Sunday, June 17, 2012

Where there's smoke...


Laurier Palace Ste Catherine East.

A few years ago, well in 1988 according to the Internet Movie Database, my husband and I went to see a movie called Mississippi Burning.

It was on a very very cold January Saturday night at a now defunct multiplex  in Complex Pointe Claire (I think.)

We went to the 7ish showing and when the movie was over (a good movie) we exited the theatre into an immense crush of humanity. It seems most of the movies (all filled) were finishing at the exact same time. Worse, there was an equal huge inward crush. As it was so cold someone had made the decision to let the later show patrons in early.

Scary.

People just stuck there in place, immobile. Afraid to make a sound lest they provoke panic.  Luckily it was a grown up crowd, and everyone understood the potential danger  of the situation.  It worked out OK, after after what seemed like 30 minutes of standing still pressed front to back, shoulder to shoulder against others in the crowd.

I phoned the Pointe-Claire fire department the next day to complain -but I was told I wasn't the first person.

Anyway, I have just completed a play Milk and Water about Montreal in 1927, when there was an infamous fatal fire in a downtown movie theatre, the Laurier Palace.  My play features a conversation between my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, the Director of City Services and my husband's grandfather, Thomas Wells, the President of Laurentian Spring Water. They are bringing fresh water to the Prince of Wales in a year of a typhoid epidemic.

Jules Crepeau was the first person to testify at the inquest into the fire. Few reporters attended this session. .

A Royal Commission ensued a few months later, where the morality of Hollywood movies was discussed as much as the relative safety of movie theatres.

This Royal Commission resulted in children under 16 being banned from movie theatres in Quebec for a long long time. 40 years or so.

78 children died in the fire, almost all crushed to death in the panic after someone yelled FIRE. (Fireman's testimony regarding this crush was quite gruesome.) The fire was not a dangerous one, and all deaths could have easily been avoided. At least most fireman and police so claimed.

My mother, Jules' daughter, always reminded me that it was illegal to shout FIRE in a theatre. She told me about the Laurier Palace Fire too, saying "babies" were killed, so I always thought little babies in their mothers' arms were killed. But no. Young children were killed, aged 4 to 16. Apparently all young children who were attending the Sunday showing alone. (If adults were with any of these children who were killed, they did not come forward at the inquest. Indeed, all parents save one claimed at the inquest to not have known where their children were that night.)

As I explain in Milk and Water, the ban was a case of 'strange bedfellows' or perhaps just politics as usual. The Nationalists, Big Labour, both Catholic and Protestant churches all agreed that movies created a perversion of morals and disastrous effects. (Well, Big Labour only wanted everyone to have Sunday off and they said Projection Booths were scandalously unsanitary.)

But one group of professionals was not inclined to ban movies to children:

"Principals of the schools were canvassed on the subject of the effect of movies on children: 58 percent hold the opinion that truancy, the lowering of mental and moral tone of the pupils, CANNOT be attributed to the movies. One principal answering questionnaire claimed that progress is helped by the frequent attendance of children at the movies.

Who Wudda Thunk?

A Police official was against a ban, saying the streets, with all the automobiles, were more dangerous for children than properly maintained movie theatres. (Many Montreal policeman held theatres passes for their entire families.) This was probably one reason many parents allowed their children to frequent picture shows. There were so many newspaper articles about children being killed in road accidents. In 1927, cars were taking over from horses in the streets.

When the ban came through in the Quebec Legislature, the Montreal Gazette agreed  with the move, in their editorial column. (Attendance by children of course had already dropped off, due to the fire.)

Children had to be protected from the physical and moral perils of theatres, the Editorial said. And as for those people who believed it is the right of parents to take their children to the movies if they deem it a fit and proper pastime, the editorial stated that the Laurier Palace Fire stands 'as grim proof' of the ineffectiveness of such law.

Sunday closings for everyone, like they had in Toronto, were also debated. Dr. Richie England, President of the Montreal Council of Women, said that the many societies within her association were unable to come to a consensus regarding that aspect of the law. Another person testified that he'd been to Toronto on Sunday and said if the theatres were empty the speak-easies were crammed with people.

Anyway, my mother in law, born 1917, said that in the early 30's, young girls like herself merely dressed up like older women, with lipstick and such, and went to movies, making sure to behave. She once attended a movie in Ontario and was shocked at the way the kids acted out in their seats.

This is proof of the law of unintended consequences.

In my story Milk and Water, I reveal my grandfather's odd part in all this.

It seems at the 1924 inquiry into police corruption in Montreal, the Coderre Inquiry, a certain Constable Trudeau fingered my father, saying he forced policemen to look the other way when movie theatres were letting in under age kids.

(My grandfather's brother was Isadore Crepeau, the V.P of United Amusements, a large chain of cinemas but that wasn't brought up.)

Trudeau is quoted in the newspapers as saying, "Someday there's going to be a catastrophe. Someday a lot of children will die."

My grandfather fired Trudeau on the spot; it was mentioned in the Coderre Final Report.

And then, a while later, a fire...

Oddly, this bit of info was never brought up at the 1927 Inquiry into the Laurier Palace Fire, nor a few years later when new Mayor Camillien Houde forced my grandfather to resign over something he had nothing to do with, the Montreal Water and Power sale.

Suspicious, I'd say.

It seems my grandfather, who died in 1937, run over by an out of work policeman, after negotiating a life huge pension from Houde, probably had something to do with me not seeing a first-run big screen Hollywood movie until 1967...