The inclusion of Montreal in the touring circuit of American theatre troupes, and the fact that Montreal was a very active centre of French-language stage productions, accounts for the surprising variety and considerable number of arts and entertainment venues that competed in Montreal between 1890 and 1930. On St. Lawrence Boulevard, between Viger St. and Pine Avenue, nearly one building in three housed a theatre, cabaret or cinema at one time or another between 1891 and 1950. The same is likely true of buildings on St. Catherine St., between University St. to the west and Panet St. to the east. Between 1900 and 1915, there were an estimated 180 locations for the exhibition of movies and shows in the city. Accordingly, Montreal has been recognized since the beginning of the 20th century for its abundance of these kinds of entertainment venues, the majority of which were situated in the centre of the city and easily accessible by public transportation.
What were these venues like? The majority of the small ones (fewer than 500 seats) were owned by Montrealers who rented them out to local entrepreneurs, usually performers or businesspeople who adapted the location to market trends. The stage and stage equipment were rudimentary. These locations could change vocation – music hall, museum, vaudeville, theatre or movie theatre – five or six times within a few months. The larger venues (up to 1200 seats) were more stable. Either rented long-term by performers, artisans and local entrepreneurs or owned by them, these theatres were more specialized. The largest theatres belonged to American show business consortiums located on Broadway, from where they managed their business. They all had their own theatre in Montreal – Loew’s, the Shubert, Keith Amusement, Bennett, and so forth.
Fierce competition between these groups encouraged investment, which was reflected in the theatres’ lavish decor and impressive size, some reaching a seating capacity of 3000 (for example the Theatre Francais on St. Catherine St., now the Metropolis). French-language venues, owned by local French-language firms, rarely exceeded 1200 seats. The most renowned and popular of them was the Théâtre National, located on St. Catherine St. (near Beaudry St.). When it opened in 1900 it was the first French-language theatre built in Montreal. Seven years earlier, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Association in Montreal (now Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste) opened the Monument National, an imposing building situated on St. Lawrence Boulevard south of St. Catherine St., with the goal of offering the French-speaking community an ample theatre (2000 seats) for social, cultural, festive or “patriotic” activities. Furnished with an Italian-style stage, balcony and boxes, this vast theatre – said to be versatile – became one of the most important theatre and opera venues in Montreal for French-language and Yiddish productions.
Cinema made its grand entrance in Montreal under these exceptionally rich circumstances. The story of its beginnings is well-known. The first screening took place in June 1896 in a small theatre refitted for the screening of “animated views”, the Gaiety Museum & Theatorium, renamed Cinématographe Lumière for the occasion. The theatre was located in the Robillard building, still standing at 972-976 St. Lawrence Boulevard.
The smaller theatrical venues on St. Lawrence Boulevard and St. Catherine St. gradually began to equip their establishments with screens and projectors to take advantage of the growing popularity of cinema. Even the larger theatres, such as the Monument National and the Théâtre National, or the American-owned theatres – Théâtre Français, the Princess, the Theatre Royal, Gayety Theatre and Orpheum – occasionally showed films.
Up until around 1905, cinema lived a nomadic existence, often co-existing with theatre or finding refuge on Sohmer Park’s summer stage. On Sundays (days when theatre performances were prohibited), films were presented in the larger theatres, but most of the time screenings were confined to smaller locations along with vaudeville and burlesque shows.
However, the year 1906 marked a turning point. On January 1 of that year Léo-Ernest Ouimet opened the Ouimetoscope at the Salle Poiré, a café-concert converted into a screening hall for animated views. In the following months many other locations dedicated to animated views – called nickelodeons at the time (scopes in French) – opened in Montreal and soon after elsewhere in the province. In spring 1907, Ouimet’s previous employer, Georges Gauvreau , built a large nickelodeon, the Nationoscope, just a few blocks from the Ouimetoscope. In response, Léo-Ernest Ouimet demolished the Salle Poiré and built a new Ouimetoscope – 1200 seats strong – in its place in the summer of 1907. Expressly designed for showing films, Ouimet’s new theatre was larger than all the other nickelodeons in the province. In fact, it was the largest on the continent.
The Nationoscope and the Ouimetoscope were, however, atypical of nickelodeons of the time. The majority were quite modest, notwithstanding their flamboyant façades that were ornately decorated, sometimes with roman arches. Their entrance led directly into the screening hall, with a space between the last row of seats and the back wall to allow viewers to circulate. This passage gave onto the entranceway and the aisles leading to the rows of seats. Nickelodeons with raked floors often had steep balconies. A finely worked proscenium arch, similar to Italian-style prosceniums, framed the screen. For the most part, however, their interior decoration was very plain.
With cinema’s appeal constantly growing, districts other than and St. Catherine St. began opening nickelodeons (more than 50 between 1905 and 1915). These could be found on Mont-Royal and Papineau streets, in the West Island and in neighbourhoods near the port and train station. Many of them were owned by Greek, Syrian and Jewish immigrants.
Cinema’s greatest breakthrough came in the early 1910s, when it started fully displaying its capacity to attract wealth and opulence. With the nickelodeon wave slowing down, a new one began – that of the “palace”. From 1912 to 1921, six palace theatres – each with 2000 seats or more – were inaugurated in the heart of Montreal, celebrating the triumph of the Cinema. These “super-palaces” – the Imperial (1913), Théâtre Saint-Denis (1916), Loew’s (1917), Princess (1917), Palace (1921) and Capitol (1921) – were distinguished by their monumental architectural style and lavish interior decor. They also had many interior spaces that were meticulously decorated, often with fake marble, for example on the majestic stairways leading to the balcony. Immense chandeliers evoked the splendour of large opera houses. The architects (Thomas Lamb, D. J. Crighton, Raoul Gariépy, Alcide Chaussé) and decorators (Emmanuel Briffa, Guido Nincheri, Anthony De Giorgio) went on to become well known.
While super-palaces dominated the downtown landscape, neighbourhoods gradually began to attract attention from prospective theatre owners as well. Most every Montreal neighbourhood soon had a moving picture theatre, and though they may not have been as massive as super-palaces, they were just as architecturally and decoratively accomplished. This was especially the case with the Rialto theatre (1924) on Park Avenue with its wide neoclassical façade and richly decorated stained glass ceiling. The Seville theatre (1929) initiated the era of “atmospheric cinemas” in Montreal. The Seville was in some ways a “drive-in” theatre before its time, its auditorium creating the impression of being at an outdoor screening in a Spanish plaza. Moving clouds were projected on the ceiling – with tiny inlaid lights simulating a starry night – while lateral walls evoked the fronts of houses. The Monkland (1930) and the Granada (1930 in Montreal; 1929 in Sherbrooke) also adopted this style of decoration.
The town of Outremont was proud to open one of the most beautiful movie theatres on the continent in 1929, the Outremont, which was unique in that it was designed by a Quebec architect, René Charbonneau. This remarkable 1450-seat movie palace was designed in the style of modern art, a first in Montreal. Emmanuel Briffa was entrusted with the interior decoration. Approximately twenty neighbourhood palaces were constructed in Montreal between 1915 and 1930. With seating capacities ranging from 800 to 1500, these theatres marked an early decentralization of mass cultural activities.