Thursday, June 14, 2012

Clueless in 1927

The St. Jean Baptiste Parade in front of my grandparents' house at 72 Sherbrooke West in 1927, as it is written on the back of the photo.

Today, I read the reports of the 1927 Boyer Commission into the tatal Laurier Palace Movie Theatre Fire that led to a ban on children in Quebec cinemas that lasted for 40 years.

 I wanted to see if I could see any clues that would enhance my Milk and Water story, about a visit by David, the Prince of Wales, to Montreal during a typhoid epidemic.

Nothing I have written in the play needs to be changed; in fact, one of my 'hunches', that the ban on children going to the cinema in Quebec was about politics and not about child safety, isn't really a hunch at all. It's a fact.

The first half of the Boyer Commission was devoted to inquiring into the morality of the movies.

And the usual suspects came forward claiming movies were immoral, mostly clergyman, some educators. The lawyers defending the movie houses claimed that both Churches, as it were, held stock in the major motion picture concerns like Famous Players.

As for the fire itself, well, from all the testimony by firemen and witnesses, it started in a trap door in the 'gallery' (or second balcony) and spread to the balcony that was filled with kids.

It was a minor fire and should not have killed anyone. But no one paid attention to the smoke until 15 minutes later when there were flames, and then there was a crush of bodies down the stairs, suffocating 70 children, mostly young boys.

More than one youthful survivor claimed some mysterious men in coats and hats told them "all was OK" and to go back up to the balcony.

Like in most  cinemas in most jurisdictions across North America, kids weren't suppose to go to movies without guardians but they did and everyone looked the other way, including, in this case, the local constabulary, who all had family passes.

Parents of the victims also gave testimony at the Boyer Commission. Only one parent admitted that he had allowed his child to go the movies. All the others claimed they had thought their children were elsewhere, at church or something, for they didn't condone the movies.

Experts called in said this situation was avoidable and recommended that ALL places where crowds gather, including churches, should have rules regarding the proper evacuation of their premises.

Anyway, I did find what I was looking for, a mention of my grandfather's name. A cop in charge of inspecting theatres says that he once placed a citation against His Majesty's Theatre (a real theatre in 1910) for having a faulty projector and so closed it down, but Jules allowed it to re-open because the projector had been fixed.

All very kosher. Nothing like the testimony given by police during the earlier 1925/26 Coderre Commission into Police Corruption, where my grandfather is said to have rescinded citations against movie theatres that let in under age patrons.

That kind of testimony would have been deadly at this inquiry.

 Hmm. It's all so weird. So Fishy.

 Especially considering that one Constable Conrad Trudeau, who testified at the Coderre Commission against my grandfather, and who was soon fired by my grandfather, warned in 1926  that "One day there's going to be a catastrophe." (Could it be that this infamous game-changing fire was started on purpose?)

This Coderre testimony was printed up in the New York Times in 1926, as it was supplied to Senators  by an Ontario Temperance Guy at their Hearings on Prohibition - as proof that Montreal Civic Politics was corrupt.

And yet it was NEVER brought up during the Boyer Commission, a much more appropriate venue.

And then in 1931 or is it 33, my grandfather's brother Isadore, Vice President of United Amusements, a large theatre chain, falls out of his 7th storey office window. No witnesses, just some story that he was waving a flag to get his chauffeur's attention.

Anyway, safety and morality were two of the reasons cinema was banned to kids under 16 in Quebec. American Influence was the other. Alderman Trepanier, President of the St Jean Baptiste Society supplied testimony

"While we are trying to develop a Canadian spirit, we find that an Americanization of our children is going on through the movies. They see waving of the American flag and other influences not at all conducive to the inculcation of Canadian ideals."

I'm going to read over the articles and see if something jumps out at me, a clue.

Now, the other day I watched It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World on Turner Classics because I recall laughing my head off when I first saw it, in the cinema, in fourth grade. (I don't find it that funny today.) So I was 10. So Quebec kids must have been allowed into theatres at 10, in 1964.

I know they dropped the law for a ratings system in 1967. One of the reasons Boyer gives for supporting a ban is that they don't want to get into censorship issues.