Winnipeg seems to be enjoying a sort of renaissance these days. Construction projects downtown spurred on by the return of the Winnipeg Jets promises a booming cultural centre in the heart of the city within a few years. It harkens one back to Winnipeg’s glory days of the 1920s.
This photograph taken by L.B. Foote on February 21, 1923, to me, perfectly illustrates the Winnipeg we are striving to become once again. Suspended 30 feet above the Winnipeg Free Press building on Carlton Street, Harry Houdini, arguably the biggest name in entertainment at the time, wriggled his way out of a straitjacket in front of what was reported to be four or five thousand awestruck onlookers. This publicity stunt was intended to generate interest for his week-long show at the Orpheum Theatre. Houdini’s opening act at the show was a young comedian named Jack Benny. It was not uncommon for performers of this calibre to make regular appearances in Winnipeg during this time.
Now let’s take a moment to break this down. Here was one of the more famous pop culture icons in the world at the time performing his most popular trick in the dead of winter in Winnipeg in front of 5,000 people to promote his upcoming show. His opening act was an up and coming comedian who would become the most popular variety program host in America a decade later. Because magicians and escape artists have admittedly declined in popularity over the years, it is hard to conceive of a comparable scenario these days. But it might look something like this: Lady Gaga, backed by a full stage show, performs for free in front of 20,000 Winnipeggers in -20 temperatures to promote her show at the MTS Centre, where the stand-up stylings of Conan O’Brien would be the opening act.
Kind of hard to imagine, isn’t it?
As an aside, the Winnipeg Free Press offered cash prizes to the three amateur photographers who best captured the performance on film. They would be hard pressed to top the work of Foote, who not only captured the performance, but the excitement of the crowd, and the energy of a city.
I think Winnipeg has a long way to go before we’re as cool as we once were. Thankfully we have the photos of L.B. Foote to use as a measure of Winnipeg’s vitality.
- Brett Lougheed
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Brett Lougheed is Digital Curator/Archivist at the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections. He is responsible for digitizing and managing the University’s archival material, including a few Foote photos. He is also a life-long Manitoban, a pop culture junkie, and the author of the Archives’ slightly warped photo blog, What the Fonds?