The very first film ever projected in North America for a paying audience was shown in this building – l’Édifice Robillard (standing yet abandoned at Viger and the Main) – on either June 27th or June 28th of 1896, one-hundred and twenty years ago.
Montreal would beat Manhattan for the North American premier of cinema by just two days.
The projection was organized by Louis Minier and shown at the Palace Theatre on a screen no larger than a beach towel. The evening’s entertainment featured ten short films – at the time, essentially the only ten films there were to watch – all between 38 and 49 seconds in length. They were the films of the Lumière Brothers catalogue, and included moving images of people exiting a factory, a street scene of a Parisian city square, a train, a ship and what is arguably the first ever comedic film, that of a child playing a prank on a gardener, resulting in the latter getting sprayed by his own hose.
The Palace was a modestly-sized vaudeville theatre with three-hundred seats. Its typical fare included singers, dancers, soloists or small musical ensembles, comedians and magicians. Four years earlier, the Palace was known as the Gaiety Museum and Theatorium (no I’m not making that up), which included both a museum of ‘curiosities’ (mostly wax figures) and a small theatre. A demonstration of cinema would certainly have been curious by the standards of 1896.
Why the Palace was the chosen location of the first public film projection in all of North America isn’t entirely clear. There were several larger performance venues at the time – the Monument National would have been brand new and much, much larger, not to mention just up the street. Perhaps the Palace was simply all Minier could afford to rent to demonstrate what would have been a suspect new technology.
Within ten years of film’s local debut our city boasted the first dedicated movie theatre in Canada.
The Grand Ouimetoscope, named for its proprietor, the early Canadian film pioneer Léo-Ernest Ouimet, had over 1,000 seats. It was richly decorated; ornate and impressive. In the early days of the art form, a night out at the cinema was serious entertainment, and luxurious purpose-built movie theatres would soon become the norm.
As it happened, the birth of cinema coincided with Montreal’s evolution into a modern North American city. Given the immense popularity of the new art form it might not surprise you to learn that at least one hundred small single-screen largely storefront cinemas opened in Montreal in the first three decades of the 20th century. More significantly, between 1884 and 1938 forty-two opulent ultra-luxury high-capacity theatres were built in our city, nearly all of them in competition with one another to produce the most exquisite viewing experience possible. These were our ‘movie palaces’ – richly decorated single-screen cinemas that featured design elements carried over from the grand tradition of European theatre design.
42 movie palaces… for comparison’s sake, consider that there are only 40 registered Broadway theatres operating in Manhattan right now.
There were three main design phases roughly covering the period 1880 to 1940; the first phase was the most directly inspired by classical theatre design and featured Beaux Arts design influences. The second phase represents the ‘atmospheric theatre’ movement, in which the ceiling of the main hall was decorated to look like a night sky and the interiors decorated to give the impression of a courtyard in an exotic locale. These theatres contain Art Nouveau design influences and were among the most innovative in the city. The third phase theatres tend more towards Art Deco designs and decoration, and unlike theatres of the earlier generations were often designed from the outset to feature films exclusively.
Our city at one point not only boasted forty-two movie theatres from all three of these important design phases, it also happened to have some of the very finest examples in existence anywhere in the world. Even more significantly, they were designed, built and decorated almost exclusively by Montrealers and represent a massive body of work that’s been almost entirely erased from history. The lifetime achievements of architects, theatre designers, interior decorators, painters, sculptors and myriad other artisans… and there’s very little left for us to enjoy today.
As hard as it might be to believe today, Saint Catherine Street was once – not too long ago – lined with extraordinary theatres, such as in the photo up top. They were large, very large in fact, some with seating in the thousands. They were richly decorated, multi-functional, and for most of their lives popular attractions that provided exceptional economic stimulus to entire commercial thoroughfares all over the city.
In sum, if you ever wondered how Montreal earned its reputation as a hub of exciting nightlife, it’s largely thanks to these theatres and the culture of live entertainment they stimulated.
As incredible (if not unbelievable) as this all might sound, what’s truly stupefying is how many of these monumental establishments were destroyed without the slightest effort by the city to protect them. In one embarrassing episode, the City of Montreal designated one of our now lost movie palaces as a heritage site several weeks after it had already been demolished. And that’s just one example of over a dozen instances in which public opposition to theatre demolition fell on deaf ears. Of the four grandest, largest movie palaces to have ever existed in our city – the Capitol, the Palace, the Princess and the Loew’s – only the last remains, and today it serves as a private health club.
The rest were simply gutted and/or razed to make way for shoe stores or office space. The loss to our city and its cultural vitality is incalculable, and what’s particularly maddening is that those which survived to today largely serve as live performance venues, something we’re generally in short supply of. In one case the city proposed opening an opera hall across the street from where ten years earlier a massive theatre stood, yet the city did nothing to save that structure from the wrecker’s ball.
It goes on like this. So little effort was made by the municipal authority to save these buildings it really makes you wonder how a collective of people could be so collectively myopic for such a long time. Public opposition to these demolitions was generally high and sincere efforts were made to save them, though more often than not these efforts were undermined by uncaring or disinterested municipal officials – up to and including those for whom culture and heritage was a direct responsibility.
In two particularly tragic examples, beautiful theatres that today would be full every night were left to rot for decades, public money used to prop-up what private funds ought to have been responsible for. And in these two cases, the loss of the theatres would result in a ‘trickle-down’ effect leading all adjoining businesses to fail.
That this process has happened more than twice within recent memory should be alarming. That it’s happened perhaps a dozen times makes you wonder whether the City of Montreal doesn’t have an established vendetta against old theatres.
And yet, our present situation might surprise you.
In 1993 former Montreal Gazette film critic Dane Lanken published Montreal Movie Palaces, a retrospective on Montreal’s palatial movie theatres. Though it is not an exhaustive list of all the theatres built in our city during that time, Lanken’s list is essentially complete at least as far as the most historically, architecturally and aesthetically significant of vaudeville theatres designed during the early golden age of film are concerned.
Lanken’s book has a very pessimistic conclusion, and indeed the theatre situation in 1993 didn’t leave much reason to be optimistic. The preceding three decades had witnessed countless theatres destroyed, gutted and/or converted, while others sat empty and abandoned, with myriad new multiplexes springing up throughout the expanding residential districts to replace them.
What’s happened since is nothing short of remarkable. In 2016, Montrealers can be very cautiously optimistic about the fate of our remaining movie palaces, few though they are. Several theatres that were in serious danger of being destroyed in 1993 or had otherwise been abandoned for many years are today vibrant sources of performing arts, culture and entertainment. The Corona, the Rialto and the Outremont, to name just a few, had been in a very precarious state up until quite recently. In other cases, notably with regards to NDG’s Empress Theatre, citizens have taken matters into their own hands in an effort to rehabilitate that unlisted heritage site and bring what the aforementioned theatres provide the Mile End, Plateau, Ville-Marie and Little Burgundy to Montreal’s theatre-less West End. You can find out much more about the Empress project here.
I’ll be continuing this series over the next month or so; what we’ve lost is irreplaceable and unfortunate if not hopelessly foolish – I have a hard time believing any other city in Canada would have been so careless with so many exceptional theatres. That being said, no other city in Canada – not even Toronto – has ever had as many theatres as we have had and continue to have access to.