Quebec society was still largely divided between two worlds at the beginning of the twentieth century: men at work and women at home. The effects of such a division were obviously visible in public spaces and entertainment venues. Though housewives could easily venture into the city to shop in boutiques and department stores in the afternoon, women risked their reputation if they attended theatres or burlesque shows alone. A male companion was necessary during such outings.
Important class divisions overlapped this split between men and women. The middle class was rapidly expanding at the turn of the twentieth century, and many of its new members, in their desire to express their newfound social status, preferred to maintain a certain distance from places frequented by the working class. Such divisions were found elsewhere: taverns for working-class men, tearooms for middle-class women, clubs reserved for the upper class, and so forth.The First Audiences
The first places and settings where animated views were screened were not accidental. The first projections were presented to audiences largely made up of important people in order to seek their approval. Thus, during the first Cinématographe Lumière projection in Montreal, Louis Minier and Louis Pupier invited the mayor, Richard Wilson Smith, the Archbishop of the Diocese, Bishop Paul Bruchési, directors of schools and other institutions, as well as many journalists.
Over the following years, until 1905, animated views were shown to a wide variety of audiences in different settings. Mutoscopes located in arcades on St. Lawrence Blvd., for example, attracted a largely male, working-class audience to views of a bawdy nature, such as the American Mutoscope and Biograph production The Birth of the Pearl, inspired by Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Theatres, whose high price of admission initially excluded the working classes, offered the latest actualities and fiction films to their middle-class audiences. The Queen Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre and Windsor Hall had regular screenings in Montreal around 1900. In Quebec City, the Auditorium (later named the Capitol) also showed views on a regular basis.
Amusement parks and vaudeville theatres, two forms of entertainment to have emerged in the late nineteenth century, played an important role in producing “mass audiences”, which after 1905 would become movie theatre audiences. Audiences comprised of men and women, white-collar and working classes already existed in 1900, for instance in Sohmer Park, where Viscount d’Hauterives presented his Historiographe show and Léo-Ernest Ouimet began his career. The same trend was true of Proctor’s vaudeville theatre, opening in 1901, where one could watch William Paley’s Kalatechnoscope projections.
The entertainment industry soon realized at the turn of the twentieth century that the key to success was in creating shows and attractions that were both inexpensive (in order to attract working-class audiences) and conformed to bourgeois morality (so as not to alienate the middle class). Advertisements for entertainment venues constantly reminded people that their shows were respectable. At the opening of Proctor’s vaudeville hall in 1901, for instance, La Presse reported “People think . . . that to be interesting, a variety show has to be coarse or vulgar, and so conclude that we should not take young women and children. Proctor’s shows are unqualified proof that this theory is false. The show was certainly moral, not vulgar at all, and yet very interesting.” (March 5, 1901: 7).Nickelodeon Audiences
In 1906, the first halls giving animated views top billing began to appear in Quebec – “nickelodeons”. At usually five or ten cents per ticket, admittance to these venues was affordable to everyone. Some Quebec nickelodeons, foremost among them Léo-Ernest Ouimet’s Ouimetoscope and Georges Gauvreau’s Nationoscope, still made a great effort to attract audiences as much from the middle class as from the working class. This differed from American nickelodeons, whose clientele was mostly working class.
From the outset, nickelodeons were frequented by audiences from every social class, made up of men, women and children. Despite the precedent set by amusement parks and vaudeville, the mixed nature of these audiences created unease for some. Many women refused, for instance, to remove their hats. For them, the value of these outings was as much to see as to be seen. Very large hats were in fashion at the time, however, leading some spectators – mostly men – to complain that hats were obstructing their view. So it came to pass in the fall of 1907 that the Albertine Barry ‘affair’ divided Montreal. Miss Barry, a journalist known in Montreal under the pen name of “Françoise”, sued the officer who forcibly expelled her from the Ouimetoscope because she had refused to remove her hat. The magistrate in charge of the case sided with Miss Barry: taking off your hat in a theatre was a matter of courtesy, not law, he said.
A few months later, the Ouimetoscope was embroiled in another case. This time it was a former employee, the singer Marcel Fleury, who sued the establishment for wrongful dismissal. Ouimetoscope managers justified the firing, explaining that Fleury had sung the following vulgar refrain during a show: “It’s astounding, my poor girl, the big hump I had on my back, you now have in front.” One of the theatre managers said during the trial “the Ouimetoscope audience is made up of petty-bourgeois and office employees, not workers like at the Bourgetoscope in St. Cunégonde”. A quick glance at a photograph of the Ouimetoscope auditorium seems to confirm this view: nicely dressed people, as stylish as for a visit to the photographer. It is important to recall, however, that both the statement and the photograph reflect the ambitions of the management and may not have been actually true of their clientele...Neighbourhood Palaces and Cinemas
The arrival of palaces in the 1910s increased the appeal of cinema for the middle class. This new kind of theatre also restored certain barriers between different classes of audiences. Palaces, unlike most nickelodeons (though not the Ouimetoscope), offered a variety of seats. Audiences from more modest backgrounds made their way to the cheaper balcony seats. More affluent audiences could afford floor seats, or even the box seats boasted by some palaces.
This segregation of audiences according to class also played out in geographical terms. Distributors rented their films first to luxurious downtown palaces. The more modest movie theatres in outlying neighbourhoods did not see these prints until several weeks or months later. Therefore, while wealthier people made their way to comfortable palaces downtown and watched premieres accompanied by orchestras, many people saw the same movies several months later in less comfortable theatres accompanied by a single pianist. Moreover, after having been subjected to intensive use for several months, the prints were often scratched, dirty and full of poorly repaired breaks.
The conduct expected of audiences in a neighbourhood theatre was not the same as for palaces. It was as much the luxurious decorations of palaces as their high number of employees that imposed certain standards: it was frowned upon, for example, to sing or read the intertitles of films aloud. This wasn’t the case in neighbourhood theatres, where a certain level of interaction with the shows and among the crowd was tolerated.
The atmosphere was also much friendlier, with audiences taking advantage of the outing to socialize. One can easily imagine as well the disorder of neighbourhood theatres on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when many overwhelmed parents sent their children to the theatre to get a moment of respite. The provincial law of 1911 stipulating that children under fifteen years old had to be accompanied by an adult to be admitted to the cinema was only rarely applied. However, this tendency would have disastrous consequences in the Montreal’s new de Maisonneuve district on a certain Sunday, on January 9, 1927 ...