The Laurier Palace Theatre Fire
A look at the tragic Laurier Palace Theatre fire, which claimed the lives of 78 Montreal children in January of 1927.
Many local parents considered the Laurier Palace Theatre a firetrap. Situated between a cafe and a bar, there were no lateral exits; the only way out of the theatre was through exits on either side of the ticket wicket and two rear exits on both sides of the stage, which led out onto a lane at the rear of the building.
Few parents were aware their children had lined up to see a movie that cold and sunny January day. Some had told their parents they would be at church or in a snow-covered park like the one across the street. Constable Albert Boisseau thought his three children had gone to the skating rink.
The afternoon of Sunday, January 9, 1927, a parade of children lined the sidewalk of Montreal’s St-Catherine East, eagerly clutching nickels and dimes within their wool mittens. They were waiting for the doors of the theatre to open and welcome them in for a matinee of laughs and thrills. The Laurier — a second-run theatre in Montreal’s East End that by then had seen better days — could seat 786 people, 300 of whom could sit in the balcony. On a day like this, you were sure to have a full house.
Rumour had it that the first fifty people lined up would get in for free, so excitement was buzzing out on the sidewalk, below the theatre’s bright drop-down marquee — the decrepit structure’s only palatial attribute. Local boy Benjamin Roy turned 14 that day, and part of his birthday gift was to see a movie with his brother before having dinner with his family. Eight-year old Sylvia Quintal, in line with her older siblings Adrien and Hildegarde, was excited to see a movie for the first time.
If this scene were taking place anywhere else in North America sometime after the 1950s, nothing would have seemed out of the ordinary, but things were a little different in Quebec back then. A law passed in 1914 stated that nobody under the age of 16 was permitted into a cinema without a parent or guardian. That law had been amended in 1919, which then allowed kids to attend “children’s shows” deemed permissible by the censors. None of the films being shown at the Laurier that day had received such certification.
It was not unusual for children at the time to wheedle older individuals into buying them tickets and escorting them through the doors. Many cinema owners ignored the rules, and the Laurier Palace was no exception. Ameen Lawand, the 31 year-old owner of the Laurier and the Maisonneuve Theatre on Rue Ontario, had already been fined for allowing minors into the theatre. He’d also been fined for showing posters that had been unapproved for public display, and for failing to charge the amusement tax — all minor infractions. The theatre had exhibited all summer and fall without a proper license, and as late as December, he’d been fined once again for having people standing in the aisles.
But most importantly, Lawand had also been warned on several occasions to keep the fire exits clear.
On the bill that day was The Devil’s Gulch [i], a western starring Bob Custer, and the film they were all excited to see, the ominously-titled Get ‘Em Young [ii], a two-reel Hal Roach comedy written and directed by Stan Laurel, who also co-starred as a butler. By 12:30, the kids had all walked through the dingy lobby with its grimy walls, and were now seated and about to munch away on Cracker Jacks boxes purchased in a nearby cigar store. The western would soon be flickering away on the screen. Those who didn’t get there early enough were still happy to stand in the aisles or at the rear of the balcony. It is estimated that 350 kids were packed into the balcony that afternoon.
The Panic Begins
Around 2:00, the silent slapstick of sour-faced Stan Laurel and Harry Myers, who later played the rich drunk in City Lights, had brought howls of laughter to the audience. Among them was 18-year old Charles Pelletier, whose laughter ended quickly when he saw smoke coming up from the thin and rickety floor of the balcony. Seated in the third row over to the left, he was among the first to yell “Fire!” when he felt the heat at his feet. He made his way towards the exit, but since the balcony was already over capacity and the stairwell entrance was blocked by swarming children, it was nearly impossible to move. With the east doorway blocked, some children rushed to the west, but that door was locked. It was obvious that all was not well, and despite their best attempts to calm the panic-stricken children, one of the ushers pulled the alarm.
As the alarm rang and alerted Fire Station House 13 some 50 yards away, the children sitting in the orchestra section exited using the right hand stairway and got to the street safely. One of these lucky ones was 16 year old Mabel Ellis from Toronto, a pupil of the Margaret Eaton School of Dance. Mabel wasn’t only watching the film, as prior to the screening, she had been dancing on the stage as part of pre-show entertainment (it isn’t now clear whether she was dancing alone or as part of a troupe).
With the smoke in the balcony contributing to the panic, the children passed down the stairs in disorder but some eventually got through. Unfortunately, billowing clouds of smoke stampeded those still in the stairwell, and when one child stumbled, a log-jam ensued. Ten year old Ernie Fitzpatrick, who lived two doors up from the Laurier, crawled over heads and bodies in a fighting mob on the aisle & stairwell. He felt the hand of a poor soul trapped underneath grab hold of his foot, but he climbed over those who were between him and the door. Ernie knew he’d be done for if he didn’t stay on top. The majority of the others weren’t so lucky. Crushed underneath dozens of bodies, they were either trampled to death or asphyxiated by the thick black smoke working its way through the stairwell. The Montreal Gazette reported that most of these children had attended mass earlier that morning and held onto the rosaries in their pockets, praying to their Patron saint.
For those involved, the infernal strangle must have seemed endless, but reports claimed the firemen arrived within minutes. Upon entering the building, they were braced with horrific shrieks and the final gasping breaths of dying children. Any attempt to pull the trapped out from the jammed stairwell was futile; the weight of bodies piled on top of one another was impossible to get through. The quagmire was dissipated when they hacked a hole through the street wall, “tore down partitions in a cupboard under the stairs and pierced the wall of the landing,” said the Toronto Daily Star. One of the ushers was still alive atop the pile and helped pass the bodies, living and dead, out to safety.
Alphege Arpin was one of the firemen called to the scene. His heart sank when he realized the Laurier Palace was the destination, since he knew his son had gone there with some friends. He later found his six year old son Gaston at the morgue, but not after several misunderstandings had given him the false hope that they’d be reunited. As the victims, with their blackened hands and faces, were carried out onto the street, Constable Albert Boisseau, the same man who thought his children had gone out skating, came across the body of his 13-year old daughter Germaine. A later visit to the morgue would uncover the bodies of Roland, 11, and Yvette, 8.
A poster for the Mary Pickford film Sparrows fluttered near the bodies of two dead children. Sparrows was set to play at The Laurier the following week, but many media outlets, including the Toronto Daily Star, wrote that the film had been playing when the fire broke out. Pickford’s publicist quickly dispelled any rumours, and Pickford’s production company sent financial aid to one of the relief funds set up for the grieving families.
Owner Ameen Lawand had not been at the Laurier that day, but was at his other theatre. When an usher called him to tell him what was happening, he left the theatre and immediately called his lawyer. He later told the official inquiry: “I went to my house. I thought I could do more at my house as the firemen and the policemen were at the theatre.” Around 4 o’clock, he gathered some of his employees and heard their testimonies. This wasn’t the first time a fire had broken out at one of Lawand’s businesses, which also included a billiards hall on Mont-Royal avenue. There had already been a fire at the Laurier, and a blaze had broken out at the Maisonneuve back in 1921.
Even after the inquiry, the cause of the fire was never fully determined. Wanting to pass the blame onto the rowdy kids, Lawand and his employees testified that the children were always lighting matches so they could see what was under their seats, but Charles Pelletier told the inquiry he did not see anybody smoking or playing with matches. Most believed that faulty wiring beneath the floorboards is what signaled the blaze that caused grief to so many local families.
The scene outside was one of sadness and confusion. Parents cried out for their children and fought police to enter the theatre. Many of them, who didn’t even know their children were there in the first place, would eventually find them at one of the hospitals in the area, or in some unfortunate cases, the morgue. While 77 children died the day of the fire, the official tally would be 78, when 16 year old Ernest Robichaud would die in the hospital three days later. Robichaud was one of the few who had permission to go to the movies, although his parents didn’t know he was there that day. These children died as a result of negligence at the hands of a entrepreneur who gave more thought to his bottom line than to providing safety to his patrons. The Laurier Palace was most likely not the only fire-trap in Montreal, nor was it the only theatre that allowed unaccompanied children onto its premises, but the fact of the matter is that it happened, and that the incident could have been prevented. On a deeper level, if the province hadn’t imposed such strict regulations, perhaps children wouldn’t have flocked to such a death-trap for entertainment. Instead, they might have gone to any of the city’s other, well-maintained movie houses.
One of the few adult heroes that day was 27 year old projectionist Emile Massicotte. When the panic began, Get Em Young was threading its final feet of film, and Massicotte immediately turned off the projector. Observing the scramble evolving around the door of the balcony, he realized he could get children to safety by passing them through the window in his projection booth, which led out to the top of the marquee. Through the thick smoke, he ran back and forth, grabbing frightened children and pushing them through the window of the booth. After saving well over two dozen children, Massicotte made his way to the street in utter exhaustion. He offered more help, but the fire dept had taken over. Had Massicotte not been so heroic, the death toll could have gone as high as 100. The fire itself never reached the booth. The projector still had the end titles of the Hal Roach comedy at the gate. One can only wonder whatever became of that reel of nitrate film.
The next day, passersby could see the shattered windows of the facade and black tarpaulins hiding the gaps created by the firemen to rescue the children. Massive icicles hung from the marquee as a poster for Get Em Young taunted local residents within its showcase. Stepping into the lobby, the musty and damp smell of the day before permeated; the Toronto Daily Star‘s sensational prose mentioned streaks of dried blood along the walls of the stairwell where the children perished. Within the auditorium, there had been extensive water damage, and mute evidence of the children’s haste could be seen by the rows of boots underneath the wet seats. Up top, the walls of the balcony had been charred; the ceiling had burned through in spots.
Later that week, one of the two funeral masses for the victims was held at the nearby Eglise de la Nativite, where co-archbishop Georges Gauthier presided over the ceremony. Gauthier, a high-ranking member of the puritanical team of Archbishop Paul Bruchesi, took his sermon as an opportunity to lash out at the moral dangers of the flickers, and sought to bar children from the cinema altogether. Within a year, a law barring children under 16 from the cinema took effect. Quebec’s censors and regulations at the time were considered to be some of the worst in the free world [iii], where films would be cut and censored. Municipal governments would also play a part, as evidenced the week of the fire when the mayor of Quebec City would ban all Charles Chaplin films in circulation due to his impending divorce to Lita Grey.
The age restrictions placed in 1928 remained until the 1960s, when the Quiet Revolution would hasten a change in public attitudes and loosen the stronghold held by the Catholic Church over the province for so long. Prior to these changes, perhaps ironically, many children would see their first films in church basements.
It appears the laws weren’t so different in Ontario in 1927. Nobody under 15 was allowed into a movie theatre without supervision, except on Saturdays, where theatres employed a matron to watch the children. While the laws in Ontario were some of strictest in the country, the event in Montreal did remind some that the laws had to be revised. In Toronto, there were 109 cinemas capable of seating 86 845 patrons. Theatres like the Loew’s Uptown, which was showing Madge Bellamy in Summer Bachelors that very weekend, was given a clear inspection from the fire department. However, while most of the smaller neighborhood theatres complied with regulations, many asked if the standards were high enough, and an inquest was launched at the behest of the Theatres Inspection branch. In an effort to reassure movie-goers, Tom Daly, long-time manager at the Tivoli, printed up emergency plans and handed them out to attendants and even projected glass slides on screen prior to the movie.
In the end, manslaughter charges were laid upon owner Ameen Lawand, doorman Camille Bazzi, as well as assistant manager Michel Arie, who had told the children in the balcony to return to their seats after the fire had started. Bazzi and Arle were sentenced to one year in prison, and Lawand was sentenced to three, but he was later acquitted on appeal.
One would think that Lawand’s place in the city’s theatre history would end here, but after the acquittal, he ventured into larger theatre projects as partner of Confederated Amusements. Perhaps in hope of clearing his name with the public, some of his later theatres, notably the Empress (1928) on Sherbrooke St., as well as the Outremont (1929) on rue Bernard, were commended for their excellent safety standards. It is interesting to note that upon the premiere of the Empress in 1928, not a single mention of Lawand’s name was made in the media; a calculated move to not scare the public, whose memories were still fresh with the events of the previous year.
The Laurier Palace Today
Vanessa Pfeiffer, Lawand’s grand-daughter, is currently working on a documentary about her grandfather’s life. Peddling Pictures [iv] traces the story of a man and his brothers, recent immigrants from Syria, wanting to carve out their mark in the city. Pfeiffer, wanting to clear her grandfather’s legacy, says one of the important things to consider about the Laurier Palace Fire is to take into account the time and place of these events: “The Laurier Palace was just one of many Montreal theatres and buildings in general that were not up to code. Theatres all across the city, including the more ‘reputable’ movie houses were packed to the gills with unattended children.” She claims the incident could have happened in just about any theatre in Montreal.”
Today, the tragedy of the Laurier Palace Theatre is largely forgotten, but it was one of the biggest news sensations of the late 1920s and would certainly be remembered for a generations to come. Unfortunately, not much has been written about it since then, although a few songwriters have penned tribute to the event. The Franco-Albertan Heritage Project holds an archive of songbooks, among them a song entitled “Complainte du Laurier Palace” by Henriette Laverdiere. Many others would be written as well. One of those songs’ lyrics would be sung by mothers to their children as a reminder to always obey their parents: “Ils leur fallait des anges au paradis / Alors c’est votre enfant que le ciel a choisi.” (“They needed new angels in paradise / It is your child which the heavens have chosen.”)
Theatre fires were unfortunately common in those days. Some were minor, like the one taking place a few days later at Hertz’ Motion Picture Cinema in New York City’s Bowery district. Although nobody was hurt, the victims of other theatre fires haven’t been so lucky. Possibly the worst case occurred in 1903, at the five-week old Iroquois Theatre in Chicago. During a performance of the musical comedy Mr. Bluebeard, a malfunctioning stage light ignited drapes along the proscenium arch, and when the rigging for the asbestos curtain proved faulty, the blaze went out of control. The fire exits were inexplicably locked, and well over 600 people lost their lives that day — the majority of them women and children.
Visiting the intersection of Ste-Catherine and Desery today, you see a primarily residential neighbourhood. The park where some of those children played before getting in line is still there, and so is the building on the left hand side, which had been a bank at one point. A Quebec judge ordered the theatre closed after the fire, and one could surmise that it was likely destroyed soon after. According to the Lovell’s Street Directory, the address of the theatre was listed as blank in 1928-29, the same year the numbering system on St-Catherine had changed. In 1954, a church was built in its location, and a plaque adorning the facade on the site to commemorate the victims of the fire is still there to this day.
[i] Butts, Ed, Great Canadian Disaster Stories, Prospero Books, 2006, p. 190; The writeup about the Laurier claims that Upstage with Norma Shearer was also on the bill that day, but I was unable to find any mention of it in the newspapers other than it was playing at several theatres in Montreal and Toronto at the time. Since the chronology and timing of the disaster is confusing due to all the varying testimonies, I chose to leave Upstage out.
[ii] Mark Evanier over at povonline.com tells the story of how Oliver Hardy was supposed the play the role of the butler, but a few days prior to filming, he burned his arm with scalding hot gravy while roasting a leg of lamb. Laurel was persuaded to step in as the butler. Of Laurel, Evanier writes: “Before, he’d been concerned with being a leading man and in shouldering the entire burden of carrying the film. Now, in a supporting role, he concentrated on just being funny and so began to home in on the screen character that would soon make him famous.”
[iii] Dean, Malcolm, Censored! Only In Canada, Virgo Press, 1981, pp. 158-164.
[iv] A short trailer for Peddling Pictures is available here
Sources: Stories about the victims, survivors and the ensuing inquest are all from the Montreal Gazette, Jan 10-15, 1927; Toronto Daily Star, Jan 10-13, 1927; La Presse de Montreal, Oct 25, 1927; All photos taken from The Toronto Star, unless otherwise noted. Many thanks to Gilles Douaire for help with research and Roger Rousseau for editing.