Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Respectable Nickelodeon 1909




There's an advertorial piece in the 1909 Montreal Gazette on the Nickel, a moving picture show house that aspired to respectability.

Well, as it so happens,  in a 1909 Nicholson Family Letter Margaret Nicholson writes to her daughter Marion. "Aren't you gay, going to the Nickel to see Man in the Box.".

Man in the Box, ironically, featured Mack Sennett, a Richmond Quebec native, in its cast.

The Nickel promoted itself as an upper class nickelodeon, with no questionable movies,and no questionable clients.

A good place for a school teacher to go if she must attend a 'photo-play' as movies were sometimes called.

The Nickel was clean and orderly and claimed to be routinely inspected by the Board of Health. (This tells you what problems Nickelodeons had and were perceived to have.)

Oh, and the place had nice leather seats too. (For comfort or for cleanliness?)

All this for the cost of a nickel. It was on Bleury and St. Catherine, near where Marion had a room for a while.

Of course, the movies were considered low-brow by many people, even immoral by some.

 "I do not want to condemn all motion pictures'" says one clergyman in Montreal, "but we cannot be blind to the fact that the highest things are presented in a light and demoralizing fashion."

And if  the motion pictures themselves were not deemed all that bad, the locales were. The buildings and rooms in which these silent films were shown were often dingy and dark, not to to mention frighteningly democratic spaces where anyone of any class or background or age could commingle.




In 1909, in Montreal,  the key controversy around motion picture houses centered on Sunday showings. Some movie houses stayed open on Sunday, despite the newly minted Lord Day's Act, a law the Church and the trade unions pushed through a year before.

The problem is, if you give people the day off they need something to do.

That's exactly what Monsieur Ouimet, proprietor of the huge Ouimetoscope on Ste. Catharine, argued at various hearings into this matter.

Ouimet said Sunday was his most popular day. He said nuns brought their charges to the pictures shows, too.

And since most working people had little spending money, they needed their outings to be inexpensive. The Motion Picture House fit the bill, all right.

According to another 1909 article, one that listed some 25 venues defying the Lord's Day Act, (which  the spiffy Ouimetoscope) there were 75 motion picture venues in Montreal in the era, all clustered on Notre Dame, St. Catherine and St. Lawrence  streets.

Fire was a danger in these places. The film could burn up. (We've all witnessed that, if we are Boomers.)

 In 1927 a terrible fatal fire did occur in a Montreal movie house , the Laurier Palace, at a Sunday Matinee filled with unattended children, mostly boys, that caused the Province to ban children from attending motion pictures, even in the company of a parent.

So, my brothers and I weren't allowed to go to movies as children. Of course, we kids often found ways around the ban. The ban was lifted only in 1967.

Marion Nicholson (bottom) went to the Nickel in Montreal  to see Man in a Box, with Mack Sennett, a local boy, whom she probably didn't recognize. He had changed his same from Sinnott. Norman, her dad, had sold grain to the elder Sinnott in the old days.

My grandfather, Jules Crepeau the Director of City Services, was the first to give testimony at the 1927  inquiry into the infamous fire.

 He said the Laurier Palace was open without a license, but it was all just a formality. They hadn't paid their taxes on time.

(After researching my grandfather's life, I am not entirely sure the fire wasn't started on purpose to get him. Read Milk and Water or other posts on this blog.)

According to one era article, there were 6000 nickels in the US in 1908, where in 1904 there were none and according to another era article, over 6 billion admissions were made to nickels in the US in one year, around that time.

We talk about the incredibly fast rate of change, today, especially with respect to entertainment technology, but REALLY, back then the motion picture changed a whole lot about ordinary life.

With respect to middle class women like Marion, who couldn't go to the low brow places, the honky tonks, or too often to the theatre or opera, it really opened up their lives.

They started going to the 'movies' regularly during WWI. And yes, they started calling the cinema  'the movies' at that time too.

The movies took away from their church time. They still went to church, but just once a week and not twice a day as had been the case back home in Richmond.

No wonder so many clergymen railed against the motion pictures: it was taking away their job. 

In the 1910 era,  group of businessmen was trying to raise public money to start a Montreal Motion Picture Chain, to cash in on the new 'fad'.

United Amusements was soon established and my grandfather's brother, an insurance salesmen, eventually became V.P.

This was very useful for the chain considering my grandfather's key post in Municipal Government.

During a 1925 inquiry into police corruption, the Coderre Inquiry,  a policeman, Constable Trudeau, fingered my grandfather, accusing him of forcing police to look the other way when it came to motion picture houses letting in under age patrons unattended.


It's all  very suspicious too, considering the circumstances surrounding the Laurier Palace Fire.