The battalion arrived at Chateaux de la Haie, where the 4th Canadian Division was stationed, and 17-year-old Pte. Ivor Ackery was assigned to duty as a dispatcher, running messages back and forth from headquarters to the front. He eventually ended up at Vimy Ridge. The trenches at Vimy, he said, became as familiar to me as the streets of my home town, because it was our job to know them like the backs of our hands, and to be able to move through them with speed. This was no cushy behind-the-lines job: sixty per cent of the battalion didnt come home. The Battle of Vimy Ridge is famous for its ferocity, and for the valor of the Canadian soldiers there. There are many who say it was this campaign that made Canada a real country, more than just a sleepy outpost of the British Empire.
Amidst the slaughter, Ivors humanity prevailed. On one occasion I was detailed to escort a German prisoner from the front line back to the battalion HQ. He was just a kid, too. He showed me his mothers picture in a little locket he had, and started to cry. I put my arm around him to try to comfort him, then took him to the back of the line and never saw him again. We shook hands before parting, and I shall never forget him.
And there was a faint glimmering, too, of his future career: Ivor and the others enjoyed the Dumbells, a group of soldiers from the 3rd Division who got up a troupe [to visit the troops] to do skits and songs and dances and even female impersonations . . . The troupe stayed together after the war and were well known in Canada as a touring musical-comedy show. I would play them at the Strand Theatre in Vancouver in the 1930s. See an excellent site on the Dumbells here.
Now his military career did come to a close. Ivors mother, worried sick about her young son in the trenches, sent his birth certificate to the army, and once again he was sent away from the lines. In England he was assigned to the Young Soldiers Battalion and he was with them in northern Wales when the armistice was signed. In July, 1919, nine months after the Armistice, he left for Canada . . . again on the Southlands! (For part of that time hed spent a stretch in a military prison for going AWL, partying too enthusiastically and the like.)
Back in B.C. he took a course in railroad telegraphy, but did nothing with his new skill. Instead, he got a job cleaning up in a restaurant in Mission, then worked in a lumber camp, then went to Anyox to work at the Granby Copper Mines and Smelter. His next job was as a flunky in the camp dining room of a logging camp on Kingcome Inlet. Then it was back to Vancouver, where in 1920 with some friends he hopped a CPR freight train going east. The lads were kicked off the train at Lake Louise, but immediately got jobs in the dining room at the big hotel there, a classy place where all the big shots came to vacation.
Ivor still hadnt decided what he wanted to be, but he had noticed one important thing. I dont mean to be egotistical, you see, but Id noticed that people liked me, y know? Id always had a smile and the military bearing from being in the army. I began to discover that a warm personality and a smile could go a long way toward making people happy and pleasant. He got a chance to put that amiability to work in Calgary where he got work as a busboy in the exclusive Ranchmens Club.
And it was in Calgary where his life in show business began.
Famous Players opened a new theatre in Calgary on May 7, 1921, the Capitol Theatre, and I was there. It was the talk of the town and everybody was so excited about it1,800 seats in one theatre! . . . Boy! I thought, Id love to get a job there, so when the call came for hiring I lined up with my best smile and my sharpest military attention, and I got picked to be an usher, at $5 a week. That was the beginning of my show business career. He was 21.
Opening night was spectacular. There were bands in the street and, because I was an old soldier, they put me out front to beat on the drum. I was always more than willing to do anything like that, just a born ham!
The Capitol was on the Pantages Circuit, one of the major vaudeville circuits of the day, and, like many of the others, an elaborately decorated and opulent show house. The manager, Ivan recalled, wore a tuxedo and the assistant manager a frock-tail coat; the cloakroom attendant wore a white uniform as did the matron of the ladies rest room. Everything was spotless.
The young Ivor was already beginning to be influenced by the elements that would mark his later career: spectacular events, lavish surroundings, elegantly attired staff and personal attention. He had found his niche. I got to meet many of the old vaudeville performers and was fascinated by them. I became acquainted with the two stage hands whod prepare the scenery for each week, and the projectionist, and to understand a little about their work. I was so interested in it all.
In 1923 he and a friend left Calgary and headed back to Vancouver . . . in a cattle car. Ivor and his pal paid for their trip by feeding and watering the animals. When he got back to Vancouver he got a job as an usher at the Capitol Theatre there.
And, sure enough, in the 1924 Vancouver city directory we find the first mention of I Ackery. Hes an usher at the Capitol Theatre and he lives at Apartment 5, 1123 Barclay Street.
He wasnt in Vancouver long before he got itchy feet again: in April of 1924 a fellow driving to Los Angeles advertised that he wanted to take some passengers to share expenses. Ivor got a leave of absence of six months and took off. He got a job as a bellboy at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and that warm personality and ever-present smile worked wonders: by the time he left six months later he was the clubs head bellboy.
One guesses that that trip to Los Angeles was to gain a peek at Hollywood. Ivan described it as a lark, but he also said he was happy enough after the six monthsthe longest time he could stay under U.S. lawto come back to Vancouver. Ralph Ruffner, the manager of the Capitol, rehired him and not long after he was named head usher.
Ivor was now truly in his element. The Capitol was the most prestigious theatre in townsome remember it as even handsomer than its younger cousin, the Orpheumwith its own orchestra, Calvin Winter and his Capitolians, and the pick of the best films. Some 1924 titles: Sherlock, Jr., counted by some as Buster Keatons greatest comedy; The Last Laugh with Emil Jannings, a classic German drama and one of the great silent films; The Thief of Baghdad, with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Lon Chaneys He Who Gets Slapped. All these titles, of course, were silent. Sound movies were getting closer, but hadnt arrived yet.
Ivan (well start calling him Ivan now) entered a Charleston contest held at the Capitol and, with the help of the orchestra, who knew him well, won. Then he was asked to organize and emcee a city-wide Charleston contest. The emceeing made him nervous, but he eventually got over that and became quite good at itexperience that he would put to good use in the future.
Around 1926 the Langer circuit of suburban theatres began. Joseph Langer, Ivan recalled, was an English gentleman who rode in a big maroon Daimler, seated grandly behind a maroon-liveried chauffeur. He had come to the city a few years earlier and had built several suburban theatresthe Victoria Road Theatre, the Kitsilano, the Windsor, the Alma and the Kerrisdale. The Langer circuit would come to be an important factor in Ivans life: Famous Players bought the chain, which by then included the Orpheum, in 1928 and put one of the theatres in Ivans hands.
I got a promotion to mark the change, said Ivan. I dont know whyGod was with me, I guess. All the big shots sons were promoted to the management of these new theatres we owned and I was the only little fellow promoted from the ranks. I had been made doorman at the Capitol earlier in the year, but now was to manage the newly-acquired Victoria Road Theatre at Victoria and 43rd at a salary of something in the neighborhood of $25 a week.
He wasted no time putting his personal stamp on the theatre, which youll discover in the article on Ivan the Promoter, to come later.
In 1930 Ivan was promoted to be the manager of a more prestigious theatre, the Dominion on Granville Street. It was one of the plush movie houses of the day when J.R. Muir opened it in 1907 to accommodate 1,000 patrons, and when Ivan took it over it was showing first and second-run movies, some of them still silent. Some prominent 1930 movies: All Quiet on the Western Front; Animal Crackers (with the Marx Brothers); The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich making a sensation, and the gangster classic Little Caesar, with Edgar G. Robinson. Ivan specifically mentions showing Wings at the Dominion, the first movie to win an Oscar. Wings was a 1927 movie, so this was an instance of a second-run film being shown. We cite it because two of its performers, Buddy Rogers and Gary Cooper, would play a part in Ivansand the Orpheumsfuture.
This era brought something else besides sound to the movies. It brought the Depression. The Great Crash of 1929 didnt take long to make its effects felt in Canada. When the Depression reached its peakor, perhaps its more accurate to say its depthsIvan and all other Famous Players staff were put on half pay. "I heard that some of the Hollywood studio executives took salary cuts, too," Ivan commented wryly, from $2,500 a week all the way down to $1,250, the poor beggars!
His promotional efforts didnt slow a whit. See the article on Ivan the Promoter (coming soon, as they say in the movies) to learn how he handled 1929's Disraeli, the first promotional event to win him an award.
In 1932 Ivan was transferred to Victoria to manage the Capitol Theatre there. He did well, but one senses he was eager to get back to Vancouver. The city had more than doubled in size and population on January 1, 1929 when the municipalities of Point Grey and South Vancouver amalgamated with it and was now the third largest city in Canada.
By 1934 Ivan was back in Vancouver. The Strand Theatre, which stood on the south side of Georgia Street at Seymour, had been darkened in February 1932 as a result of the Depression. (One of the regular vaudeville attractions at the theatre, the great Fanchon and Marco musical productions from California, were transferred to the Orpheum, as was Earl Hill, the Strands orchestra conductor.) Then things began to look a little up again, and the Strand was reopened in 1933. A few months later it had a new manager, 33-year-old Ivan Ackery, newly returned from Victoria. It was a grand theatre, the third largest in the city, and I was extremely proud . . .
End of Ivan Ackery, Part I