THANKS for stopping by, I do my best to acknowledge when someone leaves a comment,you do not have to be a member here & everyone is welcome.
Ps: This site is monitored but not actively posting on a regular basis. Mostly these are stories & some photos saved from a defunct site known as Verdun Connections which was on MSN Groups initially then on a social network called Multiply.
Friday, February 27, 2015
Remember When......... A neat story in today's Montreal Gazette Feb27th 2015
Little trace remains of Montreal's glamorous theatre era
There are imaginary ghosts dancing behind the plywood that’s temporarily concealing a vacant storefront on Ste-Catherine St. W. as it undergoes renovation.
They’re the spirits of vaudeville and Hollywood, of stars of first silent and then talking movies, of singers, dancers and “manufacturers of mirth,” as one newspaper reviewer described a pair of vaudeville entertainers, and of generations of Montrealers who flocked to live shows and movie premieres while the location was known as Loew’s Theatre.
You wouldn’t know it today, but the skinny, towering storefront a few metres west of Mansfield St., which most recently housed a Foot Locker shoe store, was once the entrance of a majestic theatre that served as Montreal’s principal vaudeville house and one of its main movie theatres for many years after it was built in 1917.
From west to east, here are some of the old theatres that once lined the street, along with what the sites look like now.
By the end of its reign in the 1990s, the once glorious Loew’s was a five-screen cinema that had been eclipsed by even larger multi-screen movie theatres.
The Loew’s was just one of more than a dozen lost movie and live entertainment palaces that once lined Ste-Catherine, long before Gap and Second Cup made their debuts.
And you wouldn’t know that, either, because the story of Ste-Catherine’s role as a theatre row cannot be found on the street. Unlike Sherbrooke St. W. to the north, downtown Ste-Catherine boasts no historic plaques to point out its landmarks and recount the street’s history.
“It was the Quartier des spectacles before there was Quartier des spectacles,” Heritage Montreal policy director Dinu Bumbaru said of the downtown stretch of Ste-Catherine. He was referring to the name of the entertainment block the city and the provincial government are building around Place des Arts between Ste-Catherine and De Maisonneuve Blvd. east of Bleury St.
On its own initiative, Heritage Montreal installed 19 interpretative plaques along Sherbrooke in 1992 for Montreal’s 350th anniversary. It was an ambitious undertaking for a private, non-profit organization as it sought the cooperation of building owners to put up the plaques. The funding was provided by philanthropist Liliane M. Stewart and a number of foundations. Stewart, who presided the Stewart Museum and the Macdonald Stewart Foundation, died in May.
The downtown theatres were the most important theatres in town. -Dane Lanken
Heritage Montreal also installed 15 plaques around Dorchester Square in 2004. Stewart and the owners of some of the buildings in the area provided the funding.
Now, with Montreal’s 375th anniversary coming in 2017, Bumbaru suggested that the city install historic plaques along Ste-Catherine. Coincidentally, city hall is in the midst of developing a revitalization plan for Ste-Catherine between Atwater and Bleury, which creates an opportunity and a budget for such an improvement, he said.
Ste-Catherine began life as a residential street. It was transformed starting 120 years ago into an artery of grand stores, churches and theatres.
In 1907, the city of Montreal boasted 53 cinema and concert halls and theatres, notes the Répertoire d’architecture traditionnelle, published by the former Montreal Urban Community in 1985. By 1911, the number had grown to 63. Two years later, in 1913, the city had 77 cinemas, concert halls and theatres. The most popular among them were concentrated on the downtown portion of Ste-Catherine.
Today, almost all of Ste-Catherine’s early-20th-century theatres have vanished. Even the buildings that housed the theatres are mostly gone.
Among the only traces of the street’s past are the Imperial theatre, still showing movies on Bleury just above Ste-Catherine, and the theatre hub formed by such venues as Club Soda, the Metropolis, the Société des arts technologiques and the Monument National at Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent Blvd. “The corner of Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent is the only place where you can still feel the concentration of theatre,” Bumbaru said.
Another hint of Ste-Catherine’s connection to old cinema and live theatre is a discreet bronze plaque – again, privately erected – on a building on the southeast corner of Ste-Catherine and Montcalm St., east of the downtown core.
The plaque pays tribute to Léo-Ernest Ouimet, an engineer and projectionist who erected on the street corner what is widely considered to have been the first theatre in Canada built specifically for movies. Ouimet opened the Ouimetoscope in 1906 out of a former recital hall. Soon after, he tore down the building and built a new and fancier Ouimetoscope dedicated to movies, which opened on the same spot in August 1907.
The Cinémathèque canadienne (later renamed the Cinémathèque québécoise) put up the plaque in 1966. A commercial and condominium building sits on the site today.
Ouimet, meanwhile, sold the Ouimetoscope in 1915 and moved to Hollywood. In 1920, he produced a feature film called Why Get Married? that played at Loew’s Theatre in Montreal, author Dane Lanken writes in his 1993 book Montreal Movie Palaces, a seminal work on the history of Montreal’s grand theatres. Lanken’s book also notes the Ouimetoscope may have been the first fancy movie palace in the world, and not just in Montreal.
Lanken was working as a film critic at the Montreal Gazette in the early 1970s when the downtown theatres started to get demolished or have their grand interiors chopped up into multiple cinemas.
Palace theatres were going the way of silent movies decades earlier.
“It was really the end of the line for the big old theatres,” Lanken said in an interview. He spent 20 years gathering photos and conducting research and interviews on the city’s movie palaces for his book.
People by and large lived in very dreary, cold-water flats. But for a quarter, you could go out and sit in this palace. And the doorman would open the door for you, and there would be an usher who would show you to a seat. You were treated royally for 25 cents. -Dane Lanken
Lanken wasn’t the only theatre buff to lament the loss of the palace theatres.
Montrealer Janet MacKinnon, who fought to preserve historic theatres in Canada, documented the significance of this city’s theatres with her organization, Historic Theatres Trust. MacKinnon died in 2011, but the Historic Theatres Trust collection is now housed at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
The theatres’ history, architecture, ownership and size may be recorded, but Lanken says he agrees with Bumbaru’s suggestion to erect plaques at Ste-Catherine’s landmarks to help keep the history alive.
“The downtown theatres were the most important theatres in town,” Lanken said, adding that Montreal’s principal theatres for decades were the Loew’s, the Capitol, the Palace and the Princess, all located within a few blocks of each other on Ste-Catherine.
“From the early days of the movies, probably 1920 or so, until the the system broke down around 1970, movies would play first at one of these four downtown theatres,” Lanken said. “And then they would go out on what were called double bills at what were called the neighbourhood houses, like the Monkland in N.D.G., or the Rialto up north (on Parc Ave.). There were a couple dozen of these theatres in the neighbourhoods, but the prestige place to see a movie or for a movie to open in Montreal was at one of these four theatres. That’s why they were so important. And those blocks (along Ste-Catherine) certainly were the Quartier des spectacles of that time.Most of the early 20th century theatres, such as the Loew’s, offered both films and live theatre. The decorative style of those theatres was classically inspired, based on ancient Greece and Rome, Lanken said. As a result, theatres like the Loew’s boasted columns and plaster low-relief decoration.
“The grandeur of these theatres was an important selling point for them,” Lanken said. “People by and large lived in very dreary, cold-water flats. But for a quarter, you could go out and sit in this palace. And the doorman would open the door for you, and there would be an usher who would show you to a seat. You were treated royally for 25 cents.”
If the theatres had sprouted somewhat organically on Ste-Catherine in the early 20th century, their destruction was in large part due to an under-appreciation of their architecture, decoration and history, Lanken said.
Emblematic of the palace theatres’ plight in the 1970s was the Capitol, on Ste-Catherine just west of McGill College Ave.
Lanken calls the Capitol “the greatest theatre ever built in the city.”
“It was the grandest, the most spectacular and just about the biggest,” he said. “It’s so rare to walk into a room anywhere where there’s 50 feet of space over your head. But you could certainly get that in a theatre like the Capitol.
“A lot of theatres would have walls or columns made of plaster painted to look like marble, but in the Capitol there was real marble. It was a very expensive theatre to build.”
The Capitol was built in 1921 by Thomas W. Lamb, the master theatre architect of New York. Lamb who also built the Loew’s and hundreds of theatres across North America, for the then-new Famous Players Canadian Corp., which would become the largest chain in Canada.
In 1973, the Capitol and its neighbour, the Strand, also owned by Famous Players by then, were demolished to make way for an office tower.
“They thought there was more money to be made tearing down the theatres and putting up buildings,” Lanken said of Famous Players.
It was the era of mayor Jean Drapeau, to boot, so the demolition of the city’s old theatres didn’t seem to bother city officials, he added.
However, they were tearing down Montreal’s collective memory.
In the early 20th century, the city was on a North American circuit for touring vaudeville acts, Lanken said.
Vaudeville shows were a collection of unrelated acts. “It was family entertainment and anybody could go to it,” Lanken said.
The Loew’s in its heyday was the main vaudeville venue in Montreal, putting everything from skaters to acrobats to “comedy dancers” on its bill, along with movies.
Ste-Catherine also boasted burlesque shows, notably at the Gayety, the leading burlesque theatre in Montreal that was built in 1912 at Ste-Catherine and St-Urbain St. Stripper Lili St. Cyr made her Montreal debut here in 1944, Lanken’s book explains. It has been home to the Théâtre du nouveau monde since 1972.
“Burlesque was vaudeville, except that it had a stripper in it and maybe a chorus line,” Lanken said. “And a dirty comedian was a hallmark of it, as well.”
Vaudeville disappeared with the advent of “talkies” around 1929, but the Loew’s continued its program of vaudeville and movies for another decade, Lanken said.
The Loew’s brought American comedic entertainer Red Skelton to Montreal before his rise from vaudeville to radio and television. Another performer to hit the stage at the Loew’s was Sally Rand, whom Hollywood filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille put in silent movies in the 1920s and who was billed as the world’s most famous fan dancer when she appeared on the bill at Loew’s in 1935 with her vaudeville act. It was said to be tamer than her burlesque act, in which she would use two ostrich feathers to playfully reveal parts of her body – minus the naughtiest parts — as she danced to Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune.
By the time Leonard Schlemm was taking his first dates to the Loew’s as a McGill University commerce undergrad in the early 1970s, the theatre was strictly showing movies. But the grandeur and elegance of the theatre hasn’t faded for Schlemm, who opened the Mansfield Athletic Club inside the belly of what used to be the Loew’s in 2005.
The Loew’s had been built for Marcus Loew, who by 1917 already owned 100 theatres across the U.S. and Canada and would later be a co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood. With over 3,000 seats, the Loew’s was the city’s largest theatre when it opened.
In 2001, Club Med World spent $8 million to renovate the then-vacant space and turn it into an entertainment complex. When the venture failed, the property was divided into two lots, one for the former entrance of the theatre on Ste-Catherine, which was rented to a shoe store, and the other for the interior belly, which opens on Mansfield. The Mansfield side remained empty until Schlemm’s real-estate agent scouted it in 2004 as a potential downtown location for the international fitness centre operator to open a new club.
Schlemm had opened a gym in a smaller theatre in Madrid, Spain, and says he saw the potential for the former Loew’s. He bought the nearly 50,000-square-foot lot from a real-estate company that had bought the entire property from Club Med World.
The storefront portion on Ste-Catherine, still owned by the real-estate company, has long since lost the old theatre facade. The construction work going on behind the plywood now is on the modern glass exterior, the borough of Ville-Marie says. The work is being done to make way for a new commercial tenant.
However, the interior of the former Loew’s is still evident inside Schlemm’s Mansfield Athletic Club, including the high ceilings and a mural. Four of the original architectural drawings for the theatre adorn a wall that leads into the workout space.
“Club Med had done an excellent job of refurbishing it,” Schlemm said, adding that the company preserved the decorations from the old theatre.
(Lanken credits architect Mandel Sprachman for his “sensitive” renovation when he was hired in 1975 to split the Loew’s into a five-cinema theatre. Sprachman saved the dome in the ceiling and decorative elements on the walls to make it possible to one day restore the interior to its former glory.)
Schlemm says he likes the idea of erecting plaques for the theatre landmarks along Ste-Catherine. At the same time, he says he recognizes that the city may have other pressing financial needs.
So for now, the preservation of Montreal’s theatre row on Ste-Catherine – its history, its spirits and its few remaining fragments, anyway – relies on the will of individuals such as Schlemm and Lanken.
A more concerted effort is needed, Bumbaru says. After all, it’s a street where an important piece of Montreal’s story may be lurking behind any ordinary-looking storefront.