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The Egyptian-inspired Empress Theater in Montreal

Petar Djajkovski

This unique gem of a theater sits abandoned on Sherbrooke Street West in Montreal. Its seats have been empty since 1992 and it’s just begging to hear the applause and cheers of audiences again. The Empress Theater was built five years after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, which heavily influenced the theater design.

The architect, Joseph-Alcide Chaussé, was inspired by the great discovery and Egyptian architecture in general, so he decided to show his appreciation through this project. The interior of the theater was designed by Emmanuel Briffa. We say the Empress Theater is a unique gem as it is the only theater in Canada designed in this style, with its many, many attention-grabbing ornaments on the facade.

Empress Theater (also known as Cinema 5), located in Montreal’s NDG district – Author: Alanah.Montreal – CC BY 2.0

Empress Theater (also known as Cinema 5), located in Montreal’s NDG district – Author: Alanah.Montreal – CC BY 2.0

As with most theaters at the time, when it opened the Empress was a vaudeville theater (an all-around variety entertainment theater) but was mostly showing burlesque and first-run films. This model was popular for 35 years, then in 1962 the new owners, United Theaters, changed its function to a dinner theater and its name to Royal Follies.

Empress Theater in 1943

Empress Theater in 1943

Empress Theater in May 2015 – Author: Anna Frodesiak – CC0

Empress Theater in May 2015 – Author: Anna Frodesiak – CC0

A few years later, the interior was drastically reshaped and it became a two-screen art-movie cinema called Cinema V – Salle Hermes. This period is remembered as the most successful for the theater as it became very popular among the artists and aspiring artists of Montreal. For a short period between 1974 and 1975, the theater was called The Home of the Blue Movies, then it reverted back to Cinema V again.

From 1988 the theater was first-run movie house under the name Famous Players. Unluckily for all its faithful visitors, the former-Empress Theater caught fire and was heavily damaged in 1992. This led to its permanent closure.

Empress Theater/Cinema V in 1982 – Author: Colin Rose – CC BY 2.0

Empress Theater/Cinema V in 1982 – Author: Colin Rose – CC BY 2.0

By 2010 the theater building was in a really bad shape. At the beginning of its lonely existence, it was fenced off and guarded by the community. One small room was used as an office by a group of self-organized locals who were fighting for its restoration. However, after years of raising awareness, in the end they were unsuccessful in their goal; the office was closed in December 2011 by the city of Montreal. Since then, the building has been completely vacant and constantly declining, slowly acquiring broken windows, new graffiti, and so on.

Egyptian ornament on the outside facade of Empress Theater – Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose – CC BY 2.0

Egyptian ornament on the outside facade of Empress Theater – Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose – CC BY 2.0

Between 2011 and today, several more attempts to revitalize and restore the Empress Theater have been made. In 2012 the local government decided to give the theater to any non-profit organization that could come up with a good proposal for the space, at the same time offering zero funding. Naturally, no one applied and the status quo continued. The cost of restoration of the entire theater was estimated at $12 million. One company in particular, Cinema NDG, wasted a lot of time, promising for years that they would reopen the theater. They pledged to renovate and open it by the end of 2013. When they failed to meet this, they were given another deadline of June 30, 2016 — but again they failed.

Empress Theater/Cinema V – Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose – CC BY 2.0

Empress Theater/Cinema V – Author: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose – CC BY 2.0

In October 2017, citizens of Montreal formed another group named Friends of the Empress. Their goal was the revival of the glorious Empress Theater but with almost no plans on how. However, after this action, the Cinema NDG company partnered with the French film company MK2 and promised for a fourth time that they would restore and reopen the theater. Besides the 880 seat cinema, there are plans that the building will include a restaurant, coffee shop, and a bar. Besides their word, there is no signed agreement with the municipality, nor a financial plan, and no sign of work in or around the building.