SPARROW, JOHN BOLINGBROKE (baptized John), merchant, theatre manager, and impresario; b. 12 April 1852 in St Catharines, Upper Canada, son of George Sparrow, a businessman, and Catharine Edwards; m. 6 Aug. 1877 in Montreal Elizabeth Cater, the under-age daughter of James Cater, a hotel-keeper, and Philomene Scott, and they had one daughter and three sons; d. 26 Feb. 1914 in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., and was buried the following day in Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal.
John Bolingbroke Sparrow left his home town around 1876 for Montreal, where he opened a fruit store at the corner of Rue de Bleury and Rue de La Gauchetière, beside a bill-posting business that belonged to James Cater, his future father-in-law. He went into partnership with Cater the following year but kept his store until 1880. His career in the sign business brought him into contact with many English, American, and Canadian theatre people, and thus led him to go into show business himself. In the 1879–80 season he succeeded Kate M. Buckland [Horn*] as manager of the Theatre Royal on Rue Côté.
Sparrow rose rapidly in the world of show business, especially after entering into partnership with the American impresario Henry R. Jacobs in 1884. The firm of Sparrow and Jacobs made the Theatre Royal a Mecca for low-priced melodrama and vaudeville where the likes of Tony Pastor, Maggie Cline, Joe Weber, and Lew Fields performed. After a brief experiment with the Royal Museum Pavilion from 1883 to 1885, the two partners operated, in addition to the Theatre Royal, the Queen’s Theatre from 1891, and the Academy of Music from 1896.
In 1897, however, this profitable association came to an end. Sparrow gained ownership of the firm’s Canadian interests. He then joined a famous American theatre trust known as the Syndicate, which gradually extended its hold over the majority of American and Canadian theatres. Taking his cue from this powerful organization, Sparrow soon had a monopoly of the most important halls in Montreal. By 1904 he controlled not only the Theatre Royal and the Academy of Music, but also the Théâtre Français and His Majesty’s Theatre. His empire extended to Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, and even New York. He reorganized his firm that year under the corporate name of J. B. Sparrow Theatrical and Amusement Company and left the managership of the Montreal Bill Posting Company, which he had held since 1881.
Sparrow’s affiliation with the Syndicate was not without problems. In 1908 he was accused of competing with the Eastern Circuit Association in Boston, and his manager, William A. Edwards, was expelled from that organization, while a number of American companies cancelled their appearances at his Montreal theatres in reprisal. Sparrow sued the Eastern Circuit under the American antitrust law in the New York City district of the state’s Supreme Court and was awarded damages. These difficulties seemed to have no negative effect on his prosperity, since his company declared a capital of $339,000 in 1910.
Fond of hunting and fishing, Sparrow forgot his worries at his second residence in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, where he spent most of the year after his health began to fail in 1913. There in February 1914 he succumbed to dropsy complicated by a heart attack. The simple funeral ceremony he had wanted was held there as well.
Although he was formidable in business, Sparrow showed his charm in social life, keeping open house in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts or entertaining theatre people and journalists at the Hôtel Péloquin in the Montreal suburb of Sault-au-Récollet (Montreal North), where he was always “the life of the gathering.” The monopoly held by Sparrow’s enterprises and their connections with the New York Syndicate were instrumental in making Montreal a showcase for Broadway. Indeed, the city served as a locale for trial runs of productions that were later staged in the American metropolis. The widest diversity of genres was performed in his theatres and most of the American stars of the day played there. Of particular note was Sparrow’s role in bringing American musical comedy to Montreal. His unerring instinct, keen marketing sense, and great adaptability made him one of the most influential figures of his generation in the entertainment business.
AC, Montréal, Minutiers, Emmanuel L’Archevêque, 5 août 1877; Terrebonne (Saint-Jérôme, Qué.), État civil, Anglicans, Holy Trinity Church (Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts), 27 Feb. 1914. ANQ-M, CE1-66, 6 août 1877. St George’s Anglican Church (St Catharines, Ont.), Reg. of baptisms, 9 May 1852. Montreal Daily Star, 26 Feb. 1914. Mireille Barrière, “La société canadienne-française et le Théâtre lyrique à Montréal entre 1840 et 1913” (thèse de