By Mireille Mayrand-Fiset
Montreal, Quebec’s largest and most vibrant city, is known internationally for its joie de vivre, its festive ambiance and its open-mindedness. This reputation goes back a long while: from as early as New France, Montreal was known for being a joyful, pleasurable city. In 1721, François-Xavier Charlevoix, first historian of New France, wrote in his Journal of a Voyage Made in North America By Order of the King: “The City of Montreal has a most pleasant quality; is it well situated, well established and well constructed. The beauty of its surroundings, areas and vistas instils pleasure, felt by All.”
Montreal truly discovered its own potential of excitement during the twentieth century. Between the 1920s to the late 1960s, Montreal was one of the most lively, thrilling and somewhat decadent cities in North America. St-Laurent Boulevard, a.k.a “The Main,” was the epicenter of a effervescent nightlife: cabarets, gaming houses and brothels were everywhere, welcoming, at all hours of day or night, a crowd of night birds, many of whom came from the United States or Europe.
Here’s a glimpse at one of the most exciting pages of Montreal’s history; one which largely contributed to its modern uniqueness.
A Brief History of Montreal’s Cabarets
With the Prohibition Act of 1920, many American cabarets went bankrupt, and their artists were out of a job. Perhaps seeing in this situation an opportunity, the Quebec government created La Commission des liqueurs du Quebec, which allowed legal – yet controlled – access to alcoholic beverages for everyone of age. Fuelled by this liberalism and open-mindedness, cabarets started to open in Montreal, concentrated around the southern portion of St-Laurent Boulevard, welcoming, for the most part, artists from the New York scene. Most of the shows featured vaudeville- or burlesque-inspired variety numbers. Many of the performances were critical towards politics in some way. Being irreverent and audacious was the way to go.
Circa 1930, Montreal welcomed an infamous visitor. Texas Guinan — queen of the New York underground nightlife, notorious cabaret keeper and host, actress and singer with a reputation of shouting “Hello suckers!” to audience every time she stepped on stage — came here to inaugurate the Cabaret Frolics on St-Laurent, just north of Ste-Catherine. By coming to Montreal and performing extremely popular numbers, Miss Guinan launched the craze for the Montreal cabaret scene all over North America, and gave it the kick-start it needed. By the 1940s, there were over 30 cabarets in Montreal.
One might think that the end of prohibition in the United States would have been a hard blow on the Montreal cabaret scene. But, in fact, it was quite the opposite. Even if the Americans did desert some of the Canadian establishments, the 1930s were still dynamic years for cabarets, and the industry reached its golden age during the years following the end of World War II.
The number of establishments in the so-called “Red Light district” increased considerably. Fierce competition existed between cabaret owners. These owners had to display originality and inventiveness in order to attract clientele and to convince French and American stars to come perform on their stage. Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf: all stepped onto Montreal stages numerous times.
Au Faisan Doré: French Canadians Join the Fun
So far, the vast majority of performances and concerts were given in English, with the exception of some events that were hosted in French but featured English performances.
Jacques Normand, a famous singer and radio host, founded the cabaret Au Faison Doré in 1947. Normand sought to compete with the English-speaking, vaudeville- and burlesque-inspired cabarets that were already popular in Montreal, and he urged French Canadians artists to step onstage as well. Normand introduced a new concept, something that would be different from all other cabarets, a concept that would attract attention and spectators: he chose to focus only on singing, a first at the time, since all the cabarets featured variety numbers. Singers collaborated with one another, giving the impression of being a family, a community, and they encouraged the public to participate. The success was immediate and electric.
Au Faisan Doré ran for a mere three years. Accusations of corruption and legal problems forced its owners to close in 1950. But those three years were enough to create a phenomenon, and Au Faisan Doré spawned many other similar establishments: Cabaret Montmartre, Cabaret Casa Loma, and Cabaret Café de l’Est soon opened their doors, and many upcoming French Canadian artists debuted there.
The Decline of Cabarets
Rumor had it that the mafia owned most of the “Red Light” establishments. The Comité de la moralité publique de Montréal – literally, the “public morality committee” – held a public inquiry. The inquiry was led by an ambitious and devoted young lawyer, Jean Drapeau, and it resulted in many arrests and the closing of many cabarets, brothels, and gaming houses.
In the mid-1950s, Jean Drapeau ran for mayor and got a mandate. Drapeau claimed he wanted to “clean up” Montreal, and his administration began a fierce battle against “immorality.” Most of the establishments that made Montreal famous did not survive.
The arrival of television in the homes of Montrealers also struck cabarets. All of a sudden, people needn’t go out for entertainment; it was right there in their living room. The public’s interest for live performances decreased considerably.
Even if some cabarets were still active and fairly popular in the 1960s, the industry slowed down drastically, and disappeared completely by the 1970s. Many of the buildings that formed the “Red Light” were destroyed to build the Ville-Marie highway and the Habitations Jeanne-Mance, a complex of low-rent apartments, among other things.
Walking Around Yesterday’s Red Light: What is Left?
If you wish to remember this exciting page of Montreal’s history, there are some sites to check out.
On St-Laurent, just south of Ste-Catherine, the former Crystal Palace — a famous vaudeville cabaret between the 1920s and the 1940s, later turned into a casino by the mafia after World War II — is now Club Soda, one of Montreal’s most popular venues. On Ste-Catherine every weekend, women wait in line at the 281, Montreal’s classiest and popular male strip club. But they probably don’t know that their favorite club was once called Casa Loma, one of Montreal’s most active cabarets, which welcomed international artists such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. And there might not be much to look at when you walk on Clark Street between Ste-Catherine and René-Lévesque, for all the buildings of the area were destroyed. But, back in the 1930s, the area was home to numerous brothels.
Much of the neighborhood has been transformed into the Quartier des Spectacles. Each year, on the Place des Festivals, the city holds its Montreal Jazz fest at the big public square designed to welcome large-scale outdoor concerts. The internationally-renowned festival features the most popular jazz artists of the world. And for two weeks, Montrealers and visitors get to roam the streets of downtown to the sound of music, in a festive, lively atmosphere: perhaps the only time when one can grasp an glimpse of what life was like back in Montreal’s cabarets golden age.
Mireille Mayrand-Fiset is a travel, music and theater enthusiast. She writes for the stage and television, and is working as a freelance blogger for Tourism Montreal.