Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Strange Case Surrounding the Infamous Montreal Laurier Palace Movie Theatre Fire.

From Jules Crepeau's City Hall File.

"One of these days there's going to be a catastrophe. If a fire breaks out these days, many of those inside will not be able to get out."

These are the prescient words of one Montreal Constable Conrad Trudeau, uttered on December 13, 1924 at the Coderre Probe into Police Impropriety. (Yes, another one of THOSE.)

Trudeau was referring to movie houses, where young children all across the Western World, mostly boys, hung out, despite it being illegal for children to attend movies alone.

Trudeau did not like the motion pictures. He felt that boys picked up bad habits there.

Then, in 1927, just as Trudeau predicted, there was a fatal fire in a movie house on Ste. Catherine Street East. It was the Laurier Palace fire, a real game changer in the province of Quebec, whereupon it became illegal for children under 16 to attend the cinema  even in the company of an adult!

In around 1964, I recall watching the Music Man in the basement to St. Malachy’s church in Snowdon, sitting on a cold concrete floor.

Burnt out Laurier Palace.

Music Man is about 1910 era prudishness and it is this  Protestant prudishness, in part, that led to the Quebec movie ban.

The  Catholic Church, a huge force in Quebec, also had a big part (despite being a big investor in the new mega-cinemas of the era ) along with the French nationalists, who I suspect were worried about the new talkies, and even Big Labour who didn’t want people working on Sundays.  A 360 degree coalition.

My mother had explained to me by the time  I was 10 why I wasn’t allowed into the nearby Snowden theatre.  She described with sadness how ‘little babies’ had died in this big fire in Montreal years before.

I conjured up images of bawling infants in their mother’s arms, but, in reality, the victims were children 4 to 16.

What my mother didn’t tell me, back then in the 60’s, was that her father, Jules Crepeau, as Director of City Services, was deeply entangled in both the Coderre commission scandal and the Laurier Palace Fire tragedy.

At the 1924, Constable Trudeau also spoke out against my grandfather, charging him with wielding too huge an influence over the police, forcing officers to cancel citations against cinemas that had broken the rules.

Trudeau did not mention that my grandfather’s brother, Isadore, was VP of United Theatre Amusements, a huge company in the process of building some of the grand Montreal movie theatres of the era.

A few days later, my grandfather proved the Constable right by having him fired for a bribery incident.

Juge Coderre tore into my grandfather in his final report.

Crepeau family circa 1927 at Atlantic City.

All this got recounted in a full page story in 1926 in the New York Times, because it became part of the testimony at the US Senate hearings into prohibition.

Seventy-two children  died at that Sunday matinee in January, 1927, neither immolated by flames nor asphyxiated just by the smoke, but killed in a huge crush to the door caused by  someone yelling “Fire!.”

Testimony reveals some older kids had time to run up and down the stairs, jumping over some kids, a couple of times. Children escaping the balcony were not allowed to leave, it appears. A mysterious man refused them passage through the lower storey door.

My grandfather was the first to speak about it at an initial inquiry, one that attracted little interest according to the Gazette article.

“Yes,” said my grandfather,  “The Laurier Palace had been delivered a citation for not paying a license fee, but they had paid and the paper work was going through when the fire happened.”

But, soon, with the many  sad funerals that followed, public indignation grew precipitating a public inquiry where my grandfather was called upon once again to testify, this time along with parents, cops and community leaders and even a few theatre owners.

Many policemen lost their children in the fire: they had been given free tickets by the movie houses.

During this second inquiry, the movie houses were condemned, not only as dangerous fire-traps, but as immoral agents.  There was a hint of anti-semitism about the proceedings.

School principals, counter-intuitively, stood up for the cinema, one claiming that children’s learning was enhanced by the movies.

Suspiciously,  no one brought up Constable Trudeau’s 1924 testimony at these 1927  hearings.  This time, my grandfather got off unscathed. (WHOOPS! (added on 11/2016. According to a bit re-published in Le Devoir, 2010, from January, 1927 that paper re-published some of Constable Trudeau's testimony, the part mentioning my Grandfather - and how he thought kids picked up bad habits at the movies. THey did not seem to reprint his prescient words: One day there's going to be a catastrophe, or mention the fact that Trudeau was fired by my grandfather, for bribery, right after he gave testimony.)À l’occasion du sinistre du «Laurier Palace», il est intéressant de relire la déposition de l’agent de police Conrad Trudeau lors de l’enquête de la police présidée par le juge Coderre:

Grandpapa’s big career would end a few years later in 1930, when new Mayor Camillien Houde forced him to resign, over a Montreal Water and Power money-flip that cost taxpayers  4 million; one that was brokered by the big English industrialists of the era.

Jules should have informed the hapless aldermen of City Hall that the people were being swindled, so the story goes. (Read about it in Milk and Water.)

Houde gave an impassioned speech at a City Hall debate over my grandfather’s resignation (his lower dentures flew out, apparently, and he deftly caught them and popped them back in) “People want revenge for the Water and Power scandal, “ he said. “They also want revenge for the Laurier Palace Fire.”

Funny that Houde brought that up, right then. I think, anyway.

27 alderman voted to accept my grandfather’s resignation, 8 ( Jewish aldermen among them) didn’t.
My work-a-holic grandfather, 60 years old and in perfect health, would leave City Hall, still the second highest paid employee with  a huge pension of 8 thousand a year.

In 1937, during the Great Depression, he was run over by an off-duty policeman on Royal in NDG .  He died a little later from complications from the X-Rays he received for his broken bones.

His brother, Isadore Crepeau,VP of United Amusements, a large cinema company, had died four years before, falling out his 7th floor St James Street office window!