Ivan Ackery's world in the early 1950s (photo: www.pstos.org)
Ivan Ackery's world in the early 1950s [Photo: www.pstos.or])


Ivan Ackery (Part I)

During the Great Depression, with sound movies and radio adding to its grief, the movie industry had to redouble its efforts to fill its huge theatres. The Orpheum, like many theatres in North America, was kept open by cutting staff, reducing ticket prices and bringing in double features. Then in 1935 the theatre got a new manager who gave it new life.

His name was Ivan Ackery.

Movie theatre managers in the 1930s were more than just administrators. They frequently chose the films they would show, they were expected to promote them—and, boy, did Ackery promote them—and they devised special attractions to make their theatres stand out and bring customers in. Ackery was so good at all of this, and he was good for so long (35 years), that it’s fair to say he is the single most influential person in the Orpheum’s history.

From the very beginning Ackery was totally committed to whatever he was doing. In 1927, the year the Orpheum opened, 28-year-old Ivan happened to be manager at a rival theatre, the Victoria on Victoria Drive near East 43rd. “And I remember going down Granville Street that year, and I thumbed my nose at the Orpheum. Oh, I was so jealous.”

He actually did that. He actually put his right thumb up against his nose and wiggled his fingers at this upstart picture palace. He had no idea that about eight years later they’d put him in charge of running the place, the biggest theatre in Canada, and he would do such a great job that he would stay there for the next 35.

He was born Ivor Frederick Wilson Ackery in Bristol, England on October 30, 1899, and lived with his family in the Christmas Steps area. (No one is sure why the steps have that name. It’s an historic area of Bristol, a shop of small and ancient shops: one fish-and-chip shop there is 300 years old!) In later years he’d change the Ivor to Ivan because that’s what everybody in Vancouver called him, anyway. In this chapter, we’ll usually refer to him as Ivor to underline his pre-theatre life and career, then, like everyone else, start calling him Ivan.

Young Ivor attended Duke of York’s Military School in Dover, a mile from the famous white cliffs—a famous landmark which Ivan, in later years, confessed he didn’t recall at all. His father had been wounded in the Boer War, and that was Ivor’s entry into the school, which was for fatherless boys “and not rich kids." He learned there to become a drummer and bugler. His father died in the spring of 1908, when Ivor was just eight years old. His mother left for Toronto in 1909, her passage to Canada paid by the Salvation Army, and Ivor was left in the care of an aunt and uncle. He left the school—which he had liked a lot—in November, 1913, "the tears coming down from my eyes.” In his autobiography, Fifty Years on Theatre Row, Ivan is quite honest about his scholarly attributes. His report read: “This boy’s conduct is very good, but he is not up to the standard of the other boys in the school.”

He left Duke of York’s at 14 to go to work. His first job was feeding paper bags into a printing machine at a paper factory. The pay was five shillings a week, which he gave to his auntie and uncle, with whom he was staying while his mother was in Canada. They gave him sixpence a week for spending money, and he often spent it in local cinemas. (Movies Ivor could have seen in 1914 included Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the famous early cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur and Kid Auto Races at Venice—the latter the first film to star Charlie Chaplin in his famous tramp costume.)

On October 7, 1914 Ivor—three weeks away from his 15th birthday—left from Liverpool for Canada. His passage had been paid for by his mother, who was now in Vancouver, remarried and working as a cashier at the Windsor Hotel (later called the Castle) on Granville Street. She was happy to get him out of Europe, where the Great War had started the previous August.

He got a job as an elevator operator and bellboy in the Grosvenor Hotel. But, with the war raging in Europe, Ivor, like thousands of other Canadian youngsters, wanted to do his part. On Christmas Eve, 1915 he walked into the Vancouver army recruiting office, lied about his age (he was not quite three months past his 16th birthday), and was accepted as a recruit for the 102nd Canadian Expeditionary Forces Battalion. His mother was not happy.

The young recruit was sent for training to Goose Spit, near Comox, where one of his officers was a Captain J.S. Matthews who, as Major Matthews, is revered in Vancouver as its original archivist. Ivor’s musical training at Duke of York’s came in handy: it was he who blew the bugle to get the other soldiers out of bed in the morning and put them to bed at night.

On June 16, 1916 their orders came. He remembers marching with his unit down Granville to the train station to the tune of Laddie in Khaki. A week later Ivor’s unit reached Halifax and the next day set off for Europe aboard the CPR liner Empress of Britain. They landed at Liverpool June 29, 1916—precisely where he had left England 21 months earlier.

But then there was an official check on ages, and Ivor’s true age was discovered. The battalion left without him and a few others who had fibbed about their ages. He decided to visit Bristol on a short leave to see his aunties and uncles, then returned to Canada on the S.S. Southland—working as a steward in the officer’s mess—and was discharged September 18, 1916.

Was his military service over? Not quite.

He got a job at the Hudson’s Bay store as an elevator operator while he pondered his future. (Incidentally, more than 60 years later he could still rattle off the goods featured on each floor of the store!) But he couldn’t get the war out of his mind.

On November 29, 1916 he enlisted again—at 17—and was accepted. He’d lied about his age again, said he was 18, but this time he got away with it. He was sent to Victoria with the 143rd Battalion, a curious aggregation called the B.C. Battling Bantams . . . a unit organized for men not tall enough for regular military service.

His old friend the Southland picked his unit up at Halifax on February 17, 1917 and ten days later they were in Europe. Ivor was transferred to the 24th Reserve Battalion at Seaford, and by April he was with the troops on the voyage to Calais—right across the Channel from Dover, where he’d attended Duke of York’s. Then, stuffed into boxcars, the men were off to the front. “Before we left England,” he recalled, “I had been assigned to the Fighting 47th Battalion, 10th Infantry Brigade, a great battalion from New Westminster.”

  The trenches at Vimy Ridge (www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk)
  The trenches at Vimy Ridge
[www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk]

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 didn’t 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, Ivor’s 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 mother’s 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.”

Strand Theatre  
Strand Theatre
[ Photo: Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society]
 

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. Ivor’s 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 he’d 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 hadn’t decided what he wanted to be, but he had noticed one important thing. “I don’t mean to be egotistical, you see, but I’d noticed that people liked me, y’ know? I’d 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 Ranchmen’s 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 it—1,800 seats in one theatre! . . . ‘Boy!’ I thought, ‘I’d 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 who’d 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.” He’s an usher at the Capitol Theatre and he lives at Apartment 5, 1123 Barclay Street.

He wasn’t 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 club’s 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 months—the longest time he could stay under U.S. law—to come back to Vancouver. Ralph Ruffner, the manager of the Capitol, rehired him and not long after he was named head usher.

  The Last Laugh with Emil Jannings
 

The Last Laugh with Emil Jannings

Ivor was now truly in his element. The Capitol was the most prestigious theatre in town—some remember it as even handsomer than its younger cousin, the Orpheum—with 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 Keaton’s 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 Chaney’s He Who Gets Slapped. All these titles, of course, were silent. Sound movies were getting closer, but hadn’t arrived yet.

Ivan (we’ll 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 it—experience 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 theatres—the Victoria Road Theatre, the Kitsilano, the Windsor, the Alma and the Kerrisdale. The Langer circuit would come to be an important factor in Ivan’s life: Famous Players bought the chain, which by then included the Orpheum, in 1928 and put one of the theatres in Ivan’s hands.

“I got a promotion to mark the change,” said Ivan. “I don’t know why—God 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 you’ll 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 Ivan’s—and the Orpheum’s—future.

This era brought something else besides sound to the movies. It brought the Depression. The Great Crash of 1929 didn’t take long to make its effects felt in Canada. When the Depression reached its peak—or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say its depths—Ivan 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 didn’t 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 Strand’s 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

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