Downtown Montreal was about 45 minute bus ride away from where I grew up in the district of N.D.G. Up until I was about 13 years of age I don’t think I made it downtown more than a half dozen times a year and usually it was in the company of one of my parents. Even at an early age, I was fascinated by St. Catherine Street.
The old Montreal Forum was located at the corner of St. Catherine Street and Atwater. Every year while I was in grade school the 3 ring Shriner’s Circus would turn up at the Forum. Discount coupons were handed out by our teachers for the circus. I guess because the Shriner’s were involved in charity. I saw my first hockey game at the Forum in 1962. It was an exhibition game between the Blackhawks and the Canadiens. Cesare Maniago was the backup goalie for the Canadiens and I remember being surprised that he had jeans on under his goalie pads instead of hockey shorts. His shorts must have gotten lost somewhere. I was a big Blackhawks fan and we waited out by their team bus after the game. Moose Vasko looked like a giant. A few years later I worked one night at the Forum for free as an usher at a country and western concert. I knew some guys who were into that kind of music. I have no idea who the headliners were that night.
Across the street from the Montreal forum there was a bus terminal. The beginning or the end of the line for people coming and going from places like Montreal West, N.D.G., and Westmount.
English speaking people back in the 1950s and 1960s mostly lived on the west side of Montreal. Downtown to most of us was thought to be St. Catherine Street from Atwater Street to about Union Street where the old Morgan’s department store stood. Anything east was a mystery.
If you took a walk down St. Catherine Street in the late 1950s here are some things you would see. The many neon signs that glowed and flickered day and night. Signs with martini glasses beckoning people to come in for a drink, the movie theatre marquees at The Palace, The Princess, The Seville, The Capital, Loew’s, The York, and The Strand. You would see all kinds of restaurants, big and small, some upstairs and some at street level.
You would notice the streetcars before the tracks were ripped up. You might see a cop with a white hat and white gloves directing traffic. In the daytime the wide sidewalks were always crowded with people. If you walked from the Montreal Forum to Morgan’s (later The Bay) department store you would pass the Playland arcade and its pinball machines, Toe Blake’s Tavern, Dinty Moore’s Restaurant, a cake and pastry store that I think was called Aux Delices where my father would pick up little marzipan treats (some in the shape of little pigs) from time to time. I seem to remember that Aux Delices had one of those black cat clocks where the cat’s eyes moved from left to right as did its tail.
Along the way you would see four of Montreal’s largest department stores, Olgilvie’s, Simpson’s Eaton’s and Morgan’s. Dupius Frere was another large department store that catered mostly to French speaking people and was further east on St. Catherine Street. If you went into one of the department stores you would notice that the elevator operators were always young women who wore uniforms and had white gloves on. In the basement of Eatons’s there was an upscale grocery department. You could order all kinds of cakes and pastries. They even sold assorted tea sandwiches. Meat and fish were wrapped in a kind of salmon coloured paper. Cake boxes were tied up with string that hung from a dispenser over the counter person’s head.
Outside one or other of the department stores it was common to see an organ grinder with a small monkey or a guy who looked down on his luck who was missing his legs and begging while he sat on a board with wheels with his cap in hand.
Back then I knew very little about what went on in downtown Montreal at night. Occasionally, in the local newspapers (The Montreal Gazette and Montreal Star) I would read about something that had happened at The Chez Maurice, The Chez Paris, The Stork Club, or The El Morocco nightclubs.
The mid 1960s were a kind of coming of age for me. For a period of about 5 or 6 years I would spend a lot of nights in downtown Montreal along with some weekends in out of town places that young Montrealers flocked to.
This is my story about those times.
I lived in a lot of different places around Montreal from 1966 to 1970. At my parent’s place on Harvard Avenue in N.D.G., a bachelor apartment on Queen Mary Road, another apartment on Forest Hill just off of Cote de Neiges Road, yet another apartment in Cote St. Luc, 4 different McGill University frat houses, and in a number of rooming houses in the McGill student ghetto area. When I was really broke I crashed on people’s couches or floors. I also stayed out at my parent’s place in Valois (Pointe Claire) a few times for short periods. I often used their house as a mailing address. Wherever I lived I was always drawn to Montreal’s nightlife.
I drank my first beer when I was about 16 and got drunk behind West Hill High School with a couple of other guys. Several months later I was downtown with some other guys trying to find an establishment that would serve us an alcoholic drink. As I was to discover, there were a number of places that looked the other way as far as serving teenagers alcohol. I think that the bar owners looked at serving under ager’s drinks and being caught and paying a fine as just a cost of doing business.
I ordered my first alcoholic drink in a place on St. Catherine Street called the Venus de Milo Room. After surveying the drink menu I ordered a Sidecar. Years later I did a bit of bartending and a lot of waiting on tables and nobody ever ordered a Sidecar.
The area I grew up in Montreal, N.D.G., was quite conservative and in high school drinking was not what most kids did. If you did you certainly didn’t tell your parents that you were going to spend the night getting pissed somewhere. It was all clandestine. In some ways, getting drunk for the first time was like losing your virginity. Nobody ever thought about who might be getting started on a life of being an alcoholic.
There was a rumour mill if you were about 17 or 18 as to where a young guy could get into a nightclub. Carloads of Montrealers would head out of town on weekends to places like Brodie’s on the beach in Plattsburg, New York, The Saxony in Rouses Point, New York, The Inn, Nadeau’s, and Nymark’s Lodge in St. Sauveur in the Laurentian Mountains. Labatt’s 50 and Molson Export were the most common beers asked for in St. Sauveur and you ordered them in quarts. A few never made it home from those drinking excursions.
In downtown Montreal, two of the easier places to get a drink, pimples or not, were the Café Andre and the downstairs bar in the Berkley Hotel.
The Café Andre was run by and older gentleman with white scrambled hair. It seemed like he was always counting heads. The place was just off of Sherbrooke Street by McGill University. It wasn’t very big. The bar sat maybe 8 people with 4 or 5 other small tables tables. There was a curtained entrance to a bit larger room that had a very tiny stage. The place was known as a folk singing joint. A group called The Raftsmen provided the entertainment for a few years and they were followed by Penny Laing who sometimes had people lined up down the block to get in.
The Raftsmen started out as a trio playing acoustic guitars. They later went electric when a guy from New York (I think his name was Jake) joined them. One of their songs was called “The Big Bamboo”. I think they got the song from Jamaica. It was quite suggestive. Another song they frequently sang was “Scotch and Soda” which I think ranks right up there with Sinatra’s “It’s A Quarter To Three”. Other tunes they sang were a Canadian version of “This Land Is Your Land” and “Something To Sing About, This Land Of Ours”. “From the sound of Mount Royal’s Chimes, up to the Maritimes…..”
When the “British Invasion” happened in rock and roll the old guy who owned Café Andre decided to open a place upstairs to cater to people who preferred wilder music than folk and liked to dance. They had a disc jockey who I think was named Gordie Lariche. He once told me a story about being a golf hustler in Texas and turning his profits into a Studebaker Avanti sports car. It could have happened? I remember dancing with a gal I met from Verdun to the Stone’s “Get Off Of My Cloud” and Len Barry’s “1-2-3”.
The bartender downstairs at the Berkley Hotel on Sherbrooke Street was German or Austrian. The place was really only for going to have a drink. Although there wasn’t any dancing there was a juke box. For several months the Association’s “Never My Love” was played over and over again. A number of wealthy Westmount kids hung out in the bar and occasionally the bartender would hand the phone over to them. Maybe an inquiring parent wondering how drunk their kid was and if a car should be sent to pick him up?
When I was still in high school somebody rented a room at the Berkley Hotel and over 100 people turned up and trashed the place.
Now and then the police raided places where underage drinking was going on. All in all I think I was picked up and taken away in a paddy wagon about 4 times. One of those 4 times was at the Café Andre and another was at the Berkley Hotel.
Some young guys would head down to Lake George, New York on the Labour Day weekends for 3 days of drunken partying. The town is about half way between New York City and Montreal. I remember somebody putting Kool Aid in the motel manager’s aquarium. The town was packed with people on those weekends. Motorcycle clubs, hippies, college kids, all turned up. I remember this one huge bar very near Fort William Henry and facing the lake. A black guy who looked a bit like Jimmy Hendrix with a headband and a vest and his band were the entertainment. The security staff were all local guys and wore road crew vests. I remember standing outside this joint and seeing drunks and shit disturbers being tossed out on their ears. The only thing missing was the saloon swinging doors.
Back in Montreal things were changing very fast. Coffee houses started to spring up like The Yellow Door on Aylmer Street and The Limelight on Pirece Street. A guy named Gary Eisenkraft from N.D.G. owned a number of these joints including The New Penelope. He brought acts like Gordon Lightfoot, Ian & Sylvia, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Buffy St. Marie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee to Montreal. A big name folksinger at the time was Bruce Murdoch. One night I saw him outside one of Gary Eisenkraft’s clubs totally wasted. Years later I was surprised to read that he had put his life back together and had actually been a high school principal for a time. Good for him!
Gary Eisenkraft had a pretty interesting life and I highly recommend Googling him. Unfortunately the only time I met him was one night when he was checking out the line-up outside one of his clubs and picking out who could jump the cue. Shades of Steve Rubell at Studio 54 in New York a few years later?
Nightlife in Montreal was evolving. You just had to decide what your musical preference was. There were places for jazz, places that looked liked discos, clubs that specialized in soul music, and of course venues that were all about rock and roll.
All the “soul” nighclubs had a large amount of black patrons. Places like The All American, Rockheads’s Paradise Club, and The Esquire Show Bar. The Esquire had as its stage a platform that was above the service bar. One night I saw Junior Walker And The All Stars there. Man, that guy could blow sax. The odd thing was that his group was all dressed up in costumes that made them look like Robin Hood.
Over near the Montreal Forum a place opened called Your Father’s Moustache. It might have been in the old El Morocco building. People sat at big long tables stacked with huge pitchers of beer and sung along to some of the corniest songs ever while a Dixieland band with striped pink and white striped shirts and suspenders banjoed away. I think the joint lasted about a year or so. There was also the same club out in Vancouver for a short while.
I picked up a gal one night at Your Father’s Moustache and we ended going out for about a month. One night, we were both asleep in her basement apartment in Snowden when we heard some banging and crashing. Some guy was trying to climb in the window. I picked up an iron off of the ironing board but thought the better of it. It turned out it was the gal’s Swedish ex- boyfriend. In his drunkenness he asked me to go outside and fight him. I got my clothes on. We were kind of circling one another when he took his shirt off. He looked pretty fit. I got in one shot and thought the better of this deal and took off into the night. The gal and I broke up a week or two later. About a month later I was back at Your Father’s Moustache and spotted the Swedish guy walking towards me. I thought I was in for a beating. Instead, what happened was he sat down and bought me a beer and we both agreed the gal was a big waste of time. There is nothing wrong with being lucky once in a while.
A lot of young guys back then discovered local taverns that had been around for years. The beer was cheap (10 cents for a small draft) as was the food which always came in large portions. A hangout for many years for university students was the Stanley Tavern. Seated in amongst the students were the regulars who were often old drunks. The common term for them back then was “rubby dubs”. A lot of students looked at them as an annoyance, perhaps because they would sometimes try to horn in on a conversation or become a distraction. A few students would toss their one cent coins in the urinals in the bathroom knowing that the old drunks didn’t have much money. It wasn’t a nice thing to do.
In the 1950s my father had an office on Crescent Street in one of the old houses that later became bars and restaurants. I remember his copies of some the Group Of Seven’s work on his office walls. By the mid 1960s, Crescent Street, Mountain Street, and Bishop Street were all starting to become the hip area of Montreal.
I think Le Drug was on Mountain Street. It had kind of a chainmail tent like entranceway. Very artsy. I was only in the place a few times and kind of got the impression that most of the patrons were French Canadian intellectual types. Quite possibly plotting to get rid of us English speaking types. I remember that they made baguette sandwiches.
Over on Crescent Street a little pub (compared to today) called The Winston Churchill Pub opened around 1967. It wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. It was common to see guys there from the Maritimes with their beards and pea jackets in the pub.
I can’t remember the exact location of the place but I believe it was called Le Discotheque. My understanding was that a Disco was a concept initialized in France and was basically a dance club with a disk jockey who played whatever music was popular at the time. This was a bit different than the disco craze that happened later in the mid 1970s when the tunes that were played were almost all several minutes long and had a certain kind of high energy beat.
(A lot of people forget that the twist craze in the 1960s was kind of a second go around. Chubby Checker recorded The Twist 2-3 years before the craze. Hence his tune Lets Twist Again.)
All of sudden there were a number of discotheque type dance clubs downtown. I hung around the downstairs Copacabana and La Place Pigalle near Olgilvie’s department store for a while. Both were on St. Catherine Street. Other places I remember were The Scandanavian Club and The Seven Steps. I remember dancing to Chis Montez’s “Call Me” and the Box Tops’ “The Letter”…”.Give me a ticket for an aeroplane, ain’t got time to catch a fast train” at the Copa.
I knew a kind of sucky guy at one of the frat houses I stayed at who was from out of town and had somehow managed to buy himself a membership at the new Playboy Club that had just opened on Sherbrooke Street near the corner of University. One night he invited me along as a guest but for some reason I never got past the front door.
Over those years I was in a number of joints only once. One of these places was a spot called Aldo’s. They had a doorman that looked like Herman Munster. The gal who took the cover charge was about 60 and quite overweight. Once I got into the place I realized that there were only 2 or 3 other customers. A fool and his money are easily parted I guess.
Anyone who spent some time downtown at night in Montreal in the mid to late 1960s will remember the go-go place on St.Catherine Street. I can’t for the life of me recall the name of the place. You didn’t have to go into the nightclub to recognize the place. Naked go-go gals danced solo in a window on the second floor. I don’t know how the management ever got away with it.
I was a regular customer at the go-go club for a number of months. You would walk up the stairs and pay an admission price. Then an older guy in a tuxedo with slicked back white hair would take you to your table. He would then curve one of his hands backwards to receive his forthcoming tip. If you didn’t get the jist of what he wanted and were perhaps from out of town, a waiter might whisper in your ear what the local decorum was about tipping.
One night I went to walk up the stairs and a number of the waiters had rags in their hands and were wiping up blood. It seems that the French navy was in town and there had been some kind of disagreement. The waiters in the club were tough S.O.B.s and I always watched my peas and queues.
On another night in the club I was sitting at the bar and decided to go and ask a gal to dance who I had met on another previous night. When I got back to the bar I told the guy next to me that I thought this gal was going to be pretty easy. It turned out the guy at the bar I was talking to was her brother. Ouch!!
A lot of the last half of the sixties was about hippies and student protests and the Viet Nam war. Montreal was no different than a lot of American cities in some ways. I knew two different guys who didn’t know one another who got up on step ladders on St. Catherine Street and did some ranting in front of large crowds. One was a guy named Alan Marks who I had gone to school with in N.D.G. I used to watch Huckleberry Hound cartoons at his house. The other guy was Dave Young who was from Toronto but was a student at McGill. I rented my apartment in Cote St. Luc to him a few times for the night so he could have some “personal” time with his girlfriend.
Another odd nightspot was a place called the Pussy Galore. It was right next to the Sir George Williams campus on Burnside (de Maisoneuve). A cook in a restaurant where I worked suggested that I meet him there for a beer. The joint was hardly a university hang out. I ran into a neat guy I used to walk to high school with now and then. The cook guy told me my old high school friend was now pimping for his sister. I never knew if it was just BS but nevertheless it creeped me out. I never went back there. Anyway pretty well everyone in the place looked like a gangster and I wasn’t looking for trouble.
Somewhere along the line I managed to scrape up enough money to buy myself a 3 piece pin striped suit. There were a number of times I would grease myself up with Bain de Soleil in the daytime and head downtown in my spiffy suit with no more than a few bucks in my pocket. By the end of the night I didn’t have enough money left to catch a bus.
I started to get involved with French Canadian girls. I remember one of them had a fur coat and later went on to be a university professor. I ran into her a few years later in Banff. I wasn’t above doing a little fibbing to them at times although I wasn’t a congenital liar. I told some of them that I was a writer to deflect from the fact that I was often broke. The starving artist routine? At least I didn’t have to use the “come on up to my room and see my etchings." (Although I never used it, I always liked the line “Do you like music? Why not come up to my room? I have a radio.”
In 1969 I was living at a frat house at the top of university street and renting out rooms to out of towners. Occasionally if they seemed like good people I would show them the night spots around town. I also spent a number of nights at a nightclub on La Ronde. I always looked younger than my age but I was now 22. I didn’t have a driver’s licence and one night at La Ronde the security guy told me he wouldn’t let me in without ID. I was surprised that nothing happened after I pushed him aside and walked in.
I left town and hitchhiked across Canada to Vancouver. I hung around there for a few months and made my way back east again. I really didn’t have much of a plan. I phoned up an old high school friend from Montreal one cold autumn night in Toronto and ended up moving in with him and another high school friend. Over the next year and a half or so we would go down to Montreal for weekend every now and then. We almost always ended up at the Winston Churchill Pub.
Can I use the Gino Vanelli lyric again?……”When I dream about those nights in Montreal….”
PS….Montreal wasn’t the end of my night clubbing days. There are tales still to tell of other cities I have lived in. And….just for the record I never became an alcoholic which was more good fortune than anything else. I used to say that there are two things that I could never be in life, gay or an alcoholic. Even if I was interested they both look like they require just too much effort.