Ciné Parc

Camille Bédard

Going to the movies is a rather disappointing experience in terms of architecture nowadays, due to the generic nature of megaplexes. During the movie palace era of the 1920s and 1930s, each movie theatre was unique and its architecture was meant to impress visitors, sometimes even stealing attention away from the films shown inside them. The Empress Theatre is such a movie palace, a unique example of Art Deco architecture and the only original Egyptian theatre of Montreal. Located at 5560 Sherbrooke Street West (fig.1), across from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG) park, the Empress’s elegance and prestige has nevertheless vanished, after a minor fire forced its closure in 1992, leaving it to decay. Since then, the Empress has been at the core of an ongoing debate opposing the city and government to the community and the Empress Cultural Centre (ECC).

My interest in the Empress is not specifically its architectural qualities, but mainly in the space and relations it creates as a neighbourhood movie house. With the advent of television, home video, cable, internet and cinema multiplexes, small movie houses have gradually disappeared. Despite its derelict state, the Empress has prevailed. The goal of my research and intervention was to elucidate the survival of the movie house and find out what has prevented its definite closure. After an overview of the history of the Empress, I will explain how my intervention made a link between history and community, and last, examine the fundamental role of the Empress for the neighbourhood.

Until the 1910s, Notre-Dame and Saint-Lawrence were the two main movie house streets of the city.[1] With the rise of the “talking pictures” in the 1920s, the explosion of movie audiences caused important changes in movie theatre planning in Montreal. “[As] early as 1916, the neighbourhood movie house that appeared in Montreal, with the idea of bringing movies closer to home, began to compete with the already established downtown theatres.”[2] The Empress Theatre was built by Montreal architect Alcide Chaussé (1868-1944) in 1927 (fig.2), during the movie palace boom of the 1920s and 1930s. Along with the Seville, the Granada and the Monkland, the Empress is one of the four atmospheric theatres of the city. Atmospheric theatres were invented by the Romanian born American architect John Eberson in 1922, a design that suggested a specific setting and replaced the generic, classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome.[3] The Egyptian theme of the Empress was likely influenced by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter in 1922.[4] Chaussé collaborated with Maltese-born artist Emmanuel Briffa (1875-1955) to mimic the grandiose style of ancient Egypt. Briffa decorated the Empress with palm-leaf capitals, Rameses heads, scarabs, cobras and sun-disc motifs (fig. 3 and 4).
Originally owned by Confederated Amusement Corporation, the Empress was inaugurated by Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde on May 19th 1928, although it had been showing movies as early as 1927.[5] In 1928, the Empress Tea Room was a popular hangout for young people of NDG.[6] The Empress continued as a first-run movie house until the invention of television which led to a dramatic decrease in movie attendance. Thus, in 1963, the theatre was sold and transformed into a cabaret, the Royal Follies.[7] However, right before Expo 67, the cabaret was closed – the city of Montreal feared it would give tourists a bad image of the city.

The Empress Theatre underwent major renovations from 1968 to 1975 when it was bought by Cinelou Inc. who changed its name to Cinema V. The theatre’s original 1450-seat auditorium was split in two small screening rooms, the blue room and the red room (fig.5). Cinema V reopened in 1975 and ran as a repertory cinema until 1987, showing recent films and cult favourites such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Famous Players then took over in 1987 and ran Cinema V as a first-run theatre. In the place of the ECC office was the natural health store Sésame and later on, Heads & Hands, a local service agency for young people. Then, on the morning of August 11th, 1992, a 90-minute fire, presumably caused by a careless smoker, forced the closure of the building.[8] Although it was only a minor fire, Famous Players announced in 1993 it would not reopen the movie house because it was not economically viable as a two-screen movie theatre.[9]

After the fire, the Empress remained at the core of many debates. In 1994, a group of NDG residents founded the Cinema VI Action Committee and started lobbying then mayor Pierre Bourque for an infrastructure government grant that would transform Cinema V into a multidisciplinary performance center.[10] But the promise of reopening Cinema V, which Bourque made during the 1994 electoral campaign, never took shape. In 2000, Cinema V changed its name to the Empress Cultural Centre. Two years later, a controversy arose when Décarie district councillor Marcel Tremblay proposed to convert the upper levels of the Empress into condo units, while keeping the screening room on ground level for the community. Bourque, who was then the city hall opposition leader, rejected the proposition as it would not have answered the needs of the people.[11] Since then, the ECC has been trying to raise the $11.8 million needed to complete the renovations of the Empress.

The goal of my intervention was to reunite all issues at stake at the Empress today: architecture, culture, politics and community. On September 29th 2009, my visit to see the interior of the Empress with ECC project coordinator, Christiane Loiselle, helped to synthesize the nature of my intervention, as I was able to see firsthand the severely damaged building’s water infiltration, vandalism and defective renovations (fig.6). Although I was enthusiastic about seeing original decorations such as the scarabs, I knew at this point that my intervention would not be as relevant inside the building. The absence of lighting is a major problem; we had to visit the two screening rooms with flashlights. However, the main problem in doing my intervention inside the Empress is that its doors are locked and thus, it is not easily accessible to the public.

When I crossed Sherbrooke Street to take pictures of the building from NDG park, I noticed two series of seven benches. Parallel to Sherbrooke Street in the southern part of the park, one series of benches is almost in front of the Empress (fig.7); their orientation is similar to that of the seats inside the movie house. I anticipated that there would be engaging dialogue occurring between the benches, occupying a lively space of the neighbourhood, which juxtaposed the now empty seats of the theatre.

For my intervention, I drew seven different flip books on various moments of the history of the Empress. Such flip books are a tribute to the moving features that were once shown in the neglected movie house. In my opinion, a light and humorous gesture like the flip books would reach NDG residents more easily than a serious and pedagogical one, regarding the already deplorable state of the Empress. Six flip books refer to specific moments of the Empress’s history: the official opening in 1928, the plans of Alcide Chaussé, Emmanuel Briffa and the Egyptian influence, the Royal Follies cabaret, the repertory movie house and the 1992 fire. On the back of each booklet is a short description contextualizing this moment, as some flip books are rather conceptual and would have been difficult to understand otherwise. The seventh flip book was left completely blank. My intention with this booklet was to encourage NDG residents to think about their personal relationship with the Empress and the future of the building by engaging them actively in the process. This decision to create a blank flip book was inspired by the space, as six of the benches are paired, and one is left alone. For me, the three pairs represent the social act of “cinema-going,” whereas the lonely bench refers to the actual state of the Empress, abandoned and decaying.

The two series of seven flip books were distributed on Friday, November 6th and Sunday, November 8th. Initially, I was to leave the flipbooks on the benches as a gift to the community, with no intention to get in contact with people. But during the two-week preparation of the flip books, I realized that my intervention would not be complete without some interaction with NDG residents since my goal was to reach this community. As Friday was cold and windy, the benches were empty when I went to the park, so I just put the flip books on the benches and left (fig.8). I went back to the park the following afternoon to see what had happened to the flip books. Only two remained: one that had fallen in a heap of dead leaves on the back of the bench, and the blank one.

The warm weather of Sunday afternoon created the opposite atmosphere of Friday’s park intervention. Two people were sitting on the benches, one was on the cell phone and the other was a fifty-year-old man named Ross Harvey (fig.9) who completely changed the nature of my intervention. He kindly invited me to sit with him in his “office,” which is how he dubs the bench where he sits almost daily for two hours . We had a fifteen minute discussion about the Empress and the necessity to have such a place in the neighbourhood. We both agreed that the present project is developing too slowly despite the urgency to save the building from demolition. Overall, I was particularly moved when he spoke of his memories of the elderly people of NDG who used to go to the Empress to see movies and have a drink for a quarter. The loss of the Empress would mean the loss of a community’s history. This space has been significant in my life, as I remember going to Cinema V with my mother and sister when I was three years old.

Harvey, who thought that my intervention should be better known, described it to his friend David Goldberg, editor of the NDG Free Press, and sent me a copy of the e-mail the same afternoon of our meeting. On Monday morning, I had another surprise. Peter McQueen, the freshly elected NDG district city councillor, wanted to meet with me since Harvey had told him about my intervention. I was looking forward to this meeting, as McQueen’s electoral program includes the renovations of the Empress. The meeting on Tuesday afternoon, however, was rather disappointing. I explained my intervention to him, but he remained very vague about his plans for the movie house. McQueen admitted that during his meeting with borough mayor Michael Applebaum the day before, he was pleased to see that the Empress’s project was moving faster than what he thought. Nevertheless, I remained sceptical about this political interest in the movie house, as it has delayed the renovations for several years.

The three main encounters that I made throughout the process represent different parts of the Empress’s history: the cultural aspect with Loiselle, the social aspect with Harvey and the political aspect with McQueen. The unexpected meeting with Harvey confirmed my assumptions that there is a real interest for the Empress in NDG, which is reflected in a 2004 study done by Convercité for the ECC. Indeed, 91.8 per cent of the 270 respondents consider the Center either as important or very important to the neighbourhood.[12] Presently, there is no major cultural centre in the area. The Empress is essential for a vibrant neighbourhood as a public place of exchange and meeting, like parks. If “cinema has played a crucial role in the very notion of community,”[13] it is not because of the moving pictures themselves, but because of the activities that one engages in before, during and after a film performance.

In Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture, Charles R. Acland discusses how the new multiplexes of the mid 1980s and the rise of megaplexes in the 1990s resulted in the closure of many neighbourhood movie houses in North America. This is the case in NDG where there were once five movie houses (fig.10): the Westmount or Claremont (1918-1984), now a drugstore; the Monkland (1930-1985), converted into offices and stores; the Snowdon (1937-1982), now a sports centre operated by the city of Montreal; and the Kent (1941-1987), now a bank.[14] Because it is the last bastion of cinema heritage in NDG, the Empress is a vulnerable space symbolizing the lament for public life. As Acland suggests, “[p]resently, cinemas can signify a feeling of loss and despair about public life. They linger as talismans of an alternative public sphere that might have been but has not developed as yet.”[15] This notion of lament is at the core of Catherine Ingraham’s essay “Architecture, Lament and Power,”[16] in which the author examines the lament for lost power in architecture. Ingraham’s analysis of the tension between motion and stasis in architecture is especially interesting regarding the Empress, which I consider as both static and dynamic. On the one hand, the building itself could be static in a way, since it has remained closed for the past seventeen years, yet it might be considered dynamic as it is slowly decaying because there is no maintenance. On the other hand, the debate and efforts of the community and lobbyists could be considered dynamic, for the numerous attempts at raising money and mobilizing the NDG community, yet they might not be as dynamic as they seem to be, since there has not been any major improvement.

The lament for neighbourhood movie houses in NDG underscores the problem of community cohesion around the Empress. Indeed, residents of the neighbourhood have not centralized their efforts in resurrecting the movie house. As Harvey noted, the problem with the Empress is that “[everyone] has an idea of what the building should be used for. […] The existing group has developed a plan around its own needs… not the needs and wants of the community.”[17] Communication problems between the ECC and the community have definitely not helped the Empress. This lack of consensus is also evident among politicians, some are convinced that the Empress should reopen while others only wish to get rid of the derelict movie house by converting it into condo units, or simply demolishing it. Nevertheless, the Empress represents the last hope for a cultural centre in NDG that will answer the needs of community, revitalize this portion of the neighbourhood and strengthen its identity. It is through the hope and faith of the residents that the Empress has been able to survive for the last seventeen years. As Ingraham suggests, “[architecture] has no language of its own and must speak in terms outside itself, the terms of other bodies.”[18] The memory and history of the Empress lies in the mind of those who went there, those who presently work on its reopening and those who wish to sit in its screening rooms again.

My intervention, through the encounter with Harvey, changed the space in front of the Empress as it came to spacialize community concerns. Indeed, the bench where we sat, which had previously been like any other bench in the park, became a place where the future of the Empress was discussed. This conversation, though, was not only about ideas, but about concrete actions that can be taken to save the movie house from destruction. I admit at first I was surprised by such realism. Harvey and later Goldberg asked me quite directly, what are my plans to resurrect the old movie house? Do I have such plans? I know that the Empress needs someone who will rally community and lead the ambitious project of reopening the movie house. I am convinced that my involvement with the Empress has only started.

I have learnt through my intervention that certain deserted spaces are still very much alive because they represent something central for a community and thus, are considered to be landmarks. A site like the Empress Theatre is one of these buildings whose significance expands far beyond its architectural qualities. What matters for NDG residents is not that it was designed by Chaussé, nor that it is one of the four atmospheric theatres of Montreal. What matters for NDG residents is the spirit of the Empress and its fundamental role for the community as a gathering place. Conversely, the Empress depends on the implication of neighbourhood residents and would never have survived without their efforts. Those efforts, if not successful yet, remain tangible. NDG residents have understood for a long time that the Empress deserves to be preserved. Through this mutual assistance, both the Empress and NDG community have been able to survive. But when considering the deplorable state of the last movie palace of NDG, one can only wonder how long it will last. The last days of the Empress are being counted.

List of Illustrations
Images Coming Soon.

Bibliography
Acland, Charles R. Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.
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Endnotes
1 Dane Lanken. Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938. Waterloo, Ontario: Archives of Canadian Art, 1993. Print. 11.
2 Harriet T. Kolomeir. The Neighbourhood Movie House in Montreal, 1925-1929: the Harmonious Whole. MA Thesis. Concordia Uniersity: 1987. Print. 2.
3 Dane Lanken. Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938. 14.
4 Harriet T. Kolomeir. The Neighbourhood Movie House in Montreal, 1925-1929: the Harmonious Whole. 34.
5 Harriet T. Kolomeir. The Neighbourhood Movie House in Montreal, 1925-1929: the Harmonious Whole. 40.
6 Rob Bull. “The Empress Cultural Centre.” Sherbrooke N.D.G Village. 2005. Web. 4 Nov. 2009.
7 Dane Lanken. Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938. 129.
8 Charlie Fidleman. “Cinema Fire a Big Pain for Clinic.” Montreal Gazette 13 Aug. 1992, Final Ed.: G1. Print.
9 Andy Riga. “Famous Players Won’t Reopen Fire-Ravaged Cinema V.” Montreal Gazette 15 Apr. 1993, Final Ed.: G1. Print.
10 Charlie Fidleman. “Group Hopes to Reopen Cinema V as Centre for the Performing Arts.” Montreal Gazette 17 Aug. 1995, Final Ed.: E1. Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies. Web. 3 Oct. 2009.
11 Kate Barrette. “Cinema V ‘My Gift’: Convert Landmark into Cultural Centre, Not Condos, Says Former Mayor Bourque.”Montreal Gazette 16 July 2002, Final Ed.: A6. Canadian Newsstand Major Dailies. Web. 3 Oct. 2009.
12 Rob Bull. “The Empress Cultural Centre.” Sherbrooke N.D.G Village. 2005. Web. 4 Nov. 2009.
13 Charles R. Acland. Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Print. 52.
14 Dane Lanken. Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938. 80, 124, 138, 152.
15 Charles R. Acland. Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture. 243.
16 Catherine Ingraham. “Architecture, Lament and Power.” Journal of Philosophy and the Visual Arts: Architecture, Space, Painting.Andrew Benjamin, ed. London, New York: The Academy Group/St.Martin’s Press, 1992. 11-14. Print.
17 Ross Harvey. “Empress Centre.” Message to Camille Bédard. 15 Nov. 2009. E-mail.
18 Catherine Ingraham. “Architecture, Lament and Power.” 13.