Revitalizing the Burt

August 27, 2018

By Peter Saunders

[1]After True North Sports and Entertainment acquired Winnipeg’s Burton Cummings Theatre, it commissioned a new marquee sign, both to modernize the venue and to pay homage to the history of what is affectionately referred to as ‘the Burt.’ The changeover meant a chance to benefit from modern materials, including lightweight acrylic and aluminum, and light-emitting diode (LED) illumination.

A theatre by many names

The venue at 364 Smith Street currently known as the Burt was originally built in 1906 and 1907 as the Walker Theatre. Designed by Montreal architect Howard C. Stone and named after its owner, Corliss Powers Walker, it was part of the larger Red River Valley Theatre Circuit and presented vaudeville acts, ballets, operas and Broadway-style stage shows. It was also intended to be part of a planned hotel, office and retail complex, but that project never came to fruition. The theatre eventually closed in 1933, during the Great Depression.

In 1945, the Walker Theatre was converted into the Odeon Cinema. It went on to serve as Winnipeg’s most popular single-screen movie theatre for the following 45 years.

A non-profit organization, the Walker Theatre Performing Arts Group (WTPAG), purchased the theatre in 1990. With its original architectural features restored (many of which had been covered up when it was a movie theatre), it reopened as a live performance venue in 1991 and was designated a provincial heritage site and a national historic site.

Next, the theatre was renamed in 2002 after Winnipeg-born musician Burton Cummings, the former frontman of rock band The Guess Who, known for such hits as ‘American Woman,’ ‘New Mother Nature’ and ‘No Time.’ The WTPAG had struggled with fundraising, so Cummings agreed to help out with a series of five concerts. Two of these benefit events ended up raising $120,000 to help pay down the organization’s debt.

True North, locally well-known as the owner of the National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) Winnipeg Jets and their arena, Bell MTS Place, began managing and operating the Burt in 2014, purchased it in 2016, dissolved the WTPAG and invested in upgraded electrical systems and plumbing, as part of long-term efforts to rejuvenate and refurbish the venue.

Finally, in 2017, True North signed a continued sponsorship deal with Cummings, ensuring his name would remain on the building through 2032. Cummings, who lives in Los Angeles, Calif., committed to returning to Winnipeg to perform more benefit concerts, the proceeds of which would go toward a new marquee, among other improvements.

Time for a new vision

Once the fabrication of the sign was completed, it was transported to the site for installation.[5]

Once the fabrication of the sign was completed, it was transported to the site for installation.

To handle this job, True North turned to SRS Signs & Service, a 929-m2 (10,000-sf) shop located about 4 km (2.5 mi) northwest of the theatre.

“It was definitely time for a refresh,” says Derrick Amy, director of operations. “The previous neon sign, which they temporarily covered with a banner, had rusted through and was in very poor shape by the time we came along. Most of it could not be reused, except for the original steel structure.”

Josh Dudych, True North’s director of creative and marketing services, asked the SRS team for practical advice about how a new marquee might be built and attached while retaining the original appearance of the theatre’s canopy. His vision was for the sign’s shape to resemble that of the province of Manitoba on a map. For this concept to work on a two-sided sign, SRS suggested dividing two single-sided sign faces with a grey backing, so each side was disguised from the other.

“We had worked with True North before, custom-fabricating fixtures for Bell MTS Place,” Amy explains. “After our initial discussions with Josh, we were selected for the job in spring 2017. It was because he had pitched the idea earlier that I knew we could do the work within the timelines. The deadline was Sept. 22, as Cummings’ first new benefit concert was scheduled for Sept. 23.”

Once Dudych’s drawings were officially agreed upon by True North and approved by Winnipeg’s municipal government, SRS completed more detailed renderings in early July.

Modernized materials

The fabrication of the new marquee was, in some ways, representative of changes in the sign industry over the years.

“We used to be a 100 per cent tin shop, but have changed over to 90 per cent aluminum in the last five years or so,” says Amy. “Similarly, the theatre’s old sign was galvanized, painted tin, but we used painted aluminum sheeting this time for the front, back and sides of the marquee, to present an exterior finish that looks true to the era and is built to last. Everything is durable and reinforced.”

As for illumination, the changeover offered the first opportunity to use LEDs on the building. SRS specified white and green border tubing from Global Lux in Boucherville, Que., to add an ‘old Broadway’ feeling to the sign.

“We used LED ‘ropes’ that reproduce the look of neon,” says Amy, “but neon always sucked in Winnipeg anyway because of our weather!”

The white letter faces and dark sign face, meanwhile, were made using Acrylite acrylic polymers. “The acrylic has a seven-year life expectancy before it will need to be replaced,” says Amy.

An iconic installation

Installation took place by day while demolition continued at night.[6]

Installation took place by day while demolition continued at night.

Following client approvals, SRS began fabrication in August 2017 while True North, which had already developed a strong relationship with the municipal government, took charge of the permit application process. All of the production work, including welding, computer numerical control (CNC) routing of panels and painting with Cloverdale finishes, was handled in-house, stretching into early September.

“Given its iconic nature, this project was close to everyone’s hearts in our shop,” says Amy.

Once the 2.3 x 9.7-m (7.6 x 31.9-ft) sign was completed, it was transported to the site for installation. “It was a big project,” says Amy. “We had three crews on-site to handle demolitions by night and installation by day. We had done work downtown before, but nothing with this kind of high profile. The Burt is like Toronto’s Massey Hall in terms of great, old Canadian theatres for musicians.”

He credits the opportunity to work directly with True North’s designer and architect for how smoothly the project went, with a solid design and plan.

“That increases your chance of success immeasurably,” he says. “Even Burton Cummings himself really likes the new sign!”

With files from SRS Signs & Service. For more information, visit[7].

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