By 1910 Saskatoon was fast becoming a Boom Town. New businesses were springing up overnight in response to the needs of a mushrooming population. As far away as Montreal, immigrants arriving In Canada were advised, "Go to Saskatoon. You can't miss there!" The city was truly becoming the 'Hub of the West' as our old school song had predicted.
Plans were in the making for laying eleven miles of street railway. The city works programme Included layouts for forty-one miles of sidewalk, four miles of road paving, extensions to existing sewer and water mains. There were ten schools and fourteen churches, either completed or in the making. Everyone was caught up in the vortex of an exploding city.
Real estate was in full swing. Most free land in the immediate vicinity had been taken up long ago but occasionally a choice quarter or half section would become available for re-entry on a given date because of cancellation or abandonment. When such a prize was available, people stood outside the land office overnight or even for days. It is recorded that a certain Miss Williams stood for eleven days at the top of the land office stairs to file a scrip for a certain parcel of land near Kindersley.
Money flowed freely from pocket to pocket. People arrived penniless and in a short time owned thousands. Prostitutes, dressed in the finest imported gowns, drove down Second Avenue in smart open buggies. Whiskey flowed in every bar, including the one at the Empire Hotel. The best rum and rye sold for seventy-five cents for a twenty-six ounce bottle. Scotch was a little more expensive at a dollar twenty-five. For a quarter, a man poured his own shot and was given a free chaser of beer.
Dick and Joe had both moved back to Saskatoon with their new families and were helping Father manage the landslide business at the Empire Hotel where an extension was being planned to accommodate the tremendous influx of people. My mother had become a busy socialite, active in church work and community engagements. Mabel was becoming quite famous for her singing with the Orpheus Society and took both vocal and piano lessons. Fred, Buzzy and I were all away at school, while Reg was still out in Alberta living the life he loved as a cowboy.
Soon after I returned to the convent for my second year with the nuns, Mother wrote to say that my father had undertaken to build and manage the first theatre in Saskatoon, and he was doing it in ninety days! As if that were not enough, our own Mabel was to play the part of Josephine in the theatre's very first production, 'Pinafore', which was to open on the night of Thursday, December twenty-ninth!
The family was now in a financial position to have both Mother and Mabel send their measurements to a London couturiere and the two women awaited the arrival of the large boxes containing their gowns for Opening Night in a transport of excitement. Mabel was to have a dress of creamy white satin, a matching fan and flowing cloak. Mother had ordered mauve chiffon with an appliqued pattern. She too was to carry a fan and wear a majestic purple cloak.
This peak of intoxication was going on in my own family, and here I was stuck away in a convent in Prince Albert! I could barely contain myself as I waited for letters from home to tell me about that first performance. When they finally came, I tore open the envelopes. A clipping from the Star-Phoenix fell out. Eagerly I snatched the piece of paper up to read the account. It said that Miss Mabel Sutton was a "pleasing girlish Josephine and filled the love-making scenes very coyly". My sister! Avidly I read the accounts from the family, then closed my eyes and imagined it all to the last detail....
The marquee was ablaze with lights as the carriages drew up to discharge their passengers. Jets of steam issued from the horses' nostrils into the frosty night. The air was electric as the First Night audience gathered to participate in their city's first real theatrical experience. The Sutton family's new victoria arrived, drawn by as fine a pair of matched greys as ever graced a theatre entrance, and driven by their coachman in livery. How proud my father looked as he handed down the wife to whom he was so devoted, and his popular daughter - tonight's Leading Lady. As they entered the rotunda, Mabel left them to join the cast. Snide remarks from hecklers were lost upon Father as in his mind's eye he saw for a moment each of the many real hardships and tragedies he and Mother had endured together to reach this moment of achievement. Even the recent collapse of the top balcony which had almost postponed this opening night was forgotten in the savouring of this moment which somehow let this couple stand apart - secure and united - as they were escorted to their box.
The new building boasted two galleries, ten dress boxes, and a spacious pit, and although the permanent seats had not yet been installed, temporary accommodation was provided by chairs. The stage had been designed to stand out well toward the centre so the audience felt near the performers. There were two curtains; the outer of asbestos vas bare, while the drop curtain contained advertising pictures from local merchants. The roof covered an area of 4800 square feet, and contained the largest rotary ventilator in the West - one foot in diameter! - ensuring a constant supply of fresh air.
The assembled audience was a kaleidascope of colour. Ladies in glamourous gowns had spent the entire day readying themselves for the gala event. Their escorts were only slightly less resplendent in formal evening dress and cloaks, and sported colourful carnation boutonniers in their lapels. All seats were reserved, selling from fifty cents for the gallery to ten dollars for the private boxes.
Although 'Pinafore' was an amateur production, it was an un qualified success. The cast was feted at a party afterwards at which my beautiful sister was elevated onto a table while an admiring crowd surrounded her and sang, 'Oh You Beautiful Doll'!
That night vas one of reflection, contentment and reward for my parents as they sat in front of their own fireplace in their new home on Poplar Crescent before going to bed. They mentally relived this night - the zenith of years of valiant struggle....
'Pinafore' was followed by the Alien Road Company on the stage of the Empire Theatre. One theatrical achievement followed another as the play-starved population enjoyed productions Father brought to Saskatoon from London, Eastern Canada and the United States. The D^Oyly Carte Company brought Gilbert and Sullivan operattas. Pantages and the San Carlos Opera Company now included Saskatoon in their circuit. Productions from the pen of such play wrights as Shakespeare, Shaw, Dickens and J.M. Barrie found their way to the stage of Saskatoon's own theatre. Chu Chin Chow, Maid of the Mountain, Aphrodite, The Masquerader - all were billed on the Empire marquee. Legendary artists became featured names - Sir John and Lady Martin Harvey, Seymour Hicks, Sir Richard Mansfield, Forbes-Robertson, Sir Henry Irving, Charles Coburn, Cyril Maude, George Arliss, Ethel Barrymore, May Robson, Margaret Anglin. Saskatoon audiences heard at first hand the voices of Clara Butt, Madame Melba, Schumann-Heink, John McCormack and instrumentalists like Fritz Kreisler and Kubelik.
I wrote home to see if I could bring my friend Margaret with me for the Easter holidays. Excitement was boundless when Mother's reply came saying that we were both expected! Father had been successful in booking Martin Harvey for 'A Tale of Two Cities' and 'The Breed of the Treshams 1 , and we were to go to both performances! Margaret was as excited as I. Our adolescent spirits rose and fell with roller-coaster speed as we alternately tried to cope with the daily convent routine of study and dicipline and then became lost in nightly exuberance when ire talked of the coming holiday. Mother Pierre said we were half angel and half devil, as her patience tried to cope.
We arrived in Saskatoon to an atmosphere throbbing with excite ment. The boys took to Margaret immediately. Fred and she argued like brother and sister from the moment of meeting - a new experience for Margaret who was the only child of a widowed mother. Little Bernard hid behind the drapes and squirted her with his water-pistol whenever she passed by. The boys mimicked Mabel unmercifully; while one sat at the piano playing with exaggerated flourish, warbling false notes to the sickening flutter of eyelashes, another minced down the staircase dressed in one of her evening gowns, cloak, hat, shoes, and peeked piquantly from behind a fan. Never having been exposed to brothers, Margaret thought their behaviour hilarious.
It was time to dress for the theatre. Margaret was outstanding in a new red dress which her mother had sent from Swift Current. I wore my first store-bought dress from Cairns. It was Empire style, and made of pink satin covered with white chiffon, and trimmed with beadwork. Looking in the mirror I convinced myself that anyone would suspect that the softly draped bodice hid a well-developed bust - which I had helped construct with rolled up stocking I was transported with delight!
Mabel helped us dress and style our hair. I objected to the down-the-back style, envisioning something more vogue-like in the way of a pompadour. But when I saw how lovely Margaret looked in her down-the-back style with a dark red ribbon to set off the effect, I agreed to a similar coiffure with a pink ribbon. We both wore white stockings and little black pumps. Pumps! After those 'sensible' boy's shoes I had worn for years! Then we each donned our cloaks - Margaret's was dark red with a white lining and mine was white cashmere with pink. We were ready at last for our debut!
Floating in spirit some several feet above the coach-seat we arrived at the theatre and came down to earth only a little when we discovered that we were only two out of several hundred people arriving to see Martin Harvey. The outside curtain now displayed a bevy of gambolling cupide holding garlands of flowers aloft. The fact that the painted cherubs were fat, lumpy and slightly misshapen bothered us not at all. Two gargoyles, traditional symbols of tragedy and comedy, graced either side of the curtain. Seated in the box, we preened like peahens,
and very nearly collapsed with excitement when the orchestra came into the pit and began to tune up. No one had told us about an orchestra!
'A Tale of Two Cities' began. From the moment of Harvey's entrance two adolescent hearts fell at his feet. We went on an emotional binge, weeping audibly in the sad places, and lifted beyond the realm of our previous existence to a level of emotional attainment of which we had never dreamed, with the nobility of the conclusion. Our applause was so voluble that a slight smile in our direction during one of the many curtain calls crowned the evening with the certain knowledge that he had seen us!
To cap everything, Mabel, looking exquisite in white, received a note during intermission from an admirer in the audience. She remained calm and unruffled. We were shocked at her indifference.
"I don't know how you could refuse to meet him!" we chorused. With her quiet smile Mabel said, "You'll find out some day." The ways of grown-ups!
The magic of the first play was reproduced when we saw 'The Breed of the Treahams'. Again we were transported to a completely new emotional plane. Nor were we the only members of the audience to be captivated to the same degree. -As Harvey lay on the burning desert, tortured and spent, he reached agonizingly for some water. The tomb-like silence of the theatre was shattered by an anguished voice from the audience crying, "For God's sake, give him a drink!"
At the end of his engagement, Martin Harvey invited my parents and Mabel to have dinner with him. I couldn't believe that this wonderful paragon, possessed of every virtue known to man, could be guilty of a social oversight.' My indignation at not being included in the invitation knew no bounds. Father tried to tease me back to reality.
"Why should a great actor that want to invite two young girls like you?" he asked.
"Because I'm your daughter just as much as Mabel," I stormed.
"Why can't you just take us along?"
More understanding of the workings of a young girl's heart, Mother arranged a meeting before dinner so that Margaret and I would meet the great man face to face. We found ourselves with the only pose of which we were capable - that of spellbound audience - as Harvey related incidents in his vast theatrical experience. Ely the time our brief meeting was over, we were no more disappointed in Harvey the Man than we had been in Harvey the Actor, and forgave him completely for not including two budding adolescents in his dinner invitation.
Our busy and beautiful holiday was rounded out with shopping expeditions to the growing number of stores in Saskatoon. The night before our return to Prince Albert, Margaret and I sat on Mabel's bed exchanging confidences and views on life. "You are so lucky, Mabel," Margaret sighed in envy. "Here you, are with school all behind you, living this beautiful life filled with romance and EVERYTHING!"
Back at the convent, Margaret and I regaled anyone who would listen with accounts of our holiday. I wrote a composition for class, emoting on paper about the glamour of the theatre in the progressive metropolis of Saskatoon. Sister handed me back my effort saying, "Patricia, you have written an entire composition of superlatives."...
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