The history of animated views cannot be separated from the history of other arts and entertainments, which is in turn closely linked to the history of technology and transportation. The inclusion in the 1870s of the three major Canadian cities – Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City – in the circuits of touring theatre troupes, for instance, was partially a result of the incorporation of these cities into the railway network of the north-eastern United States. In this way, Montreal became one of the only cities in the country to host week-long shows of these theatre troupes in the late 19th century.
Companies based in New York (Broadway, more specifically), where most new shows premiered, controlled most major Canadian theatres at the time. As such, the Canadian entertainment industry was from the outset subject to American control. This system of exhibiting theatrical shows continued to expand until the economic crisis of 1929, which radically changed the entertainment world.
The film industry that emerged at the turn of the 20th century quickly adopted this form of distribution and exhibition. Several of the largest movie theatre chains active in Canada during the silent era – Nickel , Famous Players – were also controlled from south of the border, while the distribution of films depended on the railway network for the transportation of prints.
This surprisingly integrated distribution system of theatre and film productions – a true avant la lettre common market of cultural products – did not completely hinder individual initiatives or the emergence of independent companies. For instance, starting in the late 19th century many Montreal performers and entrepreneurs tried to attract audiences to more marginal theatres by presenting original shows. However, larger companies quickly absorbed these smaller venues as soon as they became successful. In this way, the major companies managed to renew their supply of shows.
Montreal’s bilingualism also made the city fertile ground for developing new shows. Up until the mid-1880s, shows presented in French – whether opera, theatre or entertainment – were produced either by amateur or school organizations. However, beginning in the 1890s many French-speaking performers and business people attempted to establish a professional French-speaking arts and entertainment industry. The idea of founding a professional French-speaking opera first emerged in Sohmer Park, an amusement park operating between 1889 and 1919 south of the current home of Radio-Canada. Sohmer Park, it should be noted, also presented vaudeville shows for many years, as well as animated views from the Historiographe and Fenton’s Kinetograph.
French-speaking theatres began growing in number in 1898. Several Montreal performers wanted to perform in their language before their fellow citizens. With this goal in mind, they drew from several sources—both American and European. In this way, practices and genres which were either ignored or rarely seen on Broadway flourished in Montreal, becoming major successes. One of the first noteworthy breakthroughs was the café-concert, a hit in Sohmer Park from 1889. The main religious dramas were hugely successful – such as such as Julien Daoust’s Passion play in 1903 at the Monument National, often regarded as the first large-scale public success in Quebec theatre (with 40,000 spectators) – as well as the “Revues”, a type of show introduced in 1904 and particular to French Canada. The Théâtre National – the first theatre built in Montreal to house a permanent professional French-speaking theatre troupe – opened in 1900 on St. Catherine St. East (the building still houses the Le National auditorium). Before then, French speakers frequented existing English theatres.
It was thus in this particularly dynamic context that cinema made its appearance in Montreal theatres. Views were presented as curiosities alongside other numbers. The first paying public presentations of the Cinématogaphe were noteworthy in this regard. Beginning in July 1896 in a small theatre on St. Lawrence Blvd. – renamed the Cinématographe Lumière for the occasion (it was located in the still standing Robillard building at 927-976 St. Lawrence Blvd.) – cinematograph shows ran for several weeks and were made up exclusively of animated views.
In Montreal, as elsewhere in North America, animated views in vaudeville (American) or variety shows were immediately successful. Opening in Montreal in 1901, Proctor’s vaudeville house presented from its inception views from William Paley ’s Kalatechnoscope (whose films would also be presented at Bennet’s/Orpheum theatre in 1907). Combined with advances in film technology and longer films, this fervour for the new medium quickly led to greater independence for cinema. Less than ten years after the first views were projected on Canadian soil, in 1906, a new kind of venue dedicated specifically to animated views, called nickelodeons (scopes in French), began to emerge in Quebec. American content was less evident in these establishments, unlike theatres and vaudeville shows. In fact, even though Edison,Vitagraph and Biograph views were very popular at the time, Montreal audiences before 1915 regularly watched French productions from Pathé and Gaumont, as well as others from British, Italian and even Russian companies.
Nickelodeon shows, as well as those offered in movie palaces, which began to spread quickly across Quebec in the early 1910s, are representative of the diversity of popular entertainment forms that were available to the public at the time. Animated views were indeed far from the only attractions offered by movie theatres. For obvious reasons, music occupied an important place in film shows of the silent era. The most prestigious theatres hired known musicians to accompany films, such as the pianist Willie Eckstein , who attracted crowds for nearly twenty years at the Strand cinema in Montreal, as well as his protégé Vera Guilaroff, who worked at the Regent cinema. Pianists working in cinemas rarely performed alone. Several theatres also used xylophonists, drummers and violinists. These musicians were often local celebrities and were frequently promoted in theatre advertisements. Other Montreal musicians who appeared in the press at the time were Henri Miro, Eugene Maynard, Miss N. Mantha, Harry Thomas and Maurice Meerte.
However, musicians were not the only ones accompanying views. Illustrated songs, for instance, were in high demand at nickelodeons, which were often presented during reel changes. Palaces in the 1910s and 20s often presented musical prologues as well. These were especially popular in theatres equipped with organs, such as the Imperial, Capitol and Papineau in Montreal. Several nickelodeons and palaces offered vaudeville numbers in addition to films. In fact, some Montreal theatres, such as the Imperial and Loew’s, specialized in offering vaudeville and animated views in equal measure.
Similarly, silent-era films developed alongside professional sports, which also emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Once again, it was the railway networks which facilitated the formation of professional baseball, hockey and lacrosse leagues. Before professional sports were broadcast on radio or television, journalists from major newspapers were responsible for providing accounts of the games. Journalists quickly learned to relate games in the form of stories, complete with players transformed into eccentric characters. The producers of animated views took advantage of the public’s passion for professional sports, filming actualities of these events. Exclusivity agreements between teams and producers did not exist at the time! A big fan of lacrosse, Léo-Ernest Ouimet regularly sent his camera operators to film games involving the National, a Montreal club of French Canadians.