The first time I set foot in the Royal Albert Arms was in November of 1997, one week after my 16th birthday.
If this were a Sunday, being sixteen years old and in a bar would not have been a problem; the sale of alcohol was still prohibited on Sundays in 1997, and venues like the Albert would hold all-ages shows on Sunday evenings. But this was a weekday show, and therefore 18+.
[related_content slugs=”small-zoning-reforms-could-make-a-big-difference,what-might-have-been-art-deco-at-portage-and-main,lost-winnipeg-osborne-place,ten-best-places-to-get-a-beer-in-winnipeg” position=”right”]
After an unsuccessful attempt at talking the guy working the door into let me in, I walked around to the back of the building through the patchwork of loading alleys and small parking lots in the shadows of downtown’s oldest buildings and newest skyscrapers. A roadie sympathetic to my cause handed me a tour pass and I entered the side door, into a dark barroom where the air glowed with neon lights and blue cigarette smoke.
For one triumphant moment, I was in. Reset — A Simple Plan’s slightly less nauseating precurs0r — took the stage. This was going to be great, I thought. Then I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. It was Wayne Towns, the aging but robust owner of the place. Recognizing me from my early attempt at entry, back to the lobby I went.
There would be many more memorable nights at the Albert for me over the next 14 years, and some of these nights would become the stuff of local legend. But this was only a small part of the history of the Royal Albert, which has operated on that site since the 1870s, when it was a long, wood-frame building that acted as a boarding house and proto-convention centre for the young city. When the current hotel structure was built in 1913, it was a fairly respectable place geared toward visitors on business in the surrounding wholesale district.
Originally, the bar ran the length of the south wall (near the pool tables and sound booth), and a cafe was located under the stain-glass skylights (where the stage and dancefloor are). In the basement was a barber shop, grotto, and a tiled steam bath. Traces of the barber shop are gone, but the latter two are still there, recently serving as storage space.
During Manitoba’s years of prohibition from 1916 to ’23, the backrooms of the Albert operated as speakeasies for downtown’s rakish young business class. Harry Houdini was reputed to hang out there. Surrounded by an entourage of prostitutes, he’d encourage patrons to punch his stomach.
By the 1950s and ’60s, Winnipeg’s young money had moved on to comparatively classy and up-town establishments like the St. Regis Hotel and Conference Centre, and the go-go chic tiki bars of downtown’s new motels.
In these postwar years, the Albert gained a newfound air of bohemianism through the travelling jazz and folk musicians, and Manitoba Theatre Centre actors who would stay there. Among these was Gale Garnett, the velvet-voiced folk singer who made it big(ish) in 1964 with the Grammy-winning song “We’ll sing in the sunshine.”
Ted Allan, who wrote columns for the Free Press in a lavish prose unseen today, described the Albert of the early 1960s as “a sometime refuge for the truly quirky and the harmlessly bent.” Among the travellers and local beatniks, there were, of course, the old winos who lived in the rooms upstairs.
It was this history of a fledgling hipsterdom, the retention of much of its original interior character, and a modest push in the 1970s to turn Albert Street into Winnipeg’s groovy answer to Vancouver’s Gastown, that has always had a small influence on the hotel’s recent trajectory. So too did the sweeping decline of downtown, and the diffusion of an increasingly desperate skid row that engulfed the Albert and other nearby hotels: the Woodbine, the St. Charles, the Leland, and the Criterion.
Bright ideas to redevelop the Albert abounded in the the ’70s and ’80s, but none took off.
With these dualling forces, the Albert seemed like a natural centre for underground music, a marginal industry that found its home in the forgotten corners of North American cities. The Albert was a tough place in a tough town, and soon developed something of a legendary status as much for its seediness as for the bands that graced its stage over the years. Not even the regular presence of Christina Ricci over the summer of 2000 (I think she was dating a guy from Winnipeg then?) could diminish this.
The Albert of the past 30 or so years was a special place that owed its existence in that particular incarnation to a certain set of circumstances: it was an outdated fleabag hotel operated by a permissive owner content with the income earned from selling Extra Old Stock to drunks and punks. It’s a nice arrangement if you like having a place to go crazy on the weekends, but hardly a permanent one.
Owners get older and more tired. Neighbourhoods change. If the Royal Albert as a respectable business class hotel of the 1910s couldn’t last, why would the Royal Albert as a dingy bar and flophouse in the 2010s? Booking punk shows and renting the upstairs rooms by the month does not stay financially viable forever, much less allow for making improvements to a century-old heritage building. Seeing a better opportunity in a healthy real estate market, Wayne Towns sold the place to Daren Jorgenson in 2007.
Among the mistakes Jorgenson made as owner, one was abandoning his early redevelopment plans in order to pander to the whiney punks and provincial hipsters who wanted the place to stay their own grimey little downtown playground ad aeternum. He should have just gone ahead and did whatever he felt like doing.
As a building, the Royal Albert is an important piece of Albert Street, and its fate is a crucial matter. But now, with the bar closing indefinitely for the second time in three years, it’s time to forget about the institution the Albert accidentally became.
Great music scenes are tenacious, and don’t depend on permanent music venues. CBGB’s closed in 2005, and stopped being culturally twenty years before, but New York’s music scene is doing quite alright without it. We’ll all survive without the Albert. There are a number of new spaces across town, including the handful of remaining worn-out hotel dive bars, that are filling the void.
The Windsor on Garry Street has obviously become “the new Albert” in many ways, but there is also places like the Winnipeg on South Main or the King’s on Higgins, both of which have toyed with the idea of booking shows.
If these places aren’t enough to satisfy the sensibilities of a new generation of suburban rebels and authenticity-seeking hipsters, I don’t know what will.
Robert Galston likes to write about Winnipeg, urbanism, and other very, very exciting topics. Follow him on Twitter @riseandsprawl
For more, follow us on Twitter: @SpectatorTrib