I Remember Maman: Montreal’s Film Row Circa 1940

rkobuilding

The white building is United Amusements’ former address on Monkland, now a lovely condo. My mother’s uncle, Isadore Crepeau, was VP Of this company in the 1920’s and 30’s. 

 

I have only recently discovered that Monkland Avenue in Notre Dame de Grace was once Montreal’s movie Mecca, referred to in industry circles as “Film Row.”

In the 1960’s, as a school girl, I lived in adjacent Snowdon  and I often saw second-run movies at the Monkland Theatre – and yet no one told me this.

On top of that,  my mother, grandmother and aunts all lived on that street during the 1940’s, in a large second story flat at the corner of Oxford and Monkland. My mom worked at RKO Motion Picture Distributing just a few blocks away.

When my Mom and I passed by the building in our tiny Austen Cambridge car on visits to see our cousins who lived on the corner of Monkland and Montclair, she would often tell  me, “You was born right there, over a shoe shop.’

I can see from Lovell’s Directory, online, the place was Eddy’s Shoe Shop, now Patisserie de Nancy.

Over the years, my mother only occasionally mentioned her past employment at RKO and I never asked for more information because I was not at all interested.  In the 1960’s, RKO was out of business, although it had been one the top five studios in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

 

filmrow

Lovell’s reveals the truth about Monkland in the 1940’s. Movie Distribution Mecca!

In the 70’s, I studied Film and Communications at McGill and still I never asked my mother about working at RKO.

In class we studied Eisenstein’s montage method and D.W. Griffith’s short and long silent films and even deconstructed Citizen Kane scene-by-scene, (a movie made by RKO and Orson Welles who later bought the studio and drove it into the ground) but those other classic RKO Films, Bringing Up Baby, It’s a Wonderful Life, or I Remember Mama* with Irene Dunn were not on the syllabus.

The RKO brand, for the most part, sounded so far away, in the Dark Ages of the 1940’s, when my mother was young and a working woman.

These days, I spend a lot of time watching Turner Classic Movies and I am now very familiar with the RKO ‘radio signal’ logo and their classic and all but forgotten movies. I am also researching more about my mother’s Crepeau family.

I think I know how my mother got the RKO job.

Her father, Jules Crepeau, was Director of City Services in the 1920’s and her uncle, Isadore, was VP of United Amusements, the local movie distribution concern that built the grand Monkland Theatre with its ornate plaster work, as well as a score of other Montreal movie palaces , including the Rialto on Park Avenue, the Rivoli on St. Denis and the Strand, where well-known pianist Willie Eckstein tickled the ivories.

Famous Players owned United Amusements as well as RKO Canada  from the late 1920’s. 

My mother was a secretary or ‘stenographer’ as they called it back then, even though she had studied classical literature, Greek and Latin, at College Marguerite Bourgeois and was perfectly bilingual in English and French.

Were my mother alive today I would ask if it was fun and exciting or even ‘glamourous’ working on Monkland back in those days. Or was it tedious. Did she have to put up with sexist behavior at work? (I bet she did.)

Her bosses, according to the industry rags, got to party once a year at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City at the annual RKO sales meeting and  Montreal’s Film Row regularly welcomed visitors from all over, including Hollywood.

And the big question I’d like to ask, if I could go back in time: “Did you get free movie tickets?

 

mummyrkodays

Marie-Marthe Crepeau Nixon

filmrow

 

george

From Box Office magazine, 1940. c/o Digital Media Library.

 

  • I Remember Mama is a film about a struggling immigrant couple who raised their children without ever letting on that they are very poor. My mother raved about this film when it came on TV in the 1960’s. The movie was made by RKO in 1948 and she would have worked on publicity.

I bet she did get free tickets. During the 1940’s, a young man around her age named George Destounis was Manager of the Monkland Theatre. He would go on to be Booker at United Amusements in the 1950’s and later the President as well as the President of Famous Players headquartered in Toronto. Destounis was a big promoter of Canadian film and Famous Players funded lots of those early English Canadian made films (with US stars) in the 1970’s and 80’s none of which were very good, but you could get tax break and of course Canadians got some work. (Well, there were a couple of movies that were OK. Ginger Coffey, Duddy Kravitz and a movie Going Down the Road that got a lot of praise. Meatballs made a lot of money. ) I would be surprised if my mother and her sisters and niece didn’t know him in Monkland Village where they lived. Destounis apparently worked his way up from Usher in the United Amusements Company, but I can see from online genealogy records that George Destounis is related to many of the Greeks in the early Montreal Movie Industry, including Pergantis, Lerakos and Sperdakos. His father was from Kefalonia, like many of the NDG Greeks, including Farandatos, Moschonas (Moshonas) and Maroulis. His mom from Sparta, like Ganetakos and the rest.

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