Monday, November 14, 2016

Stranger Things: 1927 Montreal

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!

Burnt out Laurier Palace.

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.


Back in the 1960's, my mother explained to me  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 Beatles Era, was that her late father, Jules Crepeau, as Director of City Services in the 20's, the top ranking civil servant, was deeply entangled in both the Coderre commission scandal and the Laurier Palace Fire tragedy. 

At the 1924 inquiry, 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, whose job it was to police motion picture houses, also said "les theatres de)United Amusements» n’attiraient que des sentences suspendues ou $5. 

He 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. (Trudeau was clearly corrupt; he had 'lent' money to the Chief, large sums, many times, as a friend. LOL. But, it wasn't for favors, he said. "I am still a constable, after all" he cheekily told the Court. I know for a fact, from the grandson, that one lowly constable back then owned four homes.)

Still, Juge Coderre tore into my grandfather in his final report. The Chief of Police had testified  that my grandfather was his boss. Coderre wrote he could not see in The new 1921 City Charter how my grandfather had power over the police.

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 by smoke, but killed in a huge crush to the door caused by  someone yelling “Fire!.” 

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.

May 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.  However, Le Devoir reprinted some of Trudeau's testimony right after the fire saying this:

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:

This according to a bit re-published in Le Devoir, 2010, that is online.

The paper did not seem to reprint Trudeau's prescient words: One day there's going to be a catastrophe, (maybe they were expunged from the record) or mention the fact that he was fired by my grandfather, on an unrelated bribery charge, right after he gave testimony. 

As far as I can see,  Le Devoir liked my grandfather. That paper published a long tribute to him after his death in 1938, basically saying he was the smartest man at City Hall. This obit also explained how no other paper has bothered to give my grandpapa his due.

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 hugely benefited 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 1930  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 wanted revenge for the Water and Power scandal, “ he said. “They also wanted 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.

He would soon go bankrupt due to bad investments and the Depression, I guess. I have a ledger that shows he was betting on Greek olive oil and

In 1937, 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.

My mother, 16 at the time of her father's death, always told me it was an accident that the policeman in question was quite contrite, she remembers.

Other older relations believed it was attempted murder.

Jules' brother, Isadore Crepeau,had died four years before, falling out his 7th floor St James Street office window!