Posted: Dec 18, 2006, 5:21 PM
Density and complexity
Join Date: Mar 2005
Location: Parish of St. John
Here's the Chinatown headquarters of l'Atelier du National du Manitoba, the film group responsible for the Stand Tall, Murder Capital, and Discount Everything stencils and posters. Notice the homage paid to Winnipeg icons: the Nutty Club man, Clifford's Department store, and Winnie the Pooh
Also, getting to the hijacked topic of this thread, Winnipeg's sleazy hotels, here is a brilliantly-written story written by one Ted Allan, which appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press
25 years ago:
Sept. 2, 1981
Hotel's rakish youth set its style
Great and eccentric shared Royal Albert's lively past
By Ted Allan
It was The Prince Of Steel, I suppose, who most fully appreciated the nuances of the Royal Albert Arms Hotel, many years and social postures before its development as a trendezvous for the Hip Minority.
The Prince chose the Royal Albert Arms Hotel as the seat of his ministry, rather than a hut on the headwaters of the Ganges or, say, the Clarendon Hotel.
Few of us had the temerity to challenge a guy who would shove surgical needles through his cheeks, ear lobes, nostrils, tongue and other fleshy parts to underscore his arguments.
The Prince--a rotund, melodramatically detached East Indian expatriot of Trinidad who never revealed his birth-name--performed a wonderfully disgusting intermission act between country 'n' western sets in the beverage room of the neighboring St. Charles Hotel.
This was in the early '60s when the St. Charles and the Royal Albert were favored spas for inchoate tokers, professional vessels of lust, the Lysol martini set and parapsychology groupies.
Solemnly and with some elegance, he contorted on a requisite board of nails, chewed burning cigarettes, writhed on broken beer bottles and generally made a helluva mess of the room. he capped his performance by prostrating himself on the nail bed and inviting the audience to smash a slab of Manitoba Tyndal on his chest with a 10-pound sledgehammer.
The drunks loved him, the management appreciated his purgative effect on the belligerents and the staff hated cleaning up afterward.
This he did for a living. Professional self-mortification. His calling, though, was converting unenlightened North American urchins of privilege into hordes of dutiful yogins.
He lived and held court in the Royal Albert Arms, third floor front. There, in his spartan but wretched room, he prattled at length to the assembled on the truths of "self-collectedness" from the hoary texts of the Yoga-sutras. Unknown and unnamed guests, weird and distracted, conventional and self conscious, drifted in and out of the room at all hours like tableaux from a misdirected circus parade.
He greeted them all with the same fashion, often with a needle still through his ear or nose. "Welcome to the Princes' ashram, my boy," he said, regardless of evident gender.
The Prince had other noteworthy tendencies. He burned enormous quantities of of incense. He begged for whatever spare change he could. And, when someone irritated him by displaying less than rapt attention or a reluctance to cough up four-bits, he stubbed cigarettes out on his forehead for dramatic effect.
For no apparent reason, The Prince Of Steel, whatever level he now inhabits, has lodged himself in my mind as emblematic of the Royal Albert Arms, a sometime refuge for the truly quirky and the harmlessly bent.
Now, though, the future of the 68-year-old hostelry is uncertain. Since its most recent owner, Bob Axworthy, bellied up in July, the hotel's three secured creditors have been scrambling for a fiscal foothold. However, bankruptcy trustee Tom Copeland says, "I'm almost certain the Albert will be retained as a hotel, despite the fact that there were no bids at all when tenders for sale were advertised across the country the beginning of August."
Danny Koren, one of the secured creditors whose family owned the hotel before Axworthy, admits "the odds are we'll be back there running the hotel to protect our investment. Though," he adds glumly, "we'd rather not do it at all. We'll certainly do it better."
Still, one fears for the continuity of genuine Winnipeg eccentricity the Albert provided.
The Royal Albert, never too tony in its finest hour, was, nonetheless, clean, sensible and inexpensive. Its first newspaper advertisement noted that each of the 54 rooms had phones, hot and cold running water, outside exposure and cost $1.50 and $2, while the businessman's luncheon went for 50 cents. It was designed for the travellers and salesmen who worked out of the Albert Street warehouse district.
It's name in Winnipeg is more than a century old.
It opened for business Dec. 13, 1913, the same year as the St. Charles Hotel and the Pantages Theatre (now The Playhouse). It replaced a 2 1/2-storey wooden auction gallery, the original Royal Albert Hotel, which opened Jan. 7, 1879.
The Royal Albert soon became the theatrical epicentre of the Prairies, a kind of informal booking agency, convention centre and boarding house for strolling players.
Bert (Red) McDonald, a retired railroader living in Vancouver, tells of an encounter with Harry Houdini in the lobby of the Albert just after The Great War.
"I didn't punch him," Bert says, "but he did let me fell his stomach. It was like a washboard. Houdini used to let lost of people punch him, though. He was very proud of his stomach."
As a schoolboy, Bert would hang around the Albert to observe his heroes, collect autographs and possibly pick up trade tricks.
"I used to think the lobby was so grand, you know. Very romantic. There was an oak front-desk that was 40 feet long. The oak panelling on the walls was higher than your head and there were marble baseboards and plate glass mirrors everywhere."
"And, there were always pretty women around. They were hookers, but what the hell did I know then? They looked so damned glamorous. Later, when I learned a little about life and was buying my booze from a bootlegger on the third floor, I got to know some of them."
In addition to nourishing rakish residents, the Albert was a hub of illicit liquor transactions during Manitoba's period of prohibition from 1916 to 1923, taking its rightful place alongside such legendary local hootie-houses as Aunt Mary's Tearoom and Mamma Trossi's Restaurant. Its backrooms were frequently scenes of decorous, middle-class, illegal bouts of drinking to excess.
By the '50s, an A. Ferrari and J. P. Grogan, the original owners who commissioned architect E. D. McGuire and built the hotel at a cost of $85,000, had long gone. So had its whiff of bohemian but respectable nightlife.
The '60s saw it regain a degree of sangfroid, with actors working the Manitoba Theatre Centre, starving artists wearing their integrity on their ragged sleeves, visiting jazzmen and folkies playing local clubs living fraternally with parchment-faced old men, brown-bag winos and creatures of the night who spoke to themselves in thunderous soliloquies.
One archetypical guest of the time was folksinger Gale Garnett, now an actress-director and sometime consort of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The daughter of a New Zealand circus carny, Garnett demonstrated her staggering command of colonial English colloquialism one afternoon after reading the reviews of her opening night at a Kennedy Street club.
Over the years, the Albert changed hands and clientele repeatedly, acquiring new owners in '52, '70, '71, '74 and finally, in the fall of 1979, when rapidly aging Young Liberal entrepreneurs Bob Axworthy and Reg Alcock [yes, the future Winnipeg South MP] took their bankruptcy-bound steps to restoring its cachet.
Winnipeg writer Charlie Wilkins was in residence during this period, holed up in the third floor front that the Prince Of Steel had occupied more than 15 years earlier.
It wasn't that he was courting the muse of the Albert's ambience, although the bitch goddess enabled him to crank out a children's play for the Manitoba Theatre Workshop, a couple of other plays and a CBC radio series. But the price ($150 a month) and location were right.
Just about everything else wasn't.
"The setting was actually prohibitive to writing," Wilkins says. "There was a certain kind of trendy quality there at the time, but it didn't extend above the main floor."
Wilkins remembers his room as being "minimally habitable," featuring a solitary overhead lightbulb, "loosey-goosey maid service," non-existant ventilation, "generations of underwear smells," purple plastic wallpaper, a reasonably new carpet that covered a host of residual artifacts and plenty of scalding hot water.
"In winter, I'd run a hot bath twice a day just to moisten the air and I kept my food between the windows." His fellow residents included Axworthy and Alcock, musicians Tom Jackson and Bob Fuhr and "the old men."
One old man, his immidiate neighbor, was a patriotic Czech with a heavy drinking habit. "He'd play these Czech records, anthem-like things, at full volume at night when he was drinking and I was working. Evidently, he left the tonearm open, because he'd pass out and the damned things would play over and over. I'd pound on the wall and his door and bellow at him."
Another veteran resident would frequent the hotel's restaurant, 48 Albert St., raging noisily at himself and breaking wind. "It was like punctuation," Wilkins says. "You could hear him all over the restaurant."
Wilkins finally abandoned the Albert, a casualty of its innate character. "I think it was a combination of things, all noisy. There were screaming, raging arguments that rolled along the hall like waves. In the street below my window, there were fights, people crashing through the sanded glass door, and active trading for the street prices between $40 hookers and guys in Buick Wildcats."
"But, the sound system in the pub was really intolerable, it was cranked up so high. Even on the third floor, despite brick and steel walls, the mirror on my wall would actually shake. The melody came up on the pipes, the rhythm on the radiator."
Whatever policy Danny Koren embarks on in his latest, reluctant embrace with the Dear Old Party of Albert Street, one hopes the Royal Albert Arms will always be distinguished by its metaphoric sounds:
Old men with flatus, scatological folk singers, the astonishing explosion of right-hand cluster notes of barrel-house pianists such as Roosevelt Sykes and the stratospheric decibel work of Winnipeg jazzmen like Dan Pelfrey and Ron Paley.
The Prince Of Steel, bless his student visa and horny skin, would doubtless approve and that's good enough for me.