Stage Door News

Toronto: Mirvish Productions shares what happened during the Spanish Flu of 1918/19

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

As the saying goes, everything old is eventually new again. So it is with the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in terms of its effects on society at large. While there have been many pandemics in human history, the one that seems to have had as devastating an impact in modern times was the influenza of 1918/1919, usually known as the Spanish Flu (although Spain was not where it originated; how it got its name is another strange story).

How did it affect life in Toronto in 1918?

One source we can turn to is the history of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, which opened in 1907 and has been the centre of Toronto’s cultural life since its first performance.

It just so happens that Dr. Mora Dianne Guthrie O’Neill wrote her Doctorate Dissertation in 1976 on the history of the Royal Alexandra 1907-1939. Her three-volume dissertation is a wealth of material, including how the city and the Royal Alexandra dealt with the influenza of 1918/1919.

Below is an excerpt from her dissertation.

Note that the theatres were only closed for a two-week period, that the man who built the Royal Alexandra died of the disease in New York, where he was seeing shows to programme for the Royal Alexandra, and how the pandemic came just as WWI was ending.

And note how popular the shows immediately following the pandemic were.


The Royal Alexandra Theatre Season of 1918/1919

The regular season of 1918/1919 opened predictably enough with another engagement of The Bird of Paradise, a very popular musical set in Hawaii that had made a star of Laurette Taylor on Broadway in 1912 and had since been touring the continent; between 1913  and 1922, it would play a dozen times at the Royal Alexandra. 

The Man Who Came Back, an extraordinary success during its two seasons in New York, arrived for two equally successful weeks at the Royal Alexandra on September 2nd.  This melodrama appealed to Toronto audiences, drained emotionally from four terrible years of WWI and the deaths of 10,000 of their sons and fathers.

A victorious conclusion to the conflict loomed imminently on the European horizon, but a more indiscriminate enemy would take its toll of victims on the home front before Toronto could celebrate that victory.

On October 10, 1918, newspapers replaced theatre advertisements with an announcement issued by Charles J. Hastings, Medical Officer of Health for Toronto:


Notice is hereby given that after Saturday, October 19th, all Theatres, Moving Picture Shows and other places of amusement, including Pool Rooms, Billiard Rooms and Bowling Alleys, throughout the city shall be closed during the period of the influenza epidemic, and shall not be reopened until further notice.

Theatres in every city in Canada and the United States shut their doors during the influenza epidemic of 1918. (The only exceptions were the theatres in New York City, which remained open, but with health officials present at every performance to instruct audiences on proper conduct. However, fear of contagion nearly emptied the theatres anyway, and many closed their doors through lack of business.)

Shows that were touring were immediately shut down. Thousands of actors found themselves stranded across the continent, and many others died of the “flu" during two horrifying months. The Royal Alexandra lost its principal owner, Cawthra Mulock, who succumbed to the disease in New York on December 1st.

For two weeks the Royal Alexandra remained dark while the rage of the disease abated.

The theatre reopened on November 4th with a New York company in the try-out musical comedy production, Ask Dad, by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse (it would be retitled Oh, My Dear! when it transferred to Broadway, where it had a very successful seven-month run). The arrival the following week of a travel-worn company in Oh, Lady, Lady, also by Bolton and Wodehouse, with music by Jerome Kern, made comparisons of the two inevitable, but on November 11, 1918, the city was hardly in a mood to care.

Beginning with a symphony of steam whistles and a cacophony of bells at five o-clock on that cloudy morning, nondescript bands had appeared from nowhere to lead the city in a joyous celebration of the Canadian victory at Mons the day before and the signing of the armistice to end the war.

But an ominous portent hung over this celebration of victory: the war time economic boom came to an abrupt halt for many in the labour force. An era of unemployment and depression settled on the city and the country as the direct aftermath of the war.

Soldiers returning from military service now faced the difficult transition to civilian life, which had changed considerably during the four years of war.

Almost two years were to pass before the economy adjusted to take up the slack left in the immediate wake of the war. Widespread unemployment, high prices for peacetime goods, low wages, and a serious lack of housing, countered with labour unrest and fear of Bolshevist agitation, spelled misery for many.

Blinded by present joy, however, patrons of the Royal Alexandra turned out in force. In spite of the two-week closure during the influenza epidemic, patrons had enjoyed 35 active weeks at the Royal Alexandra when the theatre’s regular season of 1918/1919 concluded on May 10, 1919.

Photo: A newsie hawking papers in front of Loew’s Downtown (now the Elgin Theatre). © October 1918.