Out & About

January 16, 2014

Exhibit examines Montreal's past of forbidden pleasures

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.

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