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Montreal Movie Mysteries

rialto

The Rialto ceiling today from Google Earth.

When I was a little girl in the 1960’s, whenever my family crossed the Cartierville Bridge in Montreal’s Ahunsic area to go to Laval, my mother would claim, “That is Uncle Louis’s bridge.”

Her much older brother, Louis, who died of a heart attack in 1965, had been a civil engineer and it is likely he worked for Dominion Bridge, the company that made that structure in the 1930’s.

The Cartierville Bridge wasn’t much to look at, so I wasn’t at all impressed.

I recently learned that back in the day my mother had a much lovelier family creation to brag about. Her Uncle Isadore’s glass company, Ceramo, had manufactured the beautiful stained-glass panels on the ceiling of the Rialto Theatre, the opulent 1924 movie theatre on Park Avenue decorated to look like the Paris Opera House.1

According to reporter Dane Lanken, who wrote the definitive book on Montreal’s old cinemas, this ceiling is rare, if not unique, among the grand movie houses of the day.*2

My mother’s Mon Oncle Isadore, an Outremont-based insurance broker, was also the VP of the United Amusements Corporation, a company that distributed films for Famous Players and that built the Rialto and dozens of other lavish Montreal movie houses, so it was all very convenient.3

Mummy rarely spoke about her Uncle Isadore during her life-time and she never talked about his many interlocked businesses.

She clearly didn’t know anything about the Rialto Cinema ceiling.  She never mentioned how Isadore had welcomed the audience at the opening of the magnificent Monkland Theatre in 1930, not in-person but from up on the screen in a talkie film.*4

(How cool that must have seemed just a few years after sound technology was introduced.)

In 1930, my mother would have been only nine years old and not entitled to enter movie houses.  Children under 16 had been banned from cinemas in Quebec 2 years before, in 1927, after the infamous fatal Laurier Palace fire.5

And my mom was only 11, in December 31, 1932, when her Uncle Isadore fell to his death from his 7th floor office window at 414 Saint James Street West.

She never ever mentioned that shocking event, either: I suspect no one told her about how her Uncle Isadore died.

Isadore414StJacques

From La Patrie, online.

 

Lanken mentions Mon Oncle Isadore more than a few times in his beautiful book. He doesn’t discuss the manner of Isadore’s death.

However, Louis Pelletier, a Concordia scholar, does mention Isadore’s demise in his PhD thesis about the movie distribution industry in Montreal – with a sly aside.  Was it a suicide? Who knows. *6

Pelletier also says that Isodore was likely brought on as VP of United Amusements in 1921 as a ‘token’ francophone.

The 2012 thesis is brilliant, but here Pelletier (like Lanken) fails to make one key connection. Isadore’s brother was Jules Crepeau, my grandfather, Director of City Services in the 1920’s. Isadore’s appointment wasn’t token: It was tactical.

If you conduct a search of the Digital Media Database which contains many era Hollywood Trade Magazines, Jules’ name comes up more than Isadore’s.*7

Jules also died relatively young, in 1938, about a year after he had been hit by a car driven by a plain clothes policeman on Royal Avenue in NDG.*8

He had retired from his lofty post at City Hall in 1930.*9

Back in 2008, when I asked my mother if the 1937 car ‘accident’ had been a ‘hit’ *10 she replied an emphatic “No.” The policeman in question had been very upset about it, she told me. She died in 2009.

Ten years later, knowing what I now know about my Grandpapa Crepeau’s controversial and scandal-ridden career at Montreal City Hall,*11 I imagine that my mom’s recollection of this very contrite cop was a second-hand memory planted there, perhaps by her older brother Louis.

Uncle Louis. Now, he’s the one I should have been able to talk to.  Had he lived, what twisting tales he might have told me.

  1.  Lanken, Dane. Montreal Movie Palaces. Great Theatres of the Golden Era 1884 – 1938.  Penumbra Press. 1993. This feature is likely why the Rialto has been deemed a National Historic Monument, and why it still stands today. Most other Montreal movie houses were destroyed or left to languish.
  2. Ibid. These United Amusement theatres included the Belmont on St.Laurent, and the Monkland on Monkland Avenue and the fabulous Art Deco Snowdon Theatre where I saw The Sound of Music in 1965 – at 11 years old. We lived on the adjacent street.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid
  5. It’s a ban that stayed in place until 1962. Over 70 children were crushed to death escaping from the balcony of a Sunday showing after a small fire.
  6. Pelletier, Louis. The Fellows Who Dress the Pictures: Montreal Film Exhibitors in the Days of Vertical Integration (1912-1952). Concordia PhD Thesis, Communications Department. 2012. The Montreal Gazette, December 31, 1932. The official story is Isadore fell trying to build a device to hang a flag to signal his chauffeur. This happened after his secretary had left his office. After dark. In the depth of winter. Supposedly, Isadore’s unfinished cigar was found on the sill. The police cited unnamed sources for this report, not the secretary, not the chauffeur, not the wife.
  7. www.digitalmediahistory.org. In 1921, Jules was interviewed by Variety about the controversy over Sunday showings. In 1924, he was interviewed about risqué movie posters. In 1926, during the Coderre Commission into Police Impropriety and Malfeasance, his name is brought up in connection with the police. It is said he forced police on the beat to look the other way when movie houses broke the bylaws by letting children in unattended. The New York Times rehashed this bit in 1926 in a two-page story covering testimony during American Senate hearings into Prohibition. In 1927, Jules is mentioned in relation to the Laurier Palace Fire. Jules was the first to testify at both the initial inquest and the later Royal Commission.
  8. Family lore says his death was due to bone cancer from the X-Rays he received from a broken leg from the accident.
  9. Jules had been forced to retire by new Mayor Camillien Houde. Jules negotiated a huge pension of 8,000 dollars a year that was rescinded in 1937 with an emergency measure due to the Depression, just two weeks before he was knocked down by that policeman on Royal Avenue, a block from the United Amusement Offices on Monkland.
  10. In 2008, I asked my mother to tell me all she remembered about her childhood and my grandfather. She didn’t know much about the political intrigue but she did know that her father and brother received numerous death threats and that on occasion big shots like the Mayor or the Chief of Police visited their home on Sherbrooke Street West in secret meetings.
  11. According his obit in Le Devoir, he had a mind like a bank vault and each drawer was filled by a City Hall by-law or other fact. A Gazette article about Mayor Mederic Martin in 1937 claimed “Jules Crepeau’s hair went gray teaching aldermen their jobs.”
  12. Jules and Isadore were the sons, two of four, of Joseph Crepeau and Vitaline Forget-Depatie who, according to Jules’ marriage certificate on Drouin (1901 – Maria Roy) were from St.Louis de France, which would be Trois Rivieres. Montreal City Hall records (his file) claim Jules was born in Laval and that Joseph was a house-painter. Joseph’s paternal line can be traced back to Maurice Crespeau (curly-haired ones) of Poitou-Charentes, born 1637. Vitaline’s Forget line goes back to Abraham Martin, owner of the Plaines of Abraham, known as “L’Ecossais.” https://www.geni.com/people/Abraham-Martin-dit-l-Écossais/6000000000397138666  Jules and my mother did have very curly hair and this is perhaps due to deep Sephardic Jew and Algerian roots. My mother has some Sephardic DNA, to the tune of 4 percent. Crespeau (Crespin) is understood to be one of the Sephardic French Canadian names. https://www.jewishgen.org/Sephardic/nameorig.HTM  Jules’ wife’s Maria Roy’s MT DNA has traces of Sephardic as well and can be traced back to a Lily Rodrigue in Normandy. Rodrigue (Rodriguez).

 

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