With Culture Days just behind us (September 25-27, 2015), I’m taking the opportunity to explore some cultural history in my community.
A search online for 19th century documents related to the arts in Prescott reveals a series of playbills: Brady’s Hall (1864, 1865 & 1875) and Victoria Hall (1877 & 1880) at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto (http://link.library.utoronto.ca/broadsides/).
After consulting a couple of directories, I discover that Brady’s Hall was an early interest of merchant and forwarder Isaac D. Purkis. In The Canada Directory of 1857-58, ID Purkis is listed as lessee. A look at the map of Prescott published in the 1862 Historical Atlas of Leeds and Grenville suggests an association between ID Purkis and SW Brady with Purkis’ warehouse located on Brady Dock (Samuel W. Brady was a Water Street merchant and forwarder who died in 1853).
An early reference to Brady’s Hall can be found in the story of the building of the Bytown and Prescott Railway. Two weeks after £50,000 had been subscribed in Byward in support of the railroad, a meeting was held in Prescott at Brady’s Hall on November 14, 1850. In mid-December, delegations from Prescott and Bytown met halfway in Kemptville, and the rest is history. The B. & P. officially opened on Christmas Day, 1854.
The Fire Kindlers tells us that Isaac D. Purkis was born at La Prairie, Quebec, in 1827, and married Margaret Brady in 1854. “Like George, his older brother, he began his business career in the telegraphic business in Montreal.” When he moved to Prescott, “he organized a ferry and shipping business on the St. Lawrence. He also built a coal wharf. He was a director of the Railway Transfer Company and was active in the local government of Prescott, being a town councillor and also a member of the School Board for thirty-five years.”
In 1869, Purkis purchased an advertisement in the Province of Ontario Gazetteer and Directory: “Brady Concert Hall — ID Purkis, Proprietor — Complete set of scenery for theatrical and other exhibitions.”
What types of performances took place at Brady’s? The playbills tell us that American minstrels were among the early shows led by a Canadian, Edward Thomas Miller, who was described as a “genteel comedian and balladist.”
Multi-purpose venues such as Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall (1850), London’s Music Hall (1866), and Montreal’s St Patrick’s Hall (1867) housed both minstrel shows and musical theatre. By the end of the 19th century, vaudeville (including burlesque) began to replace minstrel shows and a thriving sheet music industry offered everyone access to minstrel songs, parlour songs, immigrant songs, brass band repertoire, and piano music (including ragtime). In many communities, this type of music remained at the heart of popular culture until the 1950s.
In 1875, the Girard Brothers performed at Brady’s assisted by the Amateur Dramatic Society of Prescott. Although not actually brothers, the two teamed up after Eddie Girard — who’d learned to tap dance while working for a railroad company — competed in a dance competition against his brother-to-be, Willie Mahoney. The “Girards” went on to become successful American vaudeville performers and were known for their double sand jig act. Prescott’s proximity to the U.S. allowed Brady’s Hall to take advantage of the latest American trends.
By the time Victoria Hall opened in 1876, the theatre community in Ontario was in full swing. Throughout the province, Town Halls were being built to accommodate multiple functions under one roof, including elaborate concert spaces. Prescott’s Town Hall was designed by well-known Montreal architect William Tutin Thomas, and its second floor Victoria Hall was said to have “a good stage furnished with some fair scenery for general purpose.” Unfortunately, the building was allowed to fall into disrepair, and it was demolished in the 1960s.
Henry C. Miner’s American Dramatic Directory, 1887-88, lists Victoria Hall as having 4 sets of scenery , a capacity of 900, and a stage 22 feet x 20 feet with a proscenium of 12 feet x 20 feet. It could be rented for as little as $10.
Brockville’s well-known musical director, Professor Kaufman, had a hand in producing a couple of special evenings at Victoria Hall. In 1889, however, the Musical Courier reported his arrest for forgery and fraudulent activity. The magazine described how Kaufman approached lenders saying that he’d just sold an expensive piano on an instalment plan. Because his paperwork appeared to be in order, he was never questioned about the validity of his sales, but many of his documents were duplicated and forged. It took years to catch him. Lenders and piano manufacturers were defrauded close to $100,000 (about $2 million today).
John Morris mentions the Gem Theatre in Morrises’ History of Prescott 1810-1967. Open to the public in 1918, the Gem accommodated 300 theatre-goers. “The floor (was) just the proper incline to allow every patron a clear view…The proprietor of the theatre, William McAskin, Sr. (Daniels’ Hotel), is to be congratulated upon his enterprise in constructing such an up-to-date play house for lovers of this kind of amusement. An apparent post-war choice was made for the opening play, An Alien.
Minstrels Photo: https://oldbrockvillephotographs.wordpress.com/