Inaugurated in 1912 and located on St. Catherine St. E. (on the north side, between Dézéry and Préfontaine), in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district, a French-speaking, working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Laurier Palace remains the most infamous cinema in Quebec history.
The Laurier Palace was typical of the era of “scopes” (nickelodeons) and could accommodate up to a thousand spectators in seats with wooden backs. It had a relatively austere horseshoe balcony and did not, despite its name, have the decorative and architectural richness of the major Montreal movie palaces that would emerge a few years later. The Laurier Palace was part of a small chain of cinemas in Montreal (with the Dominion, King Edward and Maisonneuve cinemas) operated by the Lawand family.
On Sunday, January 9, 1927, while nearly three hundred youths from the neighbourhood, aged 4 to 18 years, were crammed into the balcony of this small theatre, a minor fire broke out in the balcony, caused most likely by a match or poorly extinguished cigarette. Although a minor fire, it caused a panic among the young people. The children rushed down the stairs, but the ticket collector, having lost his nerve, ordered them back. It was mayhem. Those sent back collided with those still trying to rush to the exit. Despite the rapid intervention of fire fighters, who managed to contain the fire (direct damage caused by the fire was relatively minimal), the result was that seventy-seven children became trapped in the stairway, and died either trampled or from suffocation.
This terrible tragedy had a tremendous impact. Fifty thousand Montrealers attended the funeral and many theatres and cinemas were closed temporarily. Some never reopened. The commission authorized to investigate the causes of this tragedy, led by Justice Louis Boyer, submitted various recommendations that became the basis of the law adopted on March 22, 1928 by the Taschereau government. This law required that theatres have emergency exits that could be opened from the inside at any time, redefined the dimensions of the areas in which people moved and prohibited children under 16 years from movie theatres, whether they were accompanied by an adult or not. This last measure remained in force for forty years.