60 years Ago: Going to the Movies in Montreal

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.

montreal-cinemas
Some theatres of yesteryear
[Note to locals: Was St. Catherine Street two-way back then? It seems so!]
Photo (cc) by Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose
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.

11 thoughts on “60 years Ago: Going to the Movies in Montreal

  1. Our little southern American town had three movie theaters in the ’50s. Since I never went to the movies, I was not aware when the last one closed. I enjoyed your trip through the past, measured in movie houses.

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  2. What a nostalgic post. I grew up in Montreal. For my teen years, I lived around the corner (on Old Orchard) from the Monkland Theatre. When a really popular movie was playing, the lines would snake along Monkland, around the corner and well past our front door. My friends and I would often wait until a showing was over and sneak into the side door on Girourd while the previous crowd was exiting. We caught many 18+ movies that way.

    Going back further, the first movie I ever saw was at the Monkland but I couldn’t tell you what it was. I was around six. It was a western. I also remember in the mid-60s, they would present live performances by kids – Little Players of the Air (I think).

    The Empress/Cinema V was kitty corner to my Dad’s variety store and before it became the Cinema V, there were live performances. For a long while, there was a Vegas-like show (in fact the group was from Vegas) playing called Viva Les Girls. The performers were all staying in the apartment building above our store and we developed a warm connection with many of them. I semi-recently found one of the women online and we caught up a bit. I sent her some photos from back in the day. That would have been the early/mid- 1960s.

    Lots of memories. Lots of stories. Thanks for this. 🙂

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    1. Wow!! Now that is *really* nostalgic!! BTW *my* dad had a store on the corner of Monkland and Marcil, called Monkland Dry Goods. And I *definitely* remember the Little Players of the Air, since we went often – my “cousin” Janet performed with them. This was in the 50s. I don’t remember the Viva Les Girls Group – I guess that was more of a Sherbrooke-street thing, whereas I was more into the Monkland thing. 😀 I’ve written many more such nostalgic posts in my blog. If you go to my “Categories” widget on my front page, right-hand side, and choose 1940s, also 1950s – you’ll see a lot more. Sounds like *you* have lots of memories too – you should start a blog too! Thanks for this great comment!

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      1. Thanks for the response, Ellie. The Les Girls show was for adults but my sister and I were allowed in to see their dress rehearsal. That was quite a kick.

        I do have lots of memories – some of which I have written about in my own blog. Mostly, it’s a photography blog though. I will look into your nostalgic posts. If interested, you can find my blog at thesmittenimage.blogspot.ca.

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      2. Your photos are stunning! So crisp and colourful!! Your porchaloosa reminds me of our Porchfest which takes place in NDG area in Montreal. (Kinda gentrified middle-class.) I couldn’t see anyway to ‘like’ or comment on your post though, which is why I resorted to this. Take care!

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  3. I laughed out loud at the part about the movies from the late 1800’s — 1938! Talk about the days of yore? LOL!!!
    The Witch from the Wizard of Oz traumatized me something awful!! I stayed that way until Mr. Rogers invited the actress that played her to his Neighborhood! Thankfully, he taught us that she was just a very nice lady who used make-up and a scary costume to act like a witch. Ahhhh….I love Mr. Rogers! He’s my spirit guide😂😂😂
    Wonderful post Ellie!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thank you so much, Georgia G.! (My new name for you!) I didn’t have Mr. Rogers on hand to counter the witchy phobia at the time… but hey, I watched him all the time with my kids when they were little. “It’s a beautiful day in the neighbourhood… tra la…” 😀 Thanks for your great comments!

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      1. “Georgia G…..That’s hilarious!
        You mentioned Doris Day, wasn’t she in “With Six You Get Eggroll?” I love that movie. In fact, I love all of those old ’60’s movies like: “Barefoot in the Park,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “Bell, Book and Candle.”
        Oh and Vincent Price is my heart!!!!!
        I really could go on and on about it but I probably should stop myself 🙂

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