For us moviegoers who were in the vanguard (arguably 1945 – 1955) of the babyboomer generation, it seemed that Montreal was overflowing with movie theatres.
I can still remember the radio commercial that used to come on CJAD while I was dressing to go to school, circa 1954-55: “The Loew’s, the Capitol, the Palace, aaaand the Princess!” – as the list went from west to east along our busy downtown thoroughfare, St. Catherine Street.
I will not pretend that this short blog post is the definitive guide to Montreal cinemas of yore. For that, you might want to check out Dane Lanken’s opus, Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938. Mind you, his list stops with 1938.
But I can only speak to the theatres I remember first-hand, the glorious places etched in my childhood memory, before many of them started to crumble like the old Seville Theatre (where my aunt took me on my 11th birthday to see Johnnie Ray live!) or the late and much-lamented Cinema V, formerly the Empress.
The first movie I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz – I was only five, so it couldn’t have been when it first came out, because it opened in 1939 but I was born in ’45. I can’t recall where we saw it, but I do remember being terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West, and coming home with a high fever and chills!
Next I remember seeing a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza, The Greatest Show On Earth. I couldn’t have been more than seven. I only was allowed in because my dad knew the manager of the Monkland Theatre (now defunct) where it was playing. At the time, a moviegoer had to be at least 16 years old – due to a law that had been passed as a result of the terrible 1927 tragedy when 78 children died in a fire at the Laurier Palace Theatre.) Many years later the law was lifted. Now of course there’s a rating system so that kids can get in to certain movies but not others based on content (violence, sexuality, etc.).
I remember going with my parents to many more movies at the Monkland, usually comedies starring Doris Day!
As I moved into my early teens, my friends and I would go to movies together, after first ascertaining which theatres were “easy” to get into (the age law was still a barrier). The “easier” theatres were not in the downtown area. They included the Outremont, the Rialto, and the Regent, to name a few.
Once we attained the magic age of 16, the Montreal cinema world was ours! We’d either trek downtown to see a blockbuster or we’d visit cinemas closer to us, such as the Kent, the Monkland, the Van Horne, the Avenue, the Westmount, the Claremont, the Snowdon… so many many many… all gone now.
Hardly any remain. What killed the movie theatres? VCRs and home videos played a huge part. Why schlep out to see a movie, with all the expenses and hassle of traffic, parking, babysitter, tickets, snacks? Yes, the cinema screens were bigger, but… well, now that’s not necessarily a big-enough draw. Not when you can buy home-theatre televisions with screens of 60 inches!
And yet. I miss those magical movie theatres. I miss those days of old.
*****LATE EDIT: I just realized that the tragic Laurier fire took place exactly 90 years ago today. So so sad.