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Montreal’s oldest cinemas who are now only part of the city’s memory

Darko Nanevski

Every city changes over the years. And Montreal is no different. Places get to be closed down and abandoned, buildings get demolished. It’s just part of the process. But that doesn’t mean that they should be forgotten. And this article is dedicated to the city’s oldest cinemas who no longer exist.

The Ouimetoscope

As being the first Canadian theater that was entirely devoted showing films, the Ouimetoscope holds a very special place for the city of Montreal. It is also one of the earliest movie palaces to exist in the world.

This grandiose theater, that stands at the corner of Saint Catherine and Montcalm Streets, opened to the public on January 1, 1906. The man responsible for it’s construction was the legendary Canadian film pioneer Léo-Ernest Ouimet. In 1904 Ouimet invested all of his life savings to convert the falling down cabaret house into a moving pictures theater. And his background as an electrical engineer meant that he was capable of designing his own film projector.

Photograph of the Ouimetoscope as it existed in 1908. Author: Unknown. Public Domain

Photograph of the Ouimetoscope as it existed in 1908. Author: Unknown. Public Domain

The investment truly paid off, as the cinema was a success. And despite the theater’s small screen, all of the showings were completely booked to its full capacity. Encouraged by this, after only a year Ouimet made an even bigger investment. He demolished the theater and transformed it into an extravagant movie palace, with a lavish amphitheater of 1,200 seats and a huge screen, also adding air conditioning which was a novelty at the time.

Léo-Ernest Ouimet in 1910. Author: Montreal Library. Public Domain

Léo-Ernest Ouimet in 1910. Author: Montreal Library. Public Domain

The Ouimetoscope remained open till 1922 when Ouimet was forced to sell the venue because of financial problems. And 2 years later it was closed for good. Today, all that is left is a plaque dedicated to Léo-Ernest Ouimet, in honor of the theater.

The Snowdon Theater

Located in the neighborhood of Snowdon, on Decarie Boulevard, the abandoned Snowdon Theater has a pretty unusual history. This Art Moderne building which now is owned by the city of Montreal has seen pretty radical changes happening throughout the years.

The cinema opened in 1937, right at the beginning of the golden age of film. The famous theater decorator Emmanuel Briffa, whose body of work includes the interior designs for over 60 cinemas in Canada, was responsible for designing the art deco influenced interior of the building.

Snowdon Theater marquee. Author: Bill Wrigley. CC BY-SA 3.0

Snowdon Theater marquee. Author: Bill Wrigley. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1950s, the theater made small adjustments on the facade and to the building’s awning. Then, starting from 1968, the cinema shifted its focus toward showing x-rated films. Also, it is interesting to mention that in 1972 Snowdon dedicated almost the entire year to show all of Charlie Chaplin’s movies. By 1982, it was all over for the Snowdon Theater.

Snowdon Theater. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose. CC BY 2.0

Snowdon Theater. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose. CC BY 2.0

In the 1990s, most of the cinema was converted into a retail shopping center, and sometime later, on the second floor, a gymnastics center was opened. By the end of the 1990s, all of the retail stores had been closed and the building was largely deserted. Flexart Gymnastics continued to operate until 2013 when the city decided to evict them because of safety concerns over the building’s roof.

The former gymnastics studio. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

The former gymnastics studio. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose. CC BY-SA 2.0

Today, Snowdon still remains closed and boarded up. The latest report from May 4, 2017, claims that the municipality of Montreal has found a buyer who is planning to demolish the theater in favor of some residential building project.

The York Theater

Designed by architects Perry, Luke and Little and opened in 1938, the York Theater was one of the most originally designed cinemas in the city of Montreal. Built in a beautiful art deco influenced style, in addition to the cinema, a residential and commercial space was also included in the building, which was at hthat time something quite unorthodox.

York Theater, Montreal, March 2000. Author: Markbellis. CC BY-SA 4.0

York Theater, Montreal, March 2000. Author: Markbellis. CC BY-SA 4.0

The film theater had a capacity of 1,200 seats, with a lavish interior fully designed by Emmanuel Briffa. Briffa also hired artist Kenneth Hensley Holmden to draw the murals for the building’s interiors.

The York Theater was in operation till 1989, when a fire severely damaged the inside of the building and destroyed most of the murals.

The York Theater cinema hall. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose. CC BY 2.0

The York Theater cinema hall. Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose. CC BY 2.0

Nine years later, in 1998, the entire complex was bought by Concordia University who, after determining that the building was beyond saving, decided to demolish it. The demolition occurred in 2001 and construction of a new Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex began. However, Concordia managed to save and restore 3 of the 8 murals. These are now on display in the new building.