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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published June 23 2012

Eriksmoen: Walkers had tremendous impact on city, region

Rarely has a married couple had such a tremendous impact on a city (Winnipeg), region (upper Great Plains), and vast geographical area (Manitoba) than Corliss “Con” and Hattie Walker.

When the Walkers got married in the mid-1890s, Con Walker was the president of a rapidly growing printing company in Fargo and the director of the city’s opera house. Harriet “Hattie” Anderson was a successful theatrical actress. Within a decade, they owned and/or managed a chain of theaters in western Minnesota, eastern North Dakota and western Canada.

Con managed the theaters, and Hattie served as the press agent. They were able to bring high-end entertainment to the residents of these smaller communities for the first time. This included major theatrical acting troupes, Italian opera companies and symphony orchestras. Later, Hattie, with the support of her husband, became a leading advocate of women’s suffrage. Largely through her efforts, Manitoba became the first Canadian province to give women the right to vote.

In 1897, Con leased the Bijou Theater in Canada, and he and his wife relocated their theatrical operation from Fargo to Winnipeg. For the next 20 years, Con retained his U.S. citizenship and a residency in Fargo. He also continued to serve as president of the Fargo printing firm, Walker Brothers and Hardy, and manage the Fargo Opera House.

Con remodeled the Bijou and renamed it the Winnipeg Theater. With the theaters that he owned and/or managed in Brainerd and Crookston, Minn., Fargo, Grand Forks, Grafton, N.D., and Winnipeg, he joined the Theater Syndicate, which guaranteed him a “virtual monopoly of top shows and touring stars.” At the same time, Con’s printing enterprise in Fargo was rapidly expanding. In 1903, he moved Walker Brothers and Hardy from the smaller location at 115 Broadway to the Walker Building, which ran from 615 to 621 on First Avenue North. Although the building was badly damaged by a fire on April 6, 1906, the company made the necessary repairs and continued its expansion.

Fires were a major concern back then. Winnipeg officials tried to close Con’s theater because of fire code violations, but he held them off until he completed construction of the Walker Theater, a modern, steel-frame, fire-proof structure that opened in 1907. He believed the Fargo Opera House was safe because it was made of brick, but on Dec. 22, 1912, it was destroyed by fire. Con planned to rebuild, but sold the land two years later. It is now the site of the Graver building.

Hattie also maintained a hectic schedule. Besides serving as press agent for the chain of theaters, she wrote a regular column, from 1898 to 1913, of theatrical criticism and social commentary for Town Topics, a weekly entertainment paper in Winnipeg. She was a charter member of the Winnipeg branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, a director of the Winnipeg Operatic Society, a founding member of the University of Manitoba Dramatic Society, and a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. Largely through Hattie’s efforts, Manitoba women were granted the right to vote in January 1916, two years before Canada bestowed that right for the rest of the adult women and four years before that right was granted to women living in the U.S.

By 1917, now in his mid-60s, Con decided it was time to concentrate on operating the Walker Theater. He turned over the Fargo printing enterprise to his son Frank and sold or discontinued managing the theaters outside of Winnipeg. This also freed up Hattie to found the American Woman’s Club to aid in the Canadian effort during World War I.

Con was able to attract headliners to the Walker Theater including Harry Houdini, Al Jolson, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Will Rogers. The American touring business declined by the late 1920s, so Con relied on booking major British repertory companies. By the early 1930s, talking movies greatly reduced the appetite for theatrical attendance, and in 1933, Con closed the Walker Theater. In 1936, the building was seized by the city of Winnipeg for back taxes.

When Con died on Dec. 23, 1942, it marked the third sorrowful Christmas for Hattie. The Fargo Opera House burned on Dec. 22, 1912, and the Walker’s oldest son, George, died during the flu pandemic on Dec. 23, 1918. Hattie died on Sept. 24, 1943.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.