October 1, 1917:
Vancouverites enjoyed their music.
In fact, the city has a rich musical tradition, having been one of North America’s jazz hubs through much of the 20th century, and a regular Vaudeville stop before that, with oodles of richly outfitted theatres and opera houses doing a brisk trade.
But when Vancouver folk went indoors at night, as the pot boiled and the kids cleaned up after a day spent in alleys and backyards, the sound heard out the living room window of a well-to-do type’s residence might have been something like this.
That’s Marion Harris, who was big in the day, and the first white singer of note to take on jazz and blues songs.
Your dad’s dad might have opened his Vancouver Daily Sun newspaper on this day and seen the ‘His Masters Voice’ ad on page 4 [seen below], where it would be mentioned that Harris’ song, ‘Some Sweet Day’ and its companion piece, ‘They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me,’ could be picked up in the form of a 10-inch Victor Record for $0.90.
Think about that for a second – in 1917, you could buy your favourite song for $0.99. Today, literally a century later, you can buy your favourite song online for… exactly the same price. Music may be the single thing in the world that costs the same as it did one hundred years ago.
Dad’s dad? He might have taken home a foxtrot dance number from Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra, or the more expensive Nora Bayes favourites, ‘Laddie Boy’ and ‘Over There’ – maybe a soprano track from the renowned Galli-Curci.
If dad was a real music buff, he could write away for a free ‘musical encyclopedia’, all 550 pages of it, that listed every one of the 9000 Victor Records in stock at the time. If he did, and kept it, it’d be a valuable research tool.
But he probably didn’t. Instead, he probably headed down on a Saturday afternoon to Granville Street downtown, where he could choose from the 70 records in stock at Walter F. Evans, Ltd. at 657 Granville, or the selection at Montelius Piano House at 524, or the stock at Mason & Risch – ‘The Home of Victorola’ – at 738.
Walter F. Evans was a Welshman who came to the city in 1887 and built the Hotel Devonshire, before starting the Dyke, Evans and Callaghan Music Company, which would go on to become Walter F. Evans, Ltd. [above]
He was a big supporter of the Vancouver Symphony Society over the years, and documents from his collection of programs and hotel menus are held in the city archives. He would frequently advertise that a renowned singer or musician coming to town would be performing with his pianos, or he’d sell tickets in-store, or would bring the artist into his store to promote the event and Evans in a mutually beneficial manner.
Montelius Piano House [above] was a neighbour to Turners Furniture and the Globe Theatre on the corner of Granville and Smithe after originally setting up on Hastings and Homer.
The company referred to itself as ‘The Big Victor Store.’
The Mason & Risch store was mostly a piano sales house, part of a Toronto company that produced upright pianos and sold them around North America. The records, and the Victrolas that played them, were mostly a side earner.
Also included in the ad on that day was a reference to the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company of 143 Lenoir Street, Montreal. That was the home to Montreal’s massive Berliner Records factory, where Victor records and Victrola gramophones were built, and a brisk trade was had.
Down the street, at 633 Granville, the Columbia Records-stocking Fletcher Bros Limited claimed to be ‘the largest music house in Western Canada’, offering ‘Somewhere in France is Daddy, Laddie Boy’ for $0.85.
With four amazing music houses positioned across just three blocks, Dad’s dad would probably take his time with it all.
He’d pop in to each one and eventually pick out a record, cart it back to the house, sit in his armchair and drop the needle on a groove of a track from Canadian tenor Henry Burr, who was beyond popular back then.
Music on wax was novel and new, but nothing beat the live stuff, and Vancouver was a popular stop for musical stars.
Few were more adored at the time than soprano Madame Nellie Melba, Australia’s songstress extraordinaire. And, coincidentally enough, on the back of the page advertising Vancouver’s gramophone row was another ad, paid for by Walter Evans of course, for a special appearance by Dame Melba.
At ‘The Horse Building’.
So where are they now?
The old site of the Montelius Piano House is now a McDonalds restaurant. The old Globe Theatre building is still a few doors down (you can see in in the red brick), having gone through a few incarnations in its time, but the rest of the block has changed pretty seriously. What was once the Odeon Movie Theatre is now the Venue Nightclub. Across the street is the Orpheum, the Vogue, and the Commodore Ballroom, still going with its spring-loaded dance floor.
The 700 block of Granville, once home of Mason & Risch, was demolished to make way for ‘the toilet bowl’ that would house Sears late in the century, until that too was gutted in the last few years to make way for Microsoft offices.
Walter F. Evans passed away in 1949. His old music store is now Granville Optical, just down the block from the HBC store.
Fletcher Bros. has been replaced by Pacific Centre.
Evans’ Devonshire Hotel on W. Georgia was always dwarfed by the Hotel Georgia next to it and Hotel Vancouver across from it, which made it hard for even the most hard working owner to break a profit out of it.
A money loser for much of its lifetime, it was imploded in 1981 to make way for a bank building.
The RCA building in Montreal is now a mixed use office complex known as the RCA Edifice.
Gramophones became record players, and then CD players, and then Walkmans, and then iPods, and now our music is bounced to us, at will, from space.
But back in the day, when old dad was kicked back in that chair and the breeze was slipping in between the planks in the kitchen walls and the coal delivery guy’s horses could be heard a few blocks away, the family might have taken a moment, quietened down, and let Henry Burr take them away a second time.
And a third.
And a fourth..