The flicker of images on the screen was the only source of light for an estimated crowd of 800 who were packed into the old Laurier Theater, for a cold Sunday afternoon matinee on January 9th, 1927. The balcony itself was crammed with almost 300 children ranging in age from 4 to 18, as they stared on in wonderment at the images being projected. It was a silent picture; a comedy called “Get’em Young”. Their views were slightly blurred, as waifs of cigarette smoke formed linear clouds before the screen. As the smoke thickened and the air took on a different scent, the children in the balcony continued to focus on the on-screen action. Moments later, the action would become real, as a smouldering cigarette was slowly burning between the sub-floor and the upper floorboards of the old theater.
The first alert came at 2:00pm, as a boy in the balcony eyed a small flame coming from the projection room below and shouted “Fire!”, sending people scrambling for the nearest of four exits. Within minutes, a choking, blinding smoke filled the theater. In the darkness of the aisles, the panic grew and swept across the rows of seats, almost at once. The 500 (or so) sitting in the orchestra section, were lucky enough to make it to the street. For the remaining 300, mostly children, the theater would take-on a more surreal view, as they rushed down the balcony stairs only to be ordered back up by a frantic ticket collector.
Children returning up the stairs only crashed into those still forcing their way down in sheer panic. Only one of the balcony stairway exits was open, the other remained locked, causing a bottleneck of youngsters with only one way to go. When the first line finally reached the exit doors, they found themselves being crushed against them by the force of the rushing crowd behind, as the doors only open inwards. As wave after wave crashed forward, they trampled and pinned those in front, jamming the doors shut ever tighter. From just across the street, firefighters from station 13 quickly arrived, but could do nothing to clear the mounting surge of youngsters pushing against doors from within.
Fireman Alphea Arpin was the first to enter, only to find his own son Gaston (6), amongst the dead. Of the 78 children that perished, 64 were asphyxiated, 12 were crushed, and ironically only 2 died from the actual fire itself. The funeral procession was watched by over 50,000 Montrealers and lasted only a day, yet the disaster itself changed our cinema laws, banning all Quebec children under 16 from going the movies, for almost the next 40 years.
Ironically, the silent movie being shown on that tragic day was “Get ’Em Young”, a silent comedy, written, directed and starring Stan Laurel himself as “Summers” the butler. It was a 1926 production made at the Hal Roach studios in the early years of Hollywood. It was here while directing silent films in 1927, that Stan Laurel would meet Oliver Hardy, and would begin producing films as the team of Laurel and Hardy. Within the same year, our laws would be preparing to ban our children from viewing them, with a Stan Laurel picture at the middle of it all.
The Laurier Theatre was inaugurated in 1912, the year the Titanic set sail, and was located on Ste.Catherine St. East (on the north side between Dezery and Prefontaine). The theater presented nickelodeon-style silent movies and could hold more than a thousand viewers in its wooden back seats. It was part of small local chain of cinemas owned and operated by the Lawand family, including the Dominion, King Edward, and Maisonneuve theaters. The Laurier did have a stylish “horseshoe” balcony, yet lacked the prestige and architectural beauty of our later Montreal theaters. Who could have foretold that only 15 years later, the Laurier would become world renown as one of the worst theater fires in Canadian history. To this day it is still known as “the Saddest Fire” or as “ the Laurier Fire Crush”. Although the Laurier was a simple movie house for the working classes, the fame of its catastrophic end and great loss of life, continue to allow it to stand out within the ashes of our own local history.
The following year, on March 22, 1928, the Taschereau government would adopt a law requiring all theaters to have exit doors open outwards, and which would prohibit all children under 16 from going to the movies. Throughout 1928 to 1932, theater owners continued to appeal the law, and at one point succeeded in having it suspended if only for a short period. In February 1938, a public outcry was made across Quebec newspapers and airwaves, pleading to permit our children to be able to watch the newly released Disney film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, as in the other provinces. Yet Quebec courts continued to uphold the movie law, citing that “family life would be breached if our children were allowed to view movies before the age of 16”. Oddly enough, many saw the law as inconsistent, as at the time Quebec children could marry at age 14. The law was finally repealed in 1961, and only officially replaced by today’s movie rating system, to coincide with the opening of EXPO in 1967.
At one time, we had four major theaters in Verdun, including the Savoy, the Verdun Palace, the Fifth Avenue, and the Park Theater, all of them built to meet the specific fire code, with sections most probably derived from Laurier disaster. Although our theaters were built to these new standards, smoking continued to be allowed within them, and at times was openly promoted in their lobbies, in their movies, and even by their favorite Hollywood actors on screen.
Movies once had the magic to transport us to different places and different times, bringing the wonders of Hollywood closer to home. Our local screens have since faded to black…yet we will always hold a certain fondness for them…remembering them as we watched each of their marquee bulbs finally blink out …while sitting right here…in our Southwest corner.