuses could transport from town to town at reasonable cost. This allowed them to respond to competitive pressures for new and more bizarre acts from increasingly jaded audiences who had become bored with equestrians, tumblers and clowns, the mainstay of early circuses. Perhaps the greatest circuses of the late nineteenth century that came to Ottawa was the famous Barnum & Bailey Circus, billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  So fantastic was the Barnum & Bailey Circus, it warrants its own story.

Sources:

Brown, Col. T. Allston, 1994. Amphitheatres & Circuses, Emeritus Enterprise, San Bernardino, California.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1851. “June and Co.’s Splendid Oriental Circus,” 9 August.

————————-, 1851. “Theatre,” 16 August.

————————-, 1851. “The Circus,” 16 August.

Circus Historical Society, 2002, http://www.circushistory.org/index.htm.

Slout, William L, 2002. Chilly Billy, The Evolution of a Circus Millionaire, Emeritus Enterprise: San Bernardino, California.

 

 

Santa Claus Comes To Town

24 December 1896

It’s hard sometimes not to get a little cynical about Christmas.  Even before the last Halloween candy or pumpkin pie is consumed, it seems that stores have already put up the lights and tinsel of Christmas. Television advertisements urge us to buy things that neither we nor our family need. Christmas catalogues and store flyers clog our mailboxes, both real and virtual. Every shopping centre has its mall Santa, complete with faux ice palace, throne, green-clad helpers, and a posted list of times of when that jolly old elf dressed in red polyester and a fake white beard will be there to hear children’s wish lists. Christmas craft fairs and Santa Claus parades abound. For 2016, a local tourism site listed no less than seventeen Santa parades in the Ottawa area, most taking place in November to help rev up the Christmas spirit and encourage us to shop.

santa-21-12-1895

Santa Claus in the 1890s, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 21 December 1895

This is not to say the “good old days” were necessarily any less commercial. In the lead-up to Christmas 1896, Bryson, Graham Company, a large department store on Sparks Street, billed itself as the “Headquarters of Santa” and advertised “Special Xmas Offerings to the Little Folks.” For boys, these included small iron trains for 25 cents, fire ladder wagons with horse for $1.45, and tops, “some musical, some goers,” for 50 cents, as well as “spring guns, harmless pistols, and cannons.” (One hopes that the spring guns and cannons were also harmless.) For little girls, there were doll perambulators for 25 cents, and “very pretty” doll parlour suites for 15 cents or 25 cents. Games of all kinds, including Bagatelle [a forerunner of pinball], Parlour Croquet, and Go Bang [similar to Go], were also “expressly priced for Christmas.” The store also told shoppers not to forget while they were at the store to buy three dozen oranges or five pounds of candies for 25 cents.

John Murphy & Company, another big Ottawa retailer, urged “everyone to take a stroll round our store and see the sights of Xmas displays. Everything is looking marvellous.”  It advertised “Christmas Dresses at Santa Claus’ prices.” For one day, full length dress robes were only $2.15. Best quality dresses were $3.00. Camel hair cloth was marked down to 50 cents a yard, from 75 cents, while brown and grey all wool homespun was reduced to 75 cents a yard from $1.25. On Christmas Eve, the store advertised a free bottle of perfume with every pair of kid gloves purchased. In the toy department, one thousand games were on sale at half price. While 40 extra staff had been hired for the day, it warned that “Christmas Buyers should do their shopping early” to avoid the rush and to get “better service and better suited.” Store hours were extended to 10pm for the convenience of shoppers, as well as, of course, to provide more opportunity for the store to pry hard-earned cash from the wallets and purses of Ottawa citizens.

Despite the commercialism of Christmas, then and now, once in a while something happens that restore one’s faith in the generosity of mankind, and the almighty dollar is pushed aside for a time. One such occasion occurred in 1896. Three days before Christmas, the Ottawa Evening Journal received a mysterious, little letter from Santa Claus. Dated the previous week from the North Pole, the letter read:

I have arranged to visit Ottawa on Thursday, the day before Christmas, and wish you would let all the little children know that I shall appear on the principal streets during Thursday afternoon on top of an electric [street]car.

Santa added that he would visit Sparks and other streets but would have to disappear by 4.30pm so that he could prepare for the visits he intended to make “that night to the homes of all Ottawa children who are good.” He closed by promising that he would telegraph ahead to tell people his progress on his trip south. The Daily Citizen remarked that Santa’s visit was not connected to any advertising scheme but was “simply the outcome of a desire upon the part of an Ottawa gentleman that the children of the city may see Santa in person.”

The following day, a second letter appeared. Writing from 31 Mile Lake, north east of Gracefield, Quebec, Santa announced his arrival in the region, saying that he would be in Ottawa the next afternoon.

I am bringing my best reindeer and will have him with me on top of a special electric car. I am also bringing with me a couple of thousand oranges and will distribute them from the car to the little boys and girls.

santa-24-12-1896

Santa Claus’s Streetcar, 24 December 1896, Courtesy of the City of Ottawa Archives, RG045/CA001513.

He also announced his stops in the city, starting at 2.45pm at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets, followed by the corner of Rideau and Dalhousie at 3pm, corner of Queen Street West and Bridge Street, Chaudière, at 3.15 pm, corner of Richmond Road and Albert Street at 3.20 pm, corner of Bank and Maria [now Laurier Avenue] Streets at 3.35 pm and, finally, at the corner of Bank and Ann [now Gloucester Avenue] Streets at 3.45 pm. He would then return to the Post Office and immediately disappear. He apologized to the children of New Edinburgh that he was unable to make it to the town since his reindeer’s horns were so high he couldn’t take his car through the bridges. However, he promised to make his usual visits that night to the homes of all good boys and girls who have gone to bed early and were fast asleep. He asked grown-ups to tell their youngsters to look out for him on Thursday afternoon as it would be his only appearance in Ottawa.

The next day, Christmas Eve, Thursday, 24 December 1896, the excitement in the city was palpable.  Thousands of people of all ages converged on the street corners where Santa Claus was scheduled to appear. They were not disappointed. The Ottawa Evening Journal noted that “the rules of etiquette, or whatever else is supposed to govern the movements of that most mysterious personage Santa Claus, and which from the oldest tradition led most individuals to believe that his visits are of a midnight nature, were rudely broken today.” Right on the scheduled time, Father Christmas arrived. “For convenience sake in transportation about the city streets,” his sleigh and reindeer were mounted on a streetcar of the Ottawa Electric Railway, which was decorated as a snow-covered cabin complete with chimney, and festooned with garlands. On its sides were signs reading “Merry Xmas To All.”

Santa himself was dressed in a fur cap and a long fur coat—very different from the red and white coated Saint Nick described in the classic Clement Clarke Moore poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and popularized by Coca Cola in its commercials. He did, however, have white whiskers, though press reports don’t mention if he also had “a little round belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly.”

santa-sparks-24-12-1896

Santa Claus on Sparks Street, 24 December 1896, Courtesy of the City of Ottawa Archives, RG045/CA001514.

Who was that Ottawa gentleman who brought Santa Claus to Ottawa for his first ever official visit to the nation’s capital (outside of his usual Christmas Eve tour of Ottawa rooftops, of course)? The answer was Warren Soper, the wealthy industrialist who, with his partner Thomas Ahearn, owned the city’s streetcar company, as well as other area businesses. Mobbed by adoring children, their parents and grandparents, Santa Claus handed out more than three thousand oranges to the city’s little boys and girls during his short stay. The Ottawa Evening Journal said that the visit was “quite the treat even for the grown people to see a real Santa Claus and such a good and generous one at that.”

The Daily Citizen opined that “No wretched doubter will ever again be able to hold his head in Ottawa and say that good, kindly Santy did not exist.”

Sadly, among the crowds of people that came out to meet the visitor from the North Pole, there was a grinch who stole $4 from the purse of poor Miss Scheik of 20 Keefer Street, New Edinburgh while she waited to see Santa at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets.

Sources:

Daily Citizen (The), 1896. “Santa Claus in Ottawa,” 22 December.

———————–, 1896. “Santa Clause [sic] Coming,” 24 December.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1896. “Santa Claus Coming,” 22 December.

————————————, 1896. “Special Xmas Offerings for the Little Folks,” 22 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Santa’s Trip To Ottawa,” 23 December.

————————————-, 1896. “John Murphy & Co, Seasons Greetings,” 23 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Santa Comes To Town,” 24 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Entre Nous,” 26 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Santa’s Appearance,” 26 December.

————————————-, 1896. “Jottings About Town,” 28 December.

 

 

Britannia-on-the-Bay

24 May 1900

During the late nineteenth century, electricity was the big new invention that was transforming peoples’ lives. Within a short span of years, electric lights replaced gas lamps in homes, in businesses and on city streets in the major cities of North America. Horse-drawn public transportation was also retired in favour of electric streetcars, also known as trolleys. But while the fast and comfortable trolleys were very popular on weekdays and on Saturday mornings transporting commuters from the suburbs to downtown offices, streetcar companies found their vehicles underused on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. What to do? The answer was to increase weekend ridership by giving people someplace to go and something to do on their time off.  Spurred by the success of Coney Island in New York City, transit companies in many major North American cities built amusement parks, colloquially known as “electric parks.” Constructed at the end of a streetcar line, these parks attracted thousands of working class men, women and children seeking weekend fun and excitement. Of course, people had to buy a streetcar ticket to get there; the days of the automobile were still in the future.

Ottawa-Hull was no exception to these trends. Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper introduced the electric streetcar to the nation’s capital in 1891. Four years later, their Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OERC) opened the West End Park on Holland Avenue in Hintonberg, which was then on the outskirts of the city. Later known as Victoria Park, following the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, the park was the home to many rides and musical entertainments. The West End Park was the location of the showing of the first motion pictures in Ottawa in 1896. Across the Ottawa River two miles west of Alymer, the Hull-Alymer Electric Railway Company opened “Queen’s Park,” in May 1897, again named in honour of Queen Victoria, at the western terminus of its line. Among the attractions at this park, located on Lac Deschênes (a widening in the Ottawa River rather than an actual lake), were a merry-go-round, a water chute and a “mystic maze.”

britanniahenry-joseph-woodside-library-and-archives-canada-pa-016974

People boarding the OERC trolley, Britannia-on-the-Bay, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016974.

To compete with the Queen’s Park development in Quebec, the OERC acquired eighteen acres of land in the little summer cottage community of Britannia Village to the west of Ottawa. There, it established in 1900 an amusement park, with swimming and boating facilities on the Ontario side of Lac Deschênes, with a purpose-built tramline linking the new park to downtown Ottawa. Appropriately, it was called the Britannia line. Thomas Ahearn gave journalists a sneak preview of the new line in mid-January 1900. Although the rails had been laid all the way to Britannia Village, at that date the electric lines only went as far as Richmond Road. But the tramline was completed in time for its official opening at 6am on the Queen’s Birthday holiday on 24 May 1900. From the post office at the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets to Britannia-on-the-Bay tram stop took just twenty-eight minutes, much of which was through the city. The trip from Holland Avenue, the previous end of the line, to Britannia-on-the Bay, with stops at Westboro, Barry’s Wharf and Baker’s Bush, took only eight minutes. The cost for the trip from downtown was initially set at 10 cents—the usual 5 cent fare plus another five cents to travel on the newly completed Britannia line. The five-cent supplement was later dropped.

In and of itself, the trip to Britannia-on-the-Bay was an exciting adventure for Ottawa citizens at the dawn of the twentieth century. Carried in specially-made carriages, trolley goers were taken along rails that ran close to the south side of Richmond Road except for the last mile or so where they crossed Richmond Road to head into Britannia. After leaving the city, which essentially ended at Preston Street, people journeyed through fields of grain and cow pastures, past fine homes and shoreline cottages before reaching their destination. A journalist on the initial January test run said there was a number of long grades with several sharp turns that give the route “a rolling appearance” which will “add zest,” since “pleasure-seeking humanity likes a spice of danger with its bit of fun.” He added that between Hintonburg and Britannia, there were a number of lovely spots.

britannia-henry-joseph-woodside-library-and-archives-canada-pa-016975

The footbridge over the CPR tracks at Britannia Park, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016975.

On reaching Britannia-on-the-Bay, riders crossed to the park, its beach and a long pier via a high footbridge, built at a cost of $1,500 by the OERC, which went over the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) tracks that ran north of the tramline. The footbridge allowed visitors to the park to avoid any danger of being hit by passing trains. On the other side were picnic gardens, concession stands as well as bathing and boating facilities on a thirty-foot wide pier that extended 1,050 feet into Lac Deschênes. The pier was built of wood with a stone base, using material excavated by the Metropolitan Power Company in an earlier failed attempt to build a canal and hydroelectric generating station at Britannia. Lit by electric lights at night, the pier was furnished with seating that ran along its length, perfect for visitors to sit and enjoy the sights, listen to band concerts, and to watch the promenading crowds. At the end of the pier was a perpendicular, two hundred foot long breakwater that protected moorings for boats. At the land end, two octagonal pavilions were erected at a cost of $2,500, housing a restaurant, changing rooms and bathrooms, a ladies’ parlour and sitting rooms.

The weather on opening day was bright and fine, attracting thousands of Ottawa picnickers to try out the OERC’s new park and pier at Britannia. Although the pavilions were not quite completed, they “were temporarily fitted up for use” for the estimated crowd of 12,000-15,000 visitors. The band of the 43rd Battalion gave a concert in the afternoon and evening to the multitudes. When darkness fell, the park was brilliantly illuminated by electric lights. Ten large arc lights lit up the pier.

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Britannia Pier, 1900, Henry Joseph Woodside, Library & Archives Canada, PA-016976.

The new Britannia Park was a big success, and over the next several years was considerably improved and expanded. With the new waterside park eclipsing the old Victoria Park on Holland Avenue, the OERC cannibalized the latter’s attractions, moving its merry-go-round and auditorium to Britannia. In 1904, the OERC increased the size of the park by buying the 35-acre Mosgrove property close to Carling Avenue. It also extended the pier by four hundred feet, at the end of which a three-story boat house was erected that became the Britannia Boating Club’s clubhouse. In addition to rooms for members and a lower storage area for boats and canoes, which were available for rent by visitors, the clubhouse had a large ballroom and grandstand for spectators. At night, a searchlight on top of the building played over the darkened waters of Lac Deschênes. Other attractions at Britannia Park included excursions on the double-decker, side-wheeler, steamer G.B. Greene, the “Queen” of the Ottawa River which took tourists upstream to Chats Falls two or three times a week. Through the summer, holidaymakers were entertained by the festivities and music of “Venetian Nights.”

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Britannia Boating Clubhouse, c. 1907, William James Topley, Library & Archives Canada, PA-009028.

Britannia Park enjoyed its peak of popularity before World War I. Then things started to sour. In 1916, the G.B. Greene burnt. Though it was rebuilt, with Canada at war sightseeing wasn’t as popular as in the past. The steamer ended up towing logs and was dismantled in 1946. In August 1918, the Clubhouse at the end of the pier was consumed by flames. Some two hundred canoes and boats, along with the personal effects of members as well as trophies, furnishings and other valuables were lost. Although the cause of the $50,000 fire was never accurately determined, it was believed that a lighted cigarette carelessly thrown into the window of a bathroom was to blame.

Through the 1920s, amusement parks everywhere began to lose their allure. With more and more families owning their own automobile, people had the luxury of exploring other entertainment options. No longer were they limited to where the trolley could take them. Queen’s Park outside of Aylmer closed. Britannia limped on. The Park’s Lakeside Gardens Pavilion still managed to pull in the crowds for dances through the 1930s. Sunday band concerts also remained popular. In the early 1930s, the OERC began promoting the Park as a great place for parents to send their children. For youngsters under 51 inches tall, (i.e. roughly 8 years old or less) the trolley company advertised that they could travel to Britannia for only 6 4/7 cents, total fare, if they purchased a book of seven tickets for 25 cents plus an additional 3 cent fare for the Britannia line. Under its policy of “Safety First,” the trolley company said that special attention and care would be given to children by its car men. “It is therefore possible to send children to Britannia-on-the-Bay with the assurance that they will be safe while going, while at the beach and while returning.” Clearly this was a different time with a different level of care expected of parents. Few today would consider sending young children to swim at a public beach on city transit without formal supervision.

By the late 1940s, Britannia Park and Britannia beach were becoming shabby from years of use and limited maintenance. Transit consultants advised the financially weak OERC to close the park. In 1948, the Ottawa Transport Commission, which was owned by the City of Ottawa, took over the transit company, including its Britannia property. Concerned that the park was continuing to deteriorate, the City decided in 1951 to operate it directly. Some improvements were made, including the building of a children’s miniature railway at the park. However, more grandiose plans that include a zoo, stock-car racing and two artificial pools never left the drawing board. Park infrastructure continued to rot. Meanwhile, the beach was becoming fouled by weeds and pollution. By 1954, what had been one of Canada’s top tourist attractions was now considered “Canada’s worst.” That year, the footbridge over the CPR tracks was demolished. (The trains themselves continued to go through the Park until they were re-located out of downtown Ottawa in 1966.) In 1955, the aging Lakeside Gardens burnt to the ground.

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Defunct Trolley Station, Britannia Park, 2015.

New investments were finally made into the park in 1958. The rotting wooden pier, now deemed unsafe, was demolished. The stone base of the original 1,050 foot pier built in 1900 was widened and the beach expanded. Lakeside Gardens was also rebuilt for dances. With these changes, the Park experienced a brief renaissance. However, it was not to last, doomed by changing tastes, and for Lakeside Gardens, the lack of a liquor licence. The beach was also increasingly shunned owing to a persistent weed problem. City efforts to control the weeds using bulldozers, chemicals and tons of rock salt proved fruitless. (This was a time before much consideration was given to the environment.) In any event, pollution closed the beach for extended periods. During the 1960s and 1970s, Britannia Park was threatened by a planned extension of the Ottawa River Parkway (today’s Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway) through the Park using the old CPR right-of-way, now turned into a bike path, as well as the construction of the Deschênes Bridge that would have link Alymer to Ottawa. Both ideas were finally scuppered by opposition from area residents and changing government priorities.

Today, Britannia Village, annexed by Ottawa in 1950, is no longer a remote summer cottage community. Businesses and housing have long filled the open space between the old City of Ottawa and Britannia and beyond. The streetcars that once linked it to downtown are gone; the last trolley to Britannia-on-the-Bay rode into history in 1959. But the magnificent park and beach endure. Owing to the marked improvement to the water quality of the Ottawa River due to the closure of the pulp and paper mills that had polluted it with their effluent, and the treatment of sewage by riverine communities, boaters and swimmers have returned. While Britannia Park and its beach may no longer attract the hordes of day trippers they did every weekend one hundred years ago, they remain a popular summer destination for people trying to escape the heat of the City. The Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, formerly the Lakeside Gardens, also continues to host big band dances as well as education courses ranging from the arts and crafts and dog obedience, to yoga and fitness.

Sources:

Evening Journal, (The), 1897. “Handled The Motor,” 27 May.

—————————-, 1900. “The New Electric Line To Britannia,” 15 January.

—————————-, 1900. “Searchlight on Lake Deschenes,” 2 April.

—————————, 1900. “Ottawans Loyally Observed the 24th,” 25 May.

—————————, 1906. “A Good Show At Britannia,” 22 May.

—————————, 1918. “Britannia Club House Is Destroyed By Fire Loss Nearly $50,000,” 30 August.

—————————, 1931. “The Children’s Beach At Britannia-on-the-Bay.” 13 July.

—————————, 1948, “Battle Of Seaweed Goes On At Britannia,” 1 May.

—————————, 1951. “Britannia Park Is Saved,” 21 June.

—————————, 1954. “Recommend Closing Britannia Park Amusement Centre,” 27 May.

—————————, 1954. “State of Britannia Park,” 28 May.

—————————, 1954, “At Last New Deal Coming For Battered Britannia Park,” 23 July.

Ottawa, (City of), 2016. Ron Kolbus-Lakeside Centre, http://ottawa.ca/en/facility/ron-kolbus-lakeside-centre.

Taylor, Eva & Kennedy, James, 1983. Ottawa’s Britannia, Britannia Historical Association, Ottawa.

 

The Jersey Lily

8 November 1883

During the early 1880s, the population of Ottawa, while growing rapidly, totalled less than 30,000 souls, far smaller than Toronto, Montreal or Quebec City. But being the capital of the new Dominion of Canada, and therefore home to the Governor General and Parliament, what the community lacked in numbers it made up in political and social clout. The town also boasted a small but wealthy group of industrialists who had mostly made their fortunes in the forestry industry. Because of these political and economic elites, Ottawa enjoyed the amenities of a far larger city, including the luxurious Russell Hotel, Ottawa’s premier hostelry, and the Grand Opera House, a top-quality hall for theatrical and other performances. With such facilities, Ottawa was equipped to welcome the international celebrities of the age, including the witty Oscar Wilde, the divine Sarah Bernhardt, and the incomparable Mrs Lillie Langtry.  Mrs Langtry, a.k.a. “The Jersey Lilly,” captivated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic for more than forty years. She made three visits to Ottawa during her career, the first occurring on 8 November 1883.

Mrs Lillie Langtry was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton, in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, in 1853, the daughter of a prominent clergyman. While brought up in a liberal, loving family, island life was confining for the beautiful young girl, known to everyone as “Lillie.” To get off the island and experience a taste of adventure, she married Edward Langtry in 1874, a widower ten years her senior. The couple settled in London. Sadly, the marriage quickly soured. Husband Edward drank heavily, and lived beyond his means. Although he had two racing yachts, his family’s wealth had been largely dissipated by the time it reached him. High living quickly went through the remaining fortune.

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“The Jersey Lily,” portrait of Lillie Langtry painted by John Everett Millais, 1878.

Lillie Langtry’s society career was launched when she was introduced to the artist John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a non-conformist group of Victorian artists who aimed to revive a medieval, artistic aesthetic. Attracted by her great beauty and charm, she became the muse of the Pre-Raphaelites, posing for Millais, George Francis Miles, and others, including Sir Edward Poynter. Oscar Wilde also became a close friend and mentor, introducing her to his friends in the Aesthetics Movement, including the American artist, James Whistler.

Mrs Langtry arrival in society coincided with photography going mainstream, and the beginning of a mass celebrity culture. Joining the ranks of the “Professional Beauties,” her photograph graced the store fronts and middle-class sitting rooms of Britain. As part of this elite group, Langtry gained an entreé into the dining rooms and ball rooms of the aristocracy ever eager to seek out the latest sensation.  Male admirers, known as “Langtry’s lancers,” followed her as she rode daily in Hyde Park, a popular society past time that provided an opportunity to see people and be seen. In 1877, she caught the philandering eye of Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, the oldest son of Queen Victoria. The married prince and Mrs Langtry began a well-publicized affair that raised her to the pinnacle of British society. Although the relationship cooled after a time, and the prince looked elsewhere for extra-marital affection, they remained close friends. On his coronation as Edward VII in 1902, Mrs Langtry, along with other former mistresses, attended the ceremony at Westminster Abbey in a special box, known sotto voce as the “King’s Loose Box.” After the prince, Mrs Langtry went on to have many other affairs that brought her considerable notoriety, including one with Prince Louis of Battenberg, a close friend of the Prince of Wales. Prince Louis is reputed to have been the father of Mrs Langtry’s only child, a daughter, Jeanne Marie, though she was also in a relationship with another man at the time.

In 1881, with the Langtrys close to bankruptcy, Lillie embarked on a stage career on the advice of Oscar Wilde, after taking acting lessons from the English actress Henrietta Hodson, the mistress and later wife of the politician Henry Labouchère. (As an aside, Labouchère’s uncle, also Henry, was the person who conveyed Queen Victoria’s choice of Ottawa as the capital of Canada to Sir Edmund Head, the Governor General, in 1857.) The theatre was a daring career decision. In the late nineteenth century, acting was not viewed a proper vocation for gentlewomen. Actresses were often looked upon as little more than prostitutes. Mrs Langtry’s stage career, which was supported by the Prince of Wales, helped to change attitudes. She also broke convention by handling all her bookings herself, as well as hiring a theatre troupe.

Mrs Langtry went on to have an illustrious stage career on both sides of the Atlantic that lasted several decades. While her acting was uneven, especially during the early years of her career, her beauty and notoriety brought people out in droves to her performances. Her fame also led her to become an advertising pioneer. As one of the first, if not the first celebrity endorser, she allowed the producers of Pears’ soap to use images of her, in various stages of undress, in its advertising. She also provided a testimonial that her flawless complexion was due to Pears’ soap. Langtry promoted other products during her long career, including cigarettes, hair tonic, dresses and accessories.

Needless to say, her marriage with Edward Langtry, never strong owing to his excessive drinking, suffered further due to her affairs and notoriety. They mostly lived apart while she pursued her acting career and a series of liaisons in the United States and in Britain. After twenty-three years of marriage, Lillie got a divorce in 1897. Edward died shortly afterwards. In 1899, she married 28 year-old Sir Hugo de Bathe, eighteen years her junior, against the wishes of the groom’s parents. This marriage also foundered. Lillie Langtry died in Monaco in 1929, and was buried is St Saviour Church in Jersey.

Lillie Langtry’s first visit to Ottawa in November 1883 occurred at the start of her long stage career. She and her company performed the appropriately named play The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan in front of an audience described as “large and fashionable.” It was unclear, however, whether people had shown up to watch the classic comedy or just to catch a glimpse of the famous Mrs Langtry. Tickets for reserved seats, which had gone on sale at Nordheimer’s Music Store for $1.50 each a week ahead of the production, were quickly snapped up. The performance was held with the patronage of the Governor General and the Marchioness of Lansdowne, though, oddly, the vice-regal couple arrived someway into the first act, perhaps an indication of a certain reserve towards the notorious actress. Also in the audience were Lord Melgund, an aide of the Governor General, as well as several Cabinet ministers. The performance was the first of a series of evening and matinee shows that ran over three days. In addition to The School for Scandal, Langtry and her troupe put on She Stoops To Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. This was a reprise of the first play in which Langtry performed in 1881 at the Haymarket Theatre in London.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, gave Mrs Langtry rave reviews for her performance as Mrs Teazle in The School for Scandal, saying that she “played with an artistic delicacy we have seldom seen equal.” In her role as Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops To Conquer, the Journal said that she displayed “versatility as an actress” and a “genuine appreciation of the requirements of the character.” The review looked forward to seeing Mrs Langtry in a dramatic role and opined that “from the little we have seen we believe she possesses many of the qualities which go to make a leading actress.”

Mrs Langtry returned to Ottawa and the Grand Opera House for a one-evening event on Good Friday, 12 April 1895. Billed as the “Society Event of the Season,” she appeared in Gossip, a play by Leo Ditrichstein and Clyde Fitch, supported by the American actor Eben Plympton. Ticket prices ranged from 50 cents to $1.50. Advertisements  for the show noted that electric cars would be at the Opera House to take theatre goers home after the production; the Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company had opened for business five years earlier.

As soon as the performance date was announced, there was controversy.  Churches objected saying that a Good Friday show “was an insult.” At a prayer meeting, The Rev. W. Witten of the Reform Episcopal Church stated that “he would rather [people] went to the theatre Sunday than Good Friday. Those of his people who did go could not expect to come to church on Sunday and take part in communion.” Of course, the controversy only heightened the excitement, and provided Mrs Langtry with free advertising.

Fittingly given the name of the play, there was also much talk about what Mrs Langtry was going to wear for the production. Her new gowns were designed by Mme Laferrière of Paris and were “modelled after the style to prevail the coming summer.” Ottawa was even more agog over her jewels. According to the Journal, the coronet she wore in Gossip, which was made up of 2,000 diamonds “of the first purity and brilliance,” and twenty-five large Oriental pearls, was valued at $180,000. Her necklace of rubies and diamonds were said to be worth $25,000 while a jewelled broach consisting of a 44 carat ruby surrounded by diamonds was appraised at $300,000, an immense sum today let alone 120 years ago.

In a curt review the day after the performance, the Evening Journal reported that while there was a large and appreciative audience, Mrs Langtry was disappointing in the first act though she “showed a marked improvement” as the play progressed. The most attractive feature of the play was the dresses.

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Engraving of Lillie Langtry, The Ottawa Evening Journal, 12 May 1900.

Lillie Langtry’s last appearance in Ottawa occurred in May 1900. This time she appeared at the Russell Theatre in a production of The Degenerates by the English dramatist Sydney Grundy. With the patronage of the Governor General, Lord Minto, and Lady Minto, the play was held as a benefit, with all profits going to the fire relief fund.

She played to a full house and received numerous curtain calls. At the end of the performance, she made a short patriotic speech and recited a poem by Rudyard Kipling titled “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” in support of British soldiers then fighting in the Boer War. The first lines of the poem read:

When you’ve shouted “Rule Britannia:” When you’ve sung “God Save The Queen,” When you’ve finished killing Kruger with your mouth: Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine For a gentleman in khaki ordered South?

Quite a few coins were thrown on stage in response. At that time, some 1,000 Canadian volunteers organized into the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, were fighting in South Africa.

The Journal claimed that Mrs Langtry, now 47 years old, had the looks and figure of a woman of 25—“years seem to have left no impression on her.” However, the comment may have been more gentlemanly than factual. Two months earlier, it was reported that in New York, Mrs Langtry had insisted that all the gas jets in the theatre in which she was about to perform be covered with tinted mosquito netting because the glaring lights brought into “unpleasant evidence ‘crow’s’ feet.” After the netting caught fire, the gas lights were replaced with electric lights with the bulbs softened with pink fabric.

Although Lillie Langtry made several more North American tours, she never again appeared in Ottawa. She retired from acting in 1917. The life of Lillie Langtry has been the subject of numerous books. In 1978, London Weekend Television produced an excellent mini-series on her life titled Lillie, starring Francesca Annis as Lillie Langtry.

 

Sources:

Beatty Laura, 1999. Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals, London: Chatto & Windus.

Brough James, 1975. The Prince and the Lily, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan Inc.

Evening Journal (The),

—————————, 1895. “Mrs. Langtry Coming,” 28 March.

—————————, 1895. Mrs. Langtry’s Gems and Gowns,” 11 April.

—————————, 1895. “Lillie Langtry at Grand Opera House One Night Only, 12 April.

—————————, 1895. “Mrs. Langtry At The Grand,” 13 April.

—————————, 1900. “Personal and Pertinent,” 20 March.

—————————, 1900. “Mrs Langtry At The Russell,” 10 May.

—————————, 1900. “Mrs Langtry At The Russell,” 17 May.

Globe (The), 1883. “Mrs Langry At Ottawa,” 9 November.

—————, 1895. “A Good Advertisement for the Jersey Lily,” 12 April.

Holland, Evangeline, 2008. “The Professional Beauty,” Edwardian Promenade, http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/women/the-professional-beauty/.

Holmes, Su & Negra, Diane, Eds. 2011. In the Limelight and Under the Microscope, Forms and Functions of Female Celebrity, New York and London: The Continuum International Publishing Group.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1883. “Grand Opera House,” 9 November.

————————, 1883. “Grand Opera House,” 10 November.

 

Captains of the Clouds

16 July 1941

It was mid-summer 1941. Britain, Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth had been at war with Nazi Germany for almost two years. Although the Royal Air Force had fought off the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, the war news was grim. That June, German forces had launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. By mid-July, Russian forces, their officer corps decimated by Stalin’s purges, were in rapid retreat falling back towards Kiev and Moscow.

On the other side of the globe, shooting of a very different sort got underway in Canada. A crew from Warner Brothers, the motion picture studio, arrived in Ottawa, their six-week mission to film Captains of the Clouds, the first ever Hollywood movie shot entirely in Canada. The movie was the story of brash, Canadian bush pilots joining the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) after hearing Churchill’s historic “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech following Dunkirk. Deemed too old for combat missions, they become instructors, but later are called upon to ferry bombers to Britain.

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Cinema Poster for the Warner Brothers’ Film “Captains of the Clouds” 1942.

The BCATP was the largest-ever aircraft instructional programme, training Canadian, British, Australian and New Zealand servicemen as well as men from other Commonwealth and foreign countries, including the United States. From when it commenced operations in early 1940 until it was wound down in late 1944, the Plan trained 131,553 pilots and crewmen, over half of whom (72,835) were Canadian. Costing $2.2 billion of which Canada paid $1.6 billion (equivalent to about $25 billion in today’s money), the Plan was Canada’s single-most important contribution to the Allied war effort. Recall also that Canada’s population at the time was only 12 million, a third of what it is currently.

The movie, which was directed by Michael Curtiz, starred James Cagney who was at the peak of his skills and at the height of his popularity. It was Cagney’s first movie to be filmed in Technicolor. Co-starring were Dennis Morgan, Alan Hale Senior, and George Tobias as his bush pilot pals, and Brenda Marshall as the love interest. The movie was filmed in co-operation with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Air Marshal “Billy” Bishop played a cameo role as himself in a graduation, or “wings,” ceremony. Bishop was an ace Canadian pilot from the First World War, and a recipient of the Victory Cross. In 1941, he was the Director of the RCAF and in charge of recruitment. Hundreds of RCAF servicemen and women also appeared in the film as bit players and extras. Much of the movie was filmed at Uplands Airport (now the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport) in Ottawa, with the bush scenes filmed in the North Bay area at Trout Lake and Jumping Caribou Lake. Flying scenes were also filmed at air stations located in Trenton, Dartmouth, Jarvis and Mountain View.

Cagney arrived in Ottawa dressed in a white suit in the wee hours of the Sunday morning before the beginning of the shoot, scheduled for Wednesday, 16 July 1941 at Uplands Airport, site of the No. 2 Service Flying Training School. He arrived by train from his Martha’s Vineyard farm, and stayed in a suite on the second floor of the Château Laurier Hotel, accompanied by his brother William who was a producer on the movie. Initially reluctant to star in the movie, Carney apparently made his participation contingent on Warner Brothers hiring his brother. Despite the early hour of his arrival, there was a crowd of female fans and a large press contingent there to greet him in the lobby. The Ottawa Evening Citizen reported that Cagney was not the “tough guy of the screen” but rather a “mild spoken, quiet, mannerly, young fellow.”

The first scene filmed on the Wednesday morning was the “wings” ceremony starring Air Marshall Billy Bishop, along with Wing Commander, W.R. MacBrien, the chief instructor at Uplands, Group Captain W.A. Curtis, the airport’s commanding officer, and Flight Lieutenants Harry Wood and Paul Rodier. Behind the scenes, the Warner film technicians wore sky-blue overalls to identify themselves as the film crew so they wouldn’t be confused with possible “fifth columnists” and saboteurs. Although Bishop performed well—Cagney called him “a natural”— the shoot was a nightmare requiring many takes owing in part to bad weather, malfunctioning equipment and the need to coordinate the ground action with complex aerial manoeuvres. It was well worth the effort, however. The scene of the airmen receiving their wings set against the backdrop of bright yellow Harvard trainers and camouflaged bombers with the service flags of Canada, Britain and Australia flying overhead provided a stirring spectacle, especially when you remember that these weren’t actors but real, wartime servicemen who would shortly be thrown into combat.

Generally speaking, the film was difficult to make from other perspectives. The American movie crew was unused to filming in wartime conditions. America was still a neutral country when Captains was made, five months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ottawa was choc-a-block full of servicemen and women. Consequently, living space was at a premium. While Cagney and the other stars were put up at the Château Laurier, the rest of the crew slept in the barracks at the Uplands flight school, eating service food. They were also far from the amenities of Ottawa. Reportedly, the crew almost struck over unsatisfactory conditions. Working in the bush also proved challenging. Cagney, who did some of his own stunts, suffered a concussion that delayed filming for several days as he recovered. As well, Sol Polito, the cinematographer, who initially had trouble getting into Canada owing to his Italian birth, reportedly suffered a heart attack while the film was being made.

Cagney, the other stars, and the Warner Brothers’ crew stayed in Ottawa for ten days. For Ottawa residents, the filming provided a much needed morale boost and a distraction from wartime privations and worries. The Hollywood stars were mobbed in the streets and at their hotel. On one occasion, Alan Hale had to take refuge in a shop when spotted on Sparks Street by admirers. Dennis Morgan, described by a journalist as having “the shoulders of a football player, voice of an opera star, and the face of a matinee idol,” received hundreds of letters, many of the “mash” variety, from adoring female Ottawa fans. Small boys staked out the hotel in wait for their heroes. Four enterprising young teenagers, brothers Frankie and Buddy Russell and their two friends Jim McNally and Bob Vaive managed to evade security and knocked on Cagney’s hotel room door. Cagney cheerfully signed autographs for them.

The most serious occurrence took place on the Thursday night, the day after the initial shoot at Uplands Airport. Cagney and the other stars had agreed to perform for service people, wives and sweethearts at the Rockcliffe air station. When the news got out, more than a thousand fans stormed the Château Laurier to catch a glimpse of the stars as they left for their performance. Cagney was tackled by near hysterical girls who grabbed his arms, clutched at his clothing and ruffled his hair. Alan Hale and Dennis Morgan also had a difficult time getting through the crowds. It was only with the help of a security team of soldiers who held back the straining fans that filled the hotel’s rotunda that the celebrities were able to get to their automobile. The Citizen described the spectacle as resembling “a mob scene from one of the bigger Hollywood epics.” The stars were good natured about it, but arrived a half hour late for their performance.

For the servicemen, it was worth the wait. With Cagney acting as the impromptu master of ceremonies, the Warner Brothers’ gang put on a lively vaudeville show, complete with dancers and singers.  Dennis Morgan sang “Annie Laurie,” accompanied by Miss Jean McGuire of Ottawa on the piano, followed by an encore of “A Little Bit of Heaven.” George Tobias and Alan Hale told jokes. Apparently, Hale had the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter. At the end of the evening, the stars acknowledged the Dominion’s war effort saying “For what you people are doing, we salute you.”

During their stay in Ottawa, the stars and members of the Warner Brothers technical crew also played two ball games with servicemen. The Hollywood stars lost the first softball game 8-6 at Rockcliffe air station. Claiming they knew nothing about softball, the Hollywood stars asked for a rematch hardball game. This second game was played at Landsdowne Park in front of 2,000 Ottawa fans; tickets were 25 cents each, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross, the RCAF Benevolent Fund and towards the construction of a sports field at No. 2 Flying School at Uplands. For the Hollywood visitors, James Cagney played catcher, Dennis Morgan played first base, and George Tobias pitched. Other members of the Warner Brothers technical and engineering team rounded out the team. Alan Hale was umpire. Hale said “I asked to be umpire because I am prejudiced. I want to see the air force win.” Ottawa Mayor Stanley Lewis threw the first pitch. The visitors won the five-inning game by a close 5-4 score. The winning pitcher was Dick Emmons, the Warner Brothers’ grip who relieved Tobias after the first inning. Douglas Heiman was the losing RCAF pitcher. Cagney played one inning, while Hale refereed for two. Dennis Morgan played the entire game.

After ten days of shooting, the Hollywood stars and the rest of the Warner team left Ottawa to go to their next film location at North Bay. Several hundred fans were at the Château to see their idols leave. As a birthday gift for Cagney, who turned 42 while in Ottawa, the “Upland boys” presented him with a silver identification tag engraved with his name and movie rank. It read “Flying Officer James Cagney, Captain of the Clouds, 1941.”

Capts of the Clouds, 12-2-42

Advertisement for the World Premiere of “Captains of the Clouds,” The Capitol Theatre, Ottawa, 12 February 1942, The Evening Citizen.

The movie was released on 12 February 1942, with premieres in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, London, and Cairo. The Ottawa premiere was held in the Capitol Theatre located at the corner of Bank and Queen Streets. The cinema was filled to capacity. Among the official attendees was Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton who commanded the Canadian Corps. Before the movie started, RCAF service men and a trumpet and drum band from Uplands paraded to the cinema. On the Capitol stage, the band of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police played a programme of patriotic, marching tunes. The Capitol’s management bought Victory bonds with the proceeds of the first week’s shows.

The same night, two hundred RCAF airmen attended the New York premiere at the Strand Theatre. The airmen were feted on their 36-hour stay in New York at the Waldorf hotel. For the showing of the film, each airman was escorted by a John Powers model. Also in attendance was Leighton McCarthy, the Canadian Minister to the United States.

While the aerial shots were applauded and the film garnered two Academy Award nominations, one for best colour cinematography, and the other for colour interior decoration, film critics gave the movie mixed reviews. The New York Times described the first half as a “routine, he-man fable,” but said the documentary-like, second half took on “some consequence.” The Times critic added that “he had the odd feeling throughout the second half of the film that a company of Hollywood actors, fugitive from a previous picture, had got loose amid the serious activities and flashing planes of the R.C.A.F.”  Unsurprisingly, the movie was a big hit with Ottawa fans. The Citizen called it “breathtaking in its loveliness.” The paper gushed “There can be no doubt that “Captains of the Clouds” is without prejudice in any way, the finest aviation picture ever produced.”

Released only weeks after the United States’ entry into the war, Captains of the Clouds was a propaganda success for the RCAF. It also earned its place in cinematographic history as a forerunner of later combat movies. One modern critic called the film the Top Gun of its age. While IMDb gives Captains of the Clouds a middling 6.5 rating, it’s worth seeing if for no other reason than the spectacular aerial shots and the glimpses of Uplands Airport and downtown Ottawa as they were seventy-five years ago.

Sources:

Arnold, Jeremy, 2016. “Captains of the Clouds,” Turner Classic Films, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/78131%7C0/Captains-of-the-Clouds.html.

Evening Citizen (The), 1941. “Jimmy Cagney Arrives To Play Lead in Film,” 14 July.

————————-, 1941. Four Ottawa Boys ‘Blitz’ Jim Cagney For Autograph,” 15 July.

————————-, 1941. “Canadian Flying Ace Takes Speaking Role In Picture Filmed At Upland Airport,” 16 July.

————————-, 1941. “Movie Stars Will Entertain Airmen At Party Tonight,” 17 July.

————————-, 1941. “Soldiers Battle Crowd And Rescue Movie Stars, 18 July.

————————-, 1941. “Film Stars Due To Play Airmen,” 21 July.

————————-, 1941. “Fun Is Promised Tonight In Special Softball Game,” 23 July.

————————-, 1941. “Film Stars Turn Back Airmen In Benefit Softball Game,” 24 July.

————————-, 1942. “Captains of the Clouds Rated No. 1 Flying Film,” 13 February.

————————-, 1942. “Canadian Airmen Royally Feted on Manhattan Visit, 13 February.

Hatch, F.J., 1983. Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945, Department of National Defence, Directorate of History, Monograph Series No. 1, http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/his/docs/aerodrome_e.pdf.

IMDb, 2016. Captains of the Clouds, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034578/.

New York, Times (The), 1942. “Captains of the Clouds, Heroic Film About The Royal Canadian Air Force and Starring James Cagney, Arrives At The Strand,” 13 February.

Taylor, Chris, 2016. “Inflight Movie: Captains of the Clouds (1942),” Taylor Empire Airways, http://taylorempireairways.com/2009/08/in-flight-movie-captains-of-the-clouds-1942/.

Youtube, 2011. Captain of the Clouds, trailer, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1NG0os_-3o.

 

The Maharaja of the Keyboard

5 December 1945

In the firmament of great jazz musicians, few stars sparkle as brightly as that of Oscar Peterson. Born in 1925 to a hard-working, immigrant family from the poor St Henri neighbourhood of Montreal, Peterson burst like a fiery comet onto the jazz scene while still a teenager. Over a career that spanned more than 60 years, Peterson wowed audiences around the world with his prodigious piano technique, his amazing talent for improvisation, and a range that encompassed everything from the classics to stride, blues, boogie and bebop. He played with all the jazz greats of his age, including trumpeters, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and such famed vocalists such as Sarah Vaughn, Billy Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Demonstrating his range, he also accompanied such artistic luminaries as Fred Astaire, and the great violinist Itzhak Pearlman. It was Roy Eldridge who dubbed Peterson the “Maharaja of the Keyboard. Louis Armstrong called him “the man with four hands.” As well as playing the piano, Peterson was a talented composer, and had a singing voice comparable to that of Nat King Cole. His best known compositions are the Canadiana Suite, an album released in 1964, and Hymn to Freedom, composed in 1962. Oscar Peterson and his trio played Hymn to Freedom in 2003 at a gala in Canada to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee. In 2008, the Hymn was played at U.S. President Obama’s inauguration.

Oscar Peterson in 1977

Oscar Peterson in 1977, Portrait by Tom Marcello, New York, U.S.A.

Jazz was in Peterson’s blood. Both his parents, Daniel and Olive Peterson, had a passion for music, and encouraged their five children to learn instruments. A tight family budget was stretched to include a piano. Daniel Peterson, a self-taught piano player, instructed his wife and their five children how to play. Young Oscar initially studied the trumpet as well as the piano. But after a lengthy bout with tuberculosis in the early 1930s, which claimed the life of his older brother Fred, Oscar concentrated on the piano. Father Daniel was a demanding teacher, insisting on daily practice and assigning musical homework for his children while he was absent working as a porter on the railway. But Oscar, with his perfect pitch and ability to play songs by ear, was up to the challenge. Later, his older sister Daisy became his piano instructor. His first exposure to jazz came from listening to radio. His father, however, looked down on jazz seeing it as music for the uneducated. He insisted that Oscar learn the classics. Peterson later studied under two classically-trained pianists, Lou Harper and Paul de Marky, the latter was Canada’s most acclaimed classical pianist of the time who taught music at McGill University in Montreal. He also instructed private students, charging $15 hour, a huge sum for Oscar’s parents (equivalent to more than $200 in today’s money). From a very early age, Oscar played in churches, community centres, and schools. It was in such venues, Oscar began to learn how to improvise.

Peterson’s first big break came in 1940 when he auditioned for an amateur music contest hosted by CBC radio. He went on to win not only the Montreal competition but also the national finals held in Toronto. He was only 15 years old, and the only black contestant. He received a cheque for $250 (close to $4,000 today). From there, there was no looking back. He quickly out-grew his Montreal High School band, the Victory Serenaders, and gigs in the school gym. In 1943, he dropped out to play full-time in a popular Montreal big band led by the trumpet player Johnny Holmes after a spot for a pianist opened up when the group’s regular pianist was drafted into the army.

Peterson received further national exposure in 1945 when RCA Victor, one of Canada’s largest recording studios agreed to record him, releasing two 78 rpm records. They were hugely successfully. In early June 1945, Freiman’s Department Store on Rideau Street advertised in The Ottawa Journal “A new VICTOR ‘discovery’ for your piano pin-up collection. Name: OSCAR PETERSON, just a youngster of eighteen, a Canadian lad of inspired rhythm that flows from his fingertips in a sparkling, ear tingling, original style all his own.” The store encouraged people to come listen to a sample recording of I Got Rhythm at Freiman’s Record Studios located on the third floor of the department store, daring them to try to keep their toes quiet!

Peterson’s first known public performance in Ottawa took place on Wednesday, 5 December 1945 at the Glebe Collegiate Auditorium at 8.30pm. The performance called Hot Jazz, featured Oscar Peterson and his jazz trio: Peterson on the piano, Russ Dufort on drums, and George Murphy on bass. The prices of admission was 90 cents, $1.20, and $1.50. The trio played to a capacity crowd, with people standing two and three deep at the back of the auditorium. Extra seats were placed on the stage. Students from Carleton College’s (later Carleton University) sat or stood behind the stage, so that they could at least hear the music even if they couldn’t see the artists. The Ottawa Journal reporter described the twenty-year old Peterson as “one of the foremost exponents of jazz.” The night’s programme featured both classical pieces such as Chopin’s Polonaise as well as jazz pieces, including Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues and Peterson’s own composition “The Boogie Blues.” The enthusiastic crowd gave the trio three encores. At one of the encores, Peterson played the Sheik of Araby that he had recently recorded. The journalist concluded by saying that Peterson’s boogie-woogie was “probably the best heard in Ottawa for some time.” The trio returned to the Glebe Collegiate the following May. More than 1,200 people crammed into the school auditorium to hear them again perform a selection of classical and jazz numbers, including Peterson’s own compositions.

Between these two Ottawa performances, Peterson made his debut at the prestigious Massey Hall in Toronto in early March 1946. Most of the audience that night had only heard Peterson through his records. As in Ottawa and elsewhere, the crowd was dazzled by his technique and imagination; Oscar Peterson had made it to the big time. Appearances on the CBC radio series Canadian Cavalcade cemented his reputation for being the country’s most popular, up-and-coming, young artist. He made his American debut in 1949 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, where he played alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, and Ella Fitzgerald. Peterson had been “discovered” by music promoter Norman Granz who had been in Montreal for a meeting. Hearing Peterson play on the radio, Grantz, who produced the “Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP)” series of concerts, tours, and recordings, invited him to perform in New York. From then on, Oscar Peterson was an international star. In 1950, Grantz, who later became Peterson manager, signed him to a contract to perform with JATP. Over the following decade, Peterson participated in fifteen, cross-continent JATP tours.  Peterson’s business relationship and friendship with Granz lasted until the latter’s death in 2001.

Over the decades, Peterson performed in a number of small groups, usually trios. During the 1950s, the other two members of the group were Ray Brown on bass, and Herb Ellis on guitar. In 1958, Ellis left the trio and was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen. During the 1970s and 1980s, Peterson played with Joe Pass on guitar and bassist Niels-Henning Pederson. In the late 1990s, Peterson formed a quartet, with Pederson on bass, Martin Drew on drums, and Ulf Wakenius on guitar.

Although successful from an early age, Oscar Peterson faced major challenges, not least of which was the racism that he confronted, especially when he toured the U.S. south during the 1950s and 1960s. Even in Canada, he had to endure discrimination, with hotels unwilling to hire black musicians. On one highly publicized occasion in 1951, he was denied a haircut in Hamilton, Ontario owing to his colour. The city’s mayor later apologized. In his quiet, understated way, Peterson fought back. He wrote his Hymn to Freedom in support of the civil rights movement. He was also instrumental in Canadian television advertising becoming more inclusive of minorities. Peterson’s home life also suffered from his constant touring. He was married four times. He also largely missed out on seeing his seven children grow up. Late in life, after suffering a stroke while performing in New York, his ability to use his left hand was impaired. Peterson fought through depression, and continued to perform to adoring audiences. He passed away from kidney failure on 23 December 2007 at 82 years of age.

Oscar Peterson

Statue of Oscar Peterson by Ruth Abernethy, unveiled by HM Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on 30 June 2010 in front of 10,000 cheering spectators, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, January 2016.

During his lifetime, Peterson received many honours. Sixteen universities, including Carleton University, awarded him honorary doctorates. From 1991-94, he was Chancellor of the University of York in Toronto. He also received eight Grammies from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, including a lifetime achievement award in 1997 for his more than 200 records. In 1972, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and was promoted to Officer of the Order in 1984. In May 2010, just over two years after his death, Queen Elizabeth unveiled a statue of Oscar Peterson seated at his piano outside of the National Art Centre, a place where he had played many times during his long and productive career.

 

Sources:

Batten, Jack. 2012. Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz, Tundra Books: Toronto

Globe and Mail, 1946. “Swing Pianist Stirs Massey Hall throng,” 8 March.

——————-, 2007. “Oscar Peterson, Musician, ‘Man with four hands was one of the greatest piano players of all time.” 26 December.

Ottawa Journal, (The), 1945. “Freiman’s platter chatter,” 7 June.

—————————, 1945. “Hot Jazz.” 5 December.

————————–, 1945. “Peterson played to packed audience in Glebe, 6 December

————————–, 1946. “Oscar Peterson Plays to 1,200.” 10 May.

Marin, Riva, 2003. Oscar: The Life and Music of Oscar Peterson, Groundwood Books: Toronto.

Milner, Mike, 2012. “Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson and the maharaja of the keyboard,” CBC Music, http://music.cbc.ca/#!/blogs/2012/3/Frank-Sinatra-Oscar-Peterson-and-the-maharaja-of-the-keyboard, 6 March.

Peterson, Oscar, 1964. Hymn to Freedom, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCrrZ1NnCuM.

Images:

Oscar Peterson in 1977, Author Tom Marcello, New York, U.S.A., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Peterson#/media/File:Oscar_Peterson.jpg.

Oscar Peterson statue at the National Arts Centre, 2016  by James Powell.