Amidst the neon signs and boarded windows of Montreal’s red-light district sits Métropolis, a concert hall that’s undergone as many changes as the neighbourhood itself. Established as a prime destination for locals and tourists alike during the prohibition era, this area’s claim to fame has always been its entertainment: both legitimate and illicit. Though the days of its older buildings may be numbered due to urban renewal initiatives in the Quartier des Spectacles, Métropolis remains as a reminder of the red-light district’s rich history and former glamour. And while sleeker, modern architecture characterizes the building’s interior today, its expansive structure still serves as a token of the extravagant theatres and movie palaces that once helped put Montreal on the map.
The location currently occupied by Métropolis has actually been an amusement site since as early as the 1880s, when it was first used as a roller and ice skating rink. It was originally a wooden structure and, during off seasons, the rink served as a haven for traveling shows. One of its earliest acts recorded in The Montreal Gazette was called the “Young Buffalo’s Wild West Show,” which apparently included old-timey stage coaches and “really truly rough riders.” The former wooden structure was eventually replaced by a large theatre called the Lyceum which, operating before the days of vaudeville, welcomed a number of variety shows to its stage.
Then, after a change in management, the Lyceum became the Theatre de l’Opera Francais, which showcased satirical “Opéra bouffe” pieces, a popular style in late nineteenth-century French culture. Alice Nielson and John McCormack, two internationally-recognized singers of the day, were both recorded as having sung on its stage. Unfortunately, financial support for Montreal’s opera scene declined in the 1890s and, by 1896, the most prominent Montreal opera company ─ “l’Opéra Français de Montréal” ─ was thousands of dollars in debt.
In the following years, after a fire in 1900, the theatre would be transformed once again: this time into the Theatre Francais, which was destined to be both an artistic and commercial success. Attracting the era’s most famous actors, the theatre even presented several performances by Sarah Bernhardt in 1905, who was literally referred to as “the most famous actress the world has ever known.” New York’s popular Loew’s theatre chain took over, calling it “Loew’s Cineplex,” but their expansion attempt was unsuccessful and the theatre re-assumed its previous name after a brief time.
Here’s a fun fact for the proud Montréalais(e): Montreal was actually home to the first movie palace ever built in North America. Dubbed the “Ouimetoscope” after its founder, Ernest Ouimet, it was built in 1907 on the corner of St. Catherine Street and Montcalm (a plaque remains there today), just a decade or so after the Theatre Francais had made its transition from opera to modern theatre. Even with Montreal’s head-start in embracing moving pictures, the theatre’s owners remained skeptical well into the 1920s. When asked if he’d ever make the place a moving picture house in a 1924 Montreal Gazette article, the theatre’s then-owner George Rabinovitch ironically predicted that it was unlikely.
However, after another fire in the early 1930s, the building was luxuriously rebuilt and decorated by Emmanuel Briffa─one of the biggest contributors to Montreal architecture─and would go on to join the ranks of Montreal’s once-extravagant movie palaces. As the city’s culture changed, so did the theatre’s films ─ in 1960, it began showing French-language films only, until it came under new management in the 1970s. The theatre was renamed Eros and, unsurprisingly, played strictly pornos until the eighties. Strangely enough, despite being an adult theatre, the Cinema Eros was chosen to host a boxing match for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. In fact, according to a review of the match in the Gazette, this wasn’t even the site’s first such match; Billy Zed, “a ubiquitous ring figure for more than half a century,” recounted getting knocked out by “The Fighting Yank” there in 1916.
In 1986, the theatre finally adopted the name we know today ─ five years after Eros closed its doors, Métropolis was born. Used as a nightclub and concert venue (though the clubbing aspect faded gradually), it has since become a world-renown concert hall that’s regularly played by legendary acts (David Bowie, the Beastie Boys, and the White Stripes being just a few). With its capacity of 2,300 and sprawling, modernized auditorium and balconies, Métropolis has achieved international prominence and was even ranked as the ninth most popular venue worldwide in 2011, according to its annual number of ticket sales.
Lastly, as the setting of the 2012 Montreal shooting, Métropolis holds a place in our city’s conscience as a reminder of the violence that has marked Quebec’s fractured political history. On September 4th, 2012, one man was killed and another injured when a masked gunman opened fire in the venue’s auditorium, a devastating act that occurred directly after the Parti Québécois was announced as the winner of Quebec’s general election. Identified shooter Richard Henry Bain, who was caught trying to set fire to the building after the attack, is scheduled for trial in 2015.
Throughout the venue’s history, it seems that the state of Métropolis has always reflected the cultural climate of Montreal, for better or for worse. Despite most of Montreal’s old movie palaces having already been torn down, Métropolis has continued to thrive as a famous fixture of Montreal’s music scene and nightlife. Though a large portion of its surrounding buildings may be torn down in the years to come, we hope that Métropolis will remain as a symbol of the unique insights into Montreal’s history that the red-light district has to offer.