Concordia University Magazine

Life was a Cabaret

Concordia sociology professot Anouk Belanger taps

Lisa Sumner and Anouk Belanger

The research of Lisa Sumner and Anouk Bélanger included visiting local bars and taverns. Bélanger says, “I realized that if you look at the history of drinking establishments in Montreal, you could really retell the history of the culture of Montreal in a way that has never been told.”
Photo by Christian Fleury

Montreal’s international reputation as a good-time burg can be easily witnessed nowadays in the bonhomie spilling forth from its myriad cafés, bars, clubs and after-hours watering holes. Studying the city’s historic relationship with alcohol, however, means venturing into a world all but vanished from the present cultural landscape. And that’s precisely the goal of Concordia sociology professor Anouk Bélanger.

Bélanger is currently immersed in researching a massive cultural history of alcohol in Montreal, as a Canadian co-investigator in the five-year Culture of Cities project. Based out of York University, the project is a multifaceted look at urban life in Toronto, Montreal, Dublin and Berlin.

Traditional histories, of course, delve into the political and economic landscapes of the past, but sociologists look for something else. “My interest is to tell a popular history of Montreal to complement the history that has been written,” explains Bélanger, a Montreal native who studied at Université de Montréal and completed her PhD at Simon Fraser University before coming to Concordia in 2000. “I want to look at Montreal’s history through a lens that has not been looked at. I’m interested in urban popular cultures, and popular memories and traditions,” she says.

Bélanger and her collaborator, recent Concordia MA grad Lisa Sumner, began their research by examining the city’s tavern tradition, and they are now focussing on the cabarets — burlesque clubs, jazz clubs and variety theatre — that flourished in the ’20s, ’30 and ’40s “as a central entertaining and cultural tradition in Montreal.” In 1924, four years into the U.S. prohibition of liquor, the Quebec government assumed control over alcohol sales (a precursor to today’s SAQ), turning Montreal almost overnight into a beacon irresistible to thirsty North Americans. And so Prohibition inadvertently birthed an exciting, volatile cauldron of creativity, opportunity and tension.

“Americans and other Canadians would commute to Montreal on weekends,” says Bélanger, “not only to drink but to partake in the lifestyle that comes with alcohol. A lot of well-known African-American jazz musicians came to play in the Montreal jazz cabarets during the ’30s. When Sammy Davis Jr. was seven or eight years old, for example, he tap danced in a cabaret with a young girl from St. Henri.” The list of visiting musicians included Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and many others.

Although often hosting visiting musical luminaries, the clubs’ musicians were mostly local, and predominantly black residents of the St. Henri district. They played to audiences who were sometimes white only, sometimes black only and sometimes mixed. Therefore, chronicling the history of Montreal’s jazz clubs and learning about the interaction of the musicians and clientele provides insight into ethnic and race relations of the day.

Gayety and frolic

Although less racially charged than the jazz scene, the rise and fall of the city’s formerly bustling burlesque cabarets speaks to issues of morality and shifts in public opinion. Once world renowned as home to infamous performers such as striptease artist Lili St. Cyr — who wowed crowds at the Gayety Theatre — and hostess Texas Guinan — who greeted visitors to the Frolic with her trademark “Hello, suckers!” — Montreal’s burlesque houses fell victim to future mayor Jean Drapeau’s high-profile inquiries during the late ’50s. Drapeau’s morality squads scoured the clubs primed for moral outrage, meticulously taking notes and photographs of the so-called dens of iniquity. As luck would have it, these same dossiers are now central to Bélanger’s research. “But,” she notes with a laugh, “I don’t think this is how they intended those reports to be used.”

The third component of the city’s cabaret tradition was variety theatre, what Bélanger calls “a mix between musical and dance performance, burlesque theatre, and what would be the ancestor of skit comedy. At the core of variety theatre history,” she continues, “there’s not so much of the ethnic relations found in jazz, and not the same moral issues as you had in a Lili St. Cyr-style performance. It was clearly a tradition affiliated with the popular, with the working class, and one that demarcated itself from more classical theatre. Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde [ironically, Lili St. Cyr’s old Ste. Catherine Street twirling ground ] would not do variety theatre,” she explains. “Variety theatre was for a different clientele, and embodied the class difference between culture — as in popular culture — and culture with a capital C — as in something for someone cultivated, educated and politicized who goes to see classical pieces performed in a classical theatre.” Bélanger adds, “According to the people we’ve talked to, going to the variety theatre was understood as more a form of commercial entertainment for the popular classes.”

Again, despite occasional one-off revivals at contemporary clubs such as Casa del Popolo, variety theatre has disappeared from Montreal, likely the result, according to Bélanger, “of the new diversity of entertainment choices making the cabaret less central. There’s a point in Western society where it all explodes: suddenly there are so many things that we can do, buy, see. So the one central tradition that used to be the only choice for the working class during the ’40s and ’50s is now one of hundreds of choices,” she says. Bélanger particularly laments the recent closing of the Théâtre des Variétés on Papineau Street, calling this inspired brainchild of comedian Gilles Latulippe “the last great embodiment of cabaret in the variety theatre tradition.”

Because they are mostly long gone, cabarets are remembered by a rapidly dwindling population. Through word of mouth, Bélanger and Sumner are tracking down people (now mostly octogenarians) who recall performing and patronizing the establishments, and are relying on their stories and personal archives to “tell these little pieces of Montreal history.

“They have a lot of stories to tell,” she says, “but what we’re really interested in is the way they tell the stories, and what they express about that period of time. We’re trying to see what the interviews mean as a whole, rather than look for the ‘American dream’ story of the little girl from St. Henri who met her husband while singing at the cabaret and went on to have a fabulous life. There are stories like that, but we’re looking for what these people can tell us about those decades in the city, about how Montreal boomed as a nightlife city, and the significance upon the culture of not having Prohibition,” says Bélanger.

Industrial life

Mementos of Montreal cabaret history

Mementos of Montreal cabaret history (clockwise from above left): an autographed promotional photograph of Lili St. Cyr, ca. 1960 (Concordia University Archives P084-02-326);Cab Calloway sings to a packed house at Chez Maurice Danceland, 1943 (Concordia University Archives P004-02-05); Club Lido promotional brochure cover, 1935 (Concordia University Archives Joe Bell Scrapbook, P 010).

Just as studying cabaret life offers entry into social issues of the day, Bélanger found that studying taverns offers entry into the secret history of industrial Montreal. Catering almost exclusively to a blue-collar clientele, taverns acted as a veritable barometer of Montreal’s industrial activity from the earlier part of the 2oth century until the late 1970s. The establishments prospered in close proximity to industrial hubs such as Pointe Ste. Charles, St. Henri and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, offering workers beer-fuelled respite from their gruelling jobs, opening for lunchtime and closing early in the evening. Unlike the contemporary “brasseries,” taverns sold only beer ((no food or other alcohol), and were off-limits to women until 1979. (The legendary Magnan’s Tavern in St. Henri persisted in this practice for another full decade.)

During the mid-’70s, at the height of the taverns’ popularity, it is estimated they numbered 700 in Montreal alone. City Hall now lists a mere 68 businesses still holding tavern licences (once an important legal distinction, to differentiate between a tavern and, say, a club). But Bélanger discovered there are actually far fewer: many have long since either burnt down (a fact of doing business in a world with deep ties to organized crime) or conceded to a younger clientele by seeking additional licensing, allowing expansion of menus and operating hours.

Bélanger and Sumner ventured into the few remaining taverns and 50 or so of their contemporary brethren to interview owners, workers and patrons for a documentary film, The Long and Enduring Tradition of Taverns in Montreal, for the Culture of Cities project. “The nostalgia for taverns is really nostalgia for the ways workers lived during the heyday of industrialization,” says Bélanger, “and if you tell the history of taverns, you really tell the story of Montreal going into a post-industrialization state as places like Canadian Vickers and Seagram’s closed their doors. The ‘official’ histories don’t include popular practices like tavern-going, and what it meant in the day-to-day life of the workers and other city-dwellers,” she says.

Bélanger hopes her study will eventually expand to include a range of more contemporary topics — such as the integration of Molson and Labatt products into the city’s cultural life, the role of dépanneurs, and the recent trend of new bars consciously mining a “retro ” tavern vibe — ultimately resulting in a book — length study of alcohol in Montreal. For now, however, she’s conscious of the ticking clock: just as little physical trace remains of the city’s once bountiful cabarets and taverns, so too are the people disappearing.

“If we took 20 years to get to researching cabarets,” Bélanger says of her chosen research strategy, “we’d lose a lot of people who can talk about the ’30s and ’40s. So there’s definitely a rush on.”

James Martin is a Montreal freelance writer.

If you have any comments about this article, contact Howard Bokser, (514)848-3826,

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