Goodbye, old friend

The Paddlewheel and the downtown Bay join Eaton’s in history

By John Einarson

I was saddened to learn of the closing of the iconic downtown Hudson’s Bay Co. store last month. Back in the days when Portage Avenue was the focal point for Winnipeg shoppers and not suburban-based malls, The Bay was always my first choice for clothes. My parents clothed me in Bay threads and as a result, I was a seasoned Bay browser from an early age and the allegiance remained. Every August I would outfit myself in new shirts, ties, slacks, shoes and sports jackets from their second-floor menswear department, ready to start a new teaching year.

But more than shopping for clothes, The Bay’s sixth floor restaurant was my number one downtown destination. The Paddlewheel Restaurant holds warm memories for me and many others.

John Einarson (right) with Burton Cummings at one of the more colourful events to grace The Paddlewheel.

Opened on October 29, 1954 as The Paddle Wheel Buffet, the Paddlewheel’s riverboat and prairie landscape motif, complete with spinning paddlewheel and wishing well, quickly became a popular lunch spot for shoppers. I can recall my mother taking me there as a youngster before I was old enough to go on my own. Initially, unescorted ladies could sit in the Crinoline Court surrounded by a picket fence while the glassed-in elevated riverboat was for several years a gentlemen-only club. The majority of patrons simply took a table in the main dining room. 

For many of us, our earliest Paddlewheel experience was likely dessert glasses filled with Jello (with a dollop of whipping cream) or vanilla ice cream on a shopping break with parents. “When I was young I loved to go with Mom to the Paddlewheel at the end of shopping or after going to a movie,” Lenore Clemens remembers. “It was a big treat to stop there before taking the bus home. I loved the magical paddlewheel and always wanted to make a wish in it.” Adds Kate Ferris, “It was my first experience with a cafeteria. I remember feeling very ‘grown up’.”

By the mid ‘60s the restaurant had taken on a funky chic as a hip Saturday afternoon teen hangout. Plates of French fries smothered in gravy alongside a glass of Coke supplanted the Jello, with Keds and corduroy trousers replaced by Beatle boots and skin-tight Tee Kay jeans. For rock ‘n’ roll-crazed Winnipeg teens, the Paddlewheel was the place to be. Here bands and fans met. “Me and my two best friends would stroll in, sit down and scout out who was there,” recalls Patti Ireland. “There was always a who’s who of band guys. I once saw Burton Cummings sitting there but I was too shy to go over and say anything to him.” In my teens, my friends and I would start our weekly Saturday afternoon music shopping routine with a coke and fries at the Paddlewheel.

From time to time the Paddlewheel hosted live radio broadcasts and teen events (anyone remember Piccadilly A-Go Go?). In August 1971, I played a back-to-school fashion show there with Fabulous George and the Zodiacs. But my ultimate Paddlewheel moment came on the afternoon of June 27, 1987, when the venue hosted the launch of my book Shakin’ All Over: The Winnipeg Sixties Rock Scene sponsored by the Variety Club of Manitoba. At a table near the Crinoline Court, I sat elbow to elbow with Neil Young and Burton Cummings, two Paddlewheel habitués from days gone by, signing copies of the book. It was the last hurrah for the once trendy spot.

Recognizing the nostalgic stature of ‘The Wheel’, local filmmaker Guy Maddin employed the Paddlewheel, complete with references to orange jello, for a scene in his acclaimed film My Winnipeg. By then the restaurant was living on borrowed time.

The Paddlewheel served its final meal in 2013. It was only a matter of time before The Bay’s flagship downtown store would, too, shutter its doors. For me, it’s like saying goodbye to an old friend. 

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