The Laurier Palace Theatre Fire

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It was a day that changed Quebec forever.
On a cold January day in 1927, a couple hundred children attended the film Get ‘Em Young at the Laurier Palace Theatre in Montreal.
A cigarette was tossed carelessly onto the floor of a theatre as Stan Laurel played a butler who is persuaded to pretend to be a man’s wife so that he can inherit $1 million.
Before that movie was over, 78 people were dead, all but one under age 16. The tragedy changed Quebec forever.
I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!

To understand how a fire at The Laurie Palace Theater fundamentally changed a Canadian province… I have to take you back to July 7, 1534.That’s when an unnamed priest with French explorer Jacques Cartier celebrated Mass on what became Canadian soil for the first time.
When New France was founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, the Catholic Church became one of the most powerful forces in Quebec.
That power lasted for over three centuries.
In 1875, the Ministry of Public Instruction was abolished giving power to the Roman Catholic Church to oversee education.
The only schools permitted in Quebec were confessional schools because education was seen as the domain of the family and the church, not the state.
By the 20th century, the Catholic Church exerted a huge amount of influence on the provincial government.
Divorces could only be obtained through an act of Parliament.
Health services and civil registries were completely controlled by the church.

But, the times, as they say, were changing.
By the early 20th century, a new technology was taking the world by storm.
Moving pictures allowed people to see fantastic things right before their eyes.
They could see death-defying stunts, grand vistas, and even, social commentary.
For the Catholic Church, film represented a danger, especially to young minds.
The Catholic Church in Quebec called it “the devil’s night classes.
The Church demanded that children be banned from watching films, lest they be corrupted by them.
In the summer of 1926, Judge Lacroix of the Juvenile Court attempted to ban all children in Quebec under the age of 16 from entering theatres.
He argued that children were known to commit paltry thefts to gain admission money.
This was blocked by the Supreme Court as the judge did not have the jurisdiction for the ban.
It was amid this changing world that the Laurier Palace Theatre opened in 1912.
While live theatre would remain a staple well into the 1920s, the move to showing silent films began before the 1910s were out.
It would take two years after the theater’s opening for Charlie Chaplin to rise to fame and change cinema forever.
In the meantime, business was good, the theater sat on Sainte-Catherine’s Street, only a block away from the St. Lawrence River.
The street has long been Montreal’s main commercial artery, and a great location for the theatre.
Unlike most cinemas in Quebec, The Laurier Palace Theatre also showed films on Sundays, something the Catholic Church was firmly against.
The owners had no idea when the theater opened that they would be destined to be on the front lines in a fight with the Catholic Church.

Montreal was abuzz as the calendar year ticked over to 1927.
That year, Queen Marie of Romania became the first reigning monarch to visit the city as Howie Morenz lit up the National Hockey League as the first superstar for the Montreal Canadiens.
The team was still three years away from its next Stanley Cup, but excitement was high as another hockey team in the same city, The Montreal Maroons, lived in the afterglow of winning the Stanley Cup the previous year.
The city was the largest in Canada, as it had been since nearly Confederation in year, and as it would remain until the end of the century.
In a buzzling city like Montreal The Laurier Palace Theatre was doing brisk business in7.
During the first week of 1927, the theatre showed Valencia, starring Mae Murray.
The silent romance film also known as The Love Song, is presumed lost but the story of a handsome sailor that falls in love with a singer who has already caught the of another man was a box office hit and the title song, Valencia, was the top song in the U.S.
The White Black Sheep starring Richard Barthelmess as an English officer that assumes guilt for a petty theft; and goes on to clear his name by fighting in North Africa, was scheduled for the following week.
On Jan. 8, 1927, a “safety show” was schedule.
Put on by the Child Welfare Association and the Province of Quebec Safety League, the show’s goal was to explain to children their duty to take care of themselves, so they may grow up to be citizens of value to the community.
The Knight of the Cross Roads was shown after Montreal mayor Mederic Martin spoke to the children.
The safety film told the story of how schools teach students to be careful through the organization of safety patrols.
The next day Get ‘Em Young was scheduled.
This comedy was the perfect film for children, enjoying the weekend and looking for something to do.
Since it was Sunday, there was little else going on in the city.
The movie is less than a half hour long and when it started, the theatre was only one-quarter full.
250 people, mostly children, were in attendance.
Everyone was enjoying themselves until, in the darkness, someone yelled the words no one wanted to hear.

Ernie Fitzpatrick, was a ten-year-old boy, watching the movie when he heard someone yell fire.
At first, he saw no signs of it but within a minute smoke rose to the balcony.
Ernie wasn’t the only one initially unaware of the danger.
The ushers, believing it was a prank by one of the kids, blocked the east balcony exit and told the children to go back to their seats.
But as smoke filled the air panic ensued and the ushers, now realizing the danger, attempted to put out the fire using hand extinguishers which did little to stop the spread of the flames.
The ushers then attempted to use axes on the balcony floor so children could escape to the floor below but as the flames grew, the children ran into the stairwells to escape, The staircases were designed in a three-turn plan, which means there are two landings between the balcony and street level.
The stairwell was five feet wide, and had a right angle turn on one of the landings.
At the lower landing, swinging doors create an additional hazard and bottleneck for escape. Children who ran down to the doors from the balcony couldn’t open them.
The doors opened inward, and as the rush of children pushed against the doors to get out, there was no way for the doors to open.
Ernie Fitzpatrick ran towards the stairwell but found it was jammed at the corner.
He knew he could not get out that way.
He described the fire as if it was coming from underneath as the fire slowly burned between the sub-floor and the upper floorboards of the theater.

Emile Massicotte, the projectionist, was able to get 30 children away from the locked exit in the balcony and into the projection booth. He then passed each child out a window onto the marquee above the sidewalk and to safety.
He said,
“The children were crazed with fear and screamed for their mothers. I realized that my window opening to the marquee over the door was the only hope of saving them as the stairwell was immediately jammed.”
Reports in the newspaper later identified that the fire started in the centre of the balcony seats, about 18 feet in front of the film projection box, itself a fireproof structure.
Meanwhile the balcony was an inferno as Paul Champagne, one of the ushers, directed children to another stairway that hadn’t been blocked.

Ernie Fitzpatrick stated down those stairs, he said quote,
“When the smoke began to get thicker, I started down the stairs. When I got near the door, the boys and girls were piled on top of each other.” end quote.
The scene was disturbing and violent in nature.
As panicked children struggled while being trampled.
Many were crying out in pain.
Ernie said he had to climb over the mass of children to get to the door and as he did a boy grabbed his foot and tried to pull himself out.
He said quote,
“I struggled and my shoe came off in his hand. I did not stop to get it. I knew that I would be crushed if I did not stay on top.” end quote.
As Ernie struggled suddenly, arms grabbed him and lifted him over the other children and into the street.
As that moment Hugh Fitzpatrick, Ernie’s father, saw his son being carried out of the disaster.
Ernie would live, but he was one of the lucky ones.
The two men, Paul Champagne and Emile Massicotte, saved upwards of 100 children from the disaster.
Firefighters at the fire station located right across the street arrived quickly but were unable to get in the theatre due to the crush of children blocking the doors.
The fire itself was relatively small but it brought nearly all the city’s firefighters to the theatre.
The problem is they couldn’t get in.
Fire Chief Gauthier ordered his men to cut through the front of the theatre, break through a lumber room and washroom, and then attack the stairs from below, cutting a path to rescue.
Alphea Arpin was the first firefighter to break into the theatre. He found his son, Gaston, dead.
Police reserves were drafted into duty to handle the growing crowds.
Many worried parents had rushed to the theatre upon hearing the news, and now they waited to find out the fate of their children.
The horror inside the theater would be one firefighters wouldn’t soon forget.
An unnamed firefighter said he saw a little girl, who was about ten years old and heavily burned still clutching the candy bar she was eating prior to the fire in her hand.
In the disaster, 78 children were killed. A total of 12 were crushed, 64 asphyxiated and two were killed by the fire itself.
By 4 p.m. the last of the bodies had been cleared from the scene and taken to the morgue.
Firefighter Alphea Arpin was one of the first to enter the inferno only to find his own son Gaston, amongst the dead.
Constable Albert Boisseau’s three children, Germaine, Yvette, and Roland, who had gone to the theater without his permission.
The policeman had been called to assist when he made the horrible discovery.
He said, “It wipes out my family.”
As it turned out, only a handful of parents had given their children permission, the majority had no idea that their children were in attendance until the fire happened.
Nearly all of the victims were located on the balcony, when the fire started.
The floor was gutted by the flames.
Those on the ground floor, for the most part, escaped harm and were able to get out safely.
No one knows how the fire started.
Some believe faulty wiring caused it, while others thought children were playing with matches in the theatre.
Later reports stated the inferno was caused by a li cigarette, thrown carelessly on the ground. No matter how it started, Canada’s largest city was now in mourning for its lost children.

The day after the fire, the Montreal Theatre Managers’ Association pledged to raise $10,000 for the families of the victims.
Members of the organization immediately donated $1,000 and began to canvas other theatre owners for more.
By the end of the first day, they had raised $30,000.
Dr. G. Wilfrid Derome and his assistant Dr. Rosario Fontaine worked for eight hours straight to the point of near collapse to determine the cause of death for each of the victims.
Dr. Derome said, quote.
“I have never seen anything like it or anything that would begin to approach it in my experience. The sight of those poor young bodies was sufficient to break down even my professional barrier of unemotionalism.”
In the morgue, to help officials identify victims, children were laid in rows and parents had to walk through the room looking for their children. Only six people could go in at a time, while over 200 others waited to get in.
The Montreal Star wrote,
“The stillness and the overwhelming horror of that body-strewn room seemed to stifle all sobs and strike the visitors dumb.”
On Jan. 11, funeral services were held at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin near the theatre for 39 of the victims. 4,000 people attended the mass funeral.
Outside the church, 50,000 people watched the funeral procession move through the streets.
During the memorial service, Father Georges Gauthier, the co-Archbishop of Montreal, asked whether entertainment should be allowed on Sundays, and if children should be banned from cinemas.
It seemed that before families had a chance to say their goodbyes people were looking for someone to blame.
The Catholic Church and its supporters immediately pointed their fingers at the movies themselves.
Several people seized on the disaster as an opportunity to prevent children from attending theatres in general.
Among their claims were the dangers of a child’s excited nervous system, harmed their education, created sinful ideas, led to immorality and troubled the imagination.
The day after the disaster, Judge Lecroix of the Juvenile Court was back on the case and stated that the average movie was not children and if he had his way, no child under the age of 12 would be able to go to the movies.
He said,
“I wish I could impress upon the public how juvenile delinquency is affected by the moving pictures. Boys and girls of every age find great attraction in a moving picture.”
Two days after the fire, on Jan. 11, 1927, the Mayor of Quebec City banned Charlie Chaplin’s movies from the city’s theatres.
Mayor Martin stated the ban was caused by his disgust with marital troubles of Chaplin and his wife, but most believed it was the first attempt to limit the cinema in the province.
On Aug. 31, 1927, about seven many months later Justice Boyer released his report on the blaze.
Among his recommendations was that no child under 16 should be allowed to attend a cinema, regardless of parental accompaniment.
The majority of victims in the fire were in attendance without adult supervision.
Boyer also recommended banning Sunday performances but stated that cinema was not immoral.
In 1928, the Quebec government passed a law to ban all children under the age of 16 from attending the cinema. That same year, a law was adopted that all theatre exit doors had to open outwards.
That ban would outlast The Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Korean War.
When it came into place, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was just starting to play hockey on the ice surfaces of Montreal as a gifted seven-year-old.
The ban was finally lifted when Richard was a retired player and cultural icon.
At this point, he was in his 40s.
What brought it down?
A monumental shift that today we call The Quiet Revolution.

In many ways the cinema ban represented the power the Catholic Church held in the province, so it is no surprise that it ended when the Quiet Revolution began.
The first cracks in the Catholic Church stronghold over Quebec began to form during the 1940s.
Many Quebecers, who read the book the Tin Flute by French Canadian author Gabrielle Roy took a hard look at themselves, the Catholic Church and upper-class Anglophones who controlled much of the province.
Originally published in 1945, the novel, set during the Second World War, gave a stark and realistic portrayal of the people living in a working-class neighbourhood of Montreal.

The book is considered so important to Quebec culture, that its publication was designated a historic event by the province in 2017.
Historians believe The Tin Flute helped lay the foundation for the Quiet Revolution.
The origins of which take place during the 1940s and 1950s, when Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis ruled the province.
He was premier from 1936 to 1939, and from 1944 to 1959 when he died in office.
Called Le Chef, or The Boss, Duplessis maintained and protected the traditional role of the Catholic Church in Quebec’s society, especially when it came to healthcare and education.
Anyone deemed an enemy of the Church, was harassed by the government, including Communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
If those who had read the Tin Flute and weren’t swayed towards change, another event would take place that would help build upon it.
On Feb. 14, 1949, the miners at four mines near Asbestos, Quebec went on strike.
The asbestos mines were owned by American or English-Canadian companies, but nearly all the workers were Francophones.
The miners demanded more pay, the elimination of asbestos dust in and outside the mill, and a social security fund along with overtime pay.
All of these were rejected by the owners.
The Quebec population, media and some in the Catholic Church were sympathetic to the miners, but the government was not.
When police threatened to open fire on the protesting miners, the miners backed down.
In June 1949, they agreed to go back to work with few gains, and many were never given their jobs back.
I’ll be covering the Asbestos Strike in the future.
Meanwhile, tensions were growing in Quebec.
On March 16, 1955, Maurice Richard was suspended for the rest of the NHL season and the playoffs after he punched a linesman.
People in Montreal were outraged, believing that the suspension was too harsh and motivated by the fact Richard was French-Canadian.
The man who handed down the suspension was NHL President Clarence Campbell, an Anglophone.
When Campbell attended a game at the Montreal Forum on March 17, all hell broke loose.
Someone threw tear gas in the stands, and people outside rioted causing $100,000 in property damages.
The sight of French Canadians rioting over the perceived slight to a Quebec cultural icon has led many modern commentators to believe that the riot was another significant factor that helped spark the Quiet Revolution.
Then, in 1960 Jean Lesage became the Liberal premier of Quebec, ending nearly two decades of Conservative rule, the Quiet Revolution officially began.
Under his premiership and over the course of the decade, power was wrestled away from the Catholic Church by the provincial government.
The legalization of the unionization of the civil service, the creation of a Ministry of Education and a Ministry of Health, and a greater control over the province’s economy were all major changes I will be covering the Quiet Revolution on Oct. 10of this year, so keep an eye out for it.
Amid all those changes, there was another.
Which will bring us back to the Laurier Palace Theater…

Since the fire of 1927 that inspired the ban on children’s attendance in theaters plenty of teenagers still found a way in.
In an opinion piece about the cinema ban in March 1961, one theatre owner in Montreal stated that the under-16 crowd accounted for a large section of his theatre business.
He added that some movies, specifically those by Disney, should be open to all children.
That year alone would see One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the Absent-Minded Professor and The Parent Trap all hit the silver screen.
Most people, including school principals, theatre owners and parents, felt that the 16-and-over rule was outdated, and the law needed to be changed.
The government, already making drastic changes to Quebec society, listened.
On July 12, 1961, the cinema ban was officially lifted… sort of.
The decision had been approved by the government a month earlier in June, but it came with restrictions.
Anyone under the age of 16 could watch free movies at a school, attend special, free children’s shows given before 6 p.m. at a place approved by the Board of Cinema Censors.
Special shows for children over the age of nine, would be allowed before 6 p.m.
While the partial ban lift did help theatres, by 1964 the public was calling on the government to lift the entire ban.
That year would see Mary Poppins hit the screens.
To allow younger viewers a system of film classification was needed, so certain ages could see certain films.
In 1967, the cinema law was modified to create a motion picture rating system, separating the movie-going public into three categories. Those over 18, those between the age of 14 and 17 and those under the age of 14.
Just in time for The Jungle Book’s release, children could once again go to the movies in Quebec.
It took children four decades to be able to enjoy going to the theater, the last time was on that fateful day in 1927 and the last movie was Get ‘Em Young.

The movie itself is pretty forgettable.
But there’s one interesting story that I think you might like.
As I mentioned, the movie starred Stan Laurel as Summers, the butler who has to pretend to be a man’s wife so that he can inherit $1 million.
He got the role after another actor was replaced due to an injury from a cooking accident at home.
The man Laurel replaced was Oliver Hardy.
A year later, those two men, Laurel and Hardy, cast in their first film together, The Lucky Dog and producers quickly saw they were a comedic match made in heaven.
Both were comedians but both knew how to play the straight man too.
The men became fast friends.
From that first film, a legendary comedic duo was born, Laurel and Hardy.
They forged a partnership and bond that lasted the rest of their lives.
Laurel and Hardy performed together in 107 short films, feature films and cameos until their last live stage performance on Dec. 1, 1954, at the Palace Theatre in the United Kingdom.
Information from Montreal Gazette, Culture Witness, Calgary Herald, National Post, Wikipedia, Montreal Star, Montreal Gazette,

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