Festivity, legal or illicit, has always been part of Montreal’s psyche
While Montreal has given the planet Céline Dion, Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire, Oscar Peterson, Mordecai Richler, Cirque du Soleil and UbiSoft, the city’s so-called seedier side predominates. Montreal’s century-long reputation as Canada’s “sin city”—a wide-open place where you can enjoy any vice, proscribed or not, day and night—has been hard to shake. Not that it especially wants to.
While the city is no longer as wildly licentious it as was during Prohibition or the ’40s, a more mainstream atmosphere of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll blankets the downtown area.
Women strut their stuff more boldly than in any other Canadian city—bared cleavage and tight derrières and legs galore; indeed “the women of Montreal” has become a cliché, a selling point for ogling visitors. (Ooh-la-la!)
As for booze and other drugs, there’s a brasserie or bar on virtually every downtown block, and with them are pushers of more illegal fare. Where once there were rivalries between gambling moguls, they seem almost comic compared with the brutal drug gang wars that have beset Montreal over the past decade or so.
Today Montreal is branded as a city of festivals—the Montreal International Jazz Festival is the world’s largest, the model—but festivity, legal or illicit, has always been part of the collective psyche.
A recent report that discovered Montrealers work only 80 per cent as hard as Torontonians was not greeted with embarrassment but, rather, hailed as indicative of the citizenry’s “joie de vivre.”
Thus, beer is a huge part of that psyche.
It’s the city where the Molson family became a powerhouse, especially because of its association with the Montreal Canadiens; a cup will set you back $10 at the Bell Centre.
Chansonnier Raymond Lévesque’s lament, À Saint-Henri, conveyed the working-class context for the brew, in which “bière” rhymes with “misère.”
Yet it’s a far cry from the woolly war years, where servicemen were on the prowl in “cherchez la femme” mode. In 1944, the downtown area around Ste. Catherine from du Bullion to Stanley was proscribed out of bounds, declared a state of emergency because of sexually transmitted diseases and whatnot.
Montreal was where Frank Sinatra escaped in the early ’50s, when his career had hit rock bottom, to while away the wee small hours over his doomed love for Ava Gardner, after playing at the Bellevue Casino on Ontario St.’s strip of gambling dens and brothels.
Café St-Michel and Rockhead’s Paradise, the two beacons of Montreal’s Little Harlem district, on opposite sides of Mountain and St. Antoine, featured elaborate floor shows and, if you slipped the maitre d’ a fin, a lot more.
The city never slept, dating back to when it was a Prohibition Era magnet. Hello Montreal, a 1928 dittie (words by Billy Rose & Mort Dixon, music by Harry Warren), put it this way: “Speak easy, speak easy / And tell the bunch / I won’t go east, got a different hunch / I’ll be leaving in the summer and I won’t be back till fall. Goodbye Broadway, hello Montreal.”
“The scale of Montreal’s nightclub industry during its peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s was staggering,” writes John Gilmore in Swinging in Paradise, his definitive history of jazz in Montreal.
“Musicians swear there were literally hundreds of clubs in the city offering some kind of show.”
“You could literally play two jobs a night, from 9 to 1 and then 1 to 5 or so,” Paul Bley told me in 1978, over a smoked meat at the late, lamented Ben’s, torn down a couple of years ago to make way for some postmodern office tower, the kind of style every city has now.
The city even made it into a fabled Lenny Bruce routine in which he played a second-rate comic, Frank Dell, who longed to play a “class joint,” the London Palladium: “I can’t keep going back to Montreal!”
Bruce played the old Gayety Theatre (now the prestigious Théatre du Nouveau Monde) in the city’s red-light district near St. Laurent. The usherettes might not have understood Lenny’s spritz, his bits, but they handed him expert stand-up sexual favours.
The Gayety had been headquarters for stripper Lili St-Cyr, who, with her diaphanous bathtub, was one of Montreal’s main cultural attractions across North America.
Dean Martin fit right in: mooching his way along the city’s nightlife.
“He was a very hard-to-get-along-with type,” recalled Norm Silver of the legendary Esquire Show Bar on Stanley. “He was into the sauce in those days, always asking the staff to buy him a meal or a drink, getting loans without paying them back, generally taking advantage of people.”
A sign that city hall was eager to clean up the city’s image came in the mid-’70s when police raided the Esquire and removed its liquor license for allegedly allowing prostitutes to hang out there.
“It’s hypocritical,” cried Norm Silver over his last remaining bottle of whiskey. “Look across the street, what do they advertise? Topless!”
Now places like Wanda’s, near the Crescent glitz strip, make every hour Happy Hour with “danseuses exotiques.”
Then again, why pay good money when life on Montreal streets is so much more, uh, vivid.