MONTREAL — Centre d’Histoire de Montreal offers a look at the underside and other side of the city.
CHM presents “Scandal! Vice, Crime and Morality in Montreal, 1940-1960,” a colorfully fun take on the city’s fairly recent past when risqué ran rampant; and “The Hidden Face of the Mountain,” which looks at the geographical northern and western slopes of Mount Royal Park.
First up, “Scandal!” offers a look at the seedier side of Montreal when illegal activities took center stage. On display are hundreds of photos, film clips and artifacts that may be age appropriate for mature teens, but leave the younger family members to stroll the permanent collection one floor below with mom or dad (unless, of course, you don’t mind explaining what a brothel is).
The decades between 1940 and 1960 in Montreal’s Red Light heyday got its boost from 1920s- to 1930s-era prohibition in the U.S. With no such laws banning alcohol in Canada, thirsty Americans flocked across the border where liquor freely flowed. The downtown core, and specifically Montreal’s Red Light District — the heart of which intersected at St. Catherine Street and St. Laurent Boulevard — boasted bars, brothels, gambling halls, night clubs and dance halls aplenty. A wall-sized map shows the entire area but also pinpoints the bars and betting halls of days gone by.
The space re-creates a night club complete with tables, chairs and videos of Montrealers who reminisce about the era. Throughout the exhibition, a who’s who of the more popular players of the day gets highlighted with entertainers, crime mobsters, police and politicians all getting a proper nod.
Journalist Al Palmer also gets his due. Palmer, who wrote columns about the city’s nightlife for the Montreal Herald and the Montreal Gazette, offered some practical advice in his 1950s guidebook “Montreal Confidential.” Of the El Morocco, Palmer wrote: “The El had the prettiest chorus girls, the funniest comics, the thickest steak and the strongest drinks.” An original copy of “Montreal Confidential” is on display.
CHM really had some fun designing this one. In addition to the duplicated mini night club is a seedy side street on the way to the Old Port docks, a gambling hall, a police station and even a brothel room for rent. Intermixed are fun multimedia elements including a video police lineup and some strange suggestive goings on under the covers in that brothel bedroom — you have been warned.
A number of factors played in the demise of the era including suburban sprawl, the advent of television and politicians who promised to clean up the city — and did. The exhibition concludes on a nice present-day note with a look at the city’s recently designated Quartier des Spectacles or Entertainment District along and near St. Catherine Street, which now plays home to the likes of the Place des Arts concert hall complex and the free outdoor summer fun of the Montreal Jazz Festival. The area remains a bustling hot spot of Montreal’s entertaining past and present.
“Scandal!” continues through October 2015.
Also on display is “The Hidden Face of the Mountain,” an exhibition that highlights the 70th year of the presence of three acclaimed educational institutions that call the northern and western slopes of Mount Royal home: Universite de Montreal; HEC Montreal, a French business school; and Polytechnique Canada, the well-known engineering school.
The small exhibit explores a number of topical themes. “The Natural Mountain” and “The Rural Mountain” offer a pastoral approach of the indigenous flora and fauna of the area as well as its topographic beginnings.
“The Built Mountain,” “The Modified Mountain” and “The Institutional Mountain” take an architectural approach in the form of the schools that make the mountain home as well as highlighting St. Joseph’s Oratory and two major cemeteries: Mount Royal and Notre Dame des Neiges.
Perhaps the more interesting theme is “The Underground Mountain and a Collection of Curiosities.” Here we meet a who’s who of those interred at the cemeteries and some secrets below the surface that the mountain keeps including the occasional underground tunnels and passageways.
“The Other Side of the Mountain” continues through April 14.IF YOU GO CHM is at 335 Place d'Youville (Metro station Square Victoria). Admission costs $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for students. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call (514) 872-3207 or visit www.ville.montreal.qc.ca/chm.