In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
Urban planners often try to replicate by design things that formerly happened organically. A good example is Montreal's Quartier des Spectacles, a carefully orchestrated entertainment district that rose on the rubble of a much racier strip of clubs and theatres along Saint Catherine Street.
Montreal became a capital of fun during Prohibition, and remained so till the early fifties. The queen of the scene for seven of those years was the American stripper and burlesque dancer Lili St. Cyr, who famously said that any night in Montreal was like New Year's Eve in New York.
St. Cyr's legend lives on in wistful local imagination, and in the resurgence of burlesque as a period-style entertainment. Those things are about to come together in a new Centaur Theatre musical loosely based on the end of St. Cyr's Montreal career in 1951, called Last Night at the Gayety (opening April 19). The authors are George Bowser and Rick Blue, creators of many comic topical songs and one other musical for Centaur, Schwartz's: The Musical. Like that show, the new one centres on a Montreal landmark: the Gayety Theatre, where St. Cyr staged elaborate fantasies in which she might pose as a jungle goddess or an upper-class woman undressing in her own bedroom.
"I've always been interested in that period," says Blue, who gleaned some details and flavour of the era from old-timers, and from William Weintraub's 1996 book City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s. Blue's script focuses on the events leading up to St. Cyr's indecency trial in 1951 and her departure from the Gayety soon afterward.
The 1940s in Montreal were also a period of civic anxiety about crime, especially in the city's numerous brothels, gambling rooms and after-hours bars. The 1946 murder of a local capo produced a crime-fighter that Bowser and Blue, 70 years later, could present as St. Cyr's nemesis: sometime vice-squad director Pacifique (Pax) Plante.
"Pax sets out to eliminate Lili from the violated city that is rotting at the core because of her," says Bowser, "thinking that if he does that, then everything will become wonderful." A subplot tells of a young girl from a poor Griffintown family who is dazzled by Lili's shows and desperate to enter that world. The whole show is presented as a kind of vaudeville flashback introduced by the Gayety's ghostly former manager, Tommy Conway.
Writing the songs with an ear for the period was a challenge. Bowser and Blue are baby boomers whose default musical idioms are easily placeable among the sounds of their generation.
"I had to go back to music theory to shake off the habits of a 1960s musician," Bowser says. "I'm personally vulnerable to the question: 'Is this going to sound like the music of that time?' I hope it doesn't sound wrong." Director Roy Surette offered his ear to test songs, dialogue and situations, Bowser says.
The show's songs adopt some of the structures popular in the 1940s, including introductory verses. The scoring, orchestrated by Chris Barillaro, is for a combo central to the jazz sounds of that era: piano, upright bass and drum kit. Bowser and Blue wanted the show to have some of the vaudeville flavour still evident in the burlesque of St. Cyr's time, although their more personal connection is with the music-hall traditions of England, where both were born.
They were keen to do right by St. Cyr – "to disrespect her would be wrong," Bowser says.
"But the story is really Pax's," says Blue, who cast him as the villain with a mission who ruins the party by raiding and closing the Gayety.
It's a clear story line, although things didn't at all happen that way in real life. Plante wasn't in the police force when St. Cyr was charged with an immoral performance, after she danced as Salome during the week of St. Jean Baptiste observances. He was immersed in legal work as co-principal counsel at the Caron inquiry into corruption in the police and civil administration, which held hearings from 1950 to 1953.
Even when Plante was head of the vice squad, for 18 months in the late forties and again in 1954, he was more interested in prostitution, illegal gambling and liquor-law violations than in the subjective ills of burlesque. He never mentions the clubs or St. Cyr in a memoir-like book of interviews published in 1972, and she never mentions him in her 1982 autobiography. There's no record they ever met.
As for the Gayety, it didn't close in 1951 after St. Cyr left for a better gig in Los Angeles, but continued running burlesque till 1956. After several name changes and renovations, it's now the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.
Bowser and Blue say that a documentary history lesson was never their aim, and that bare facts shouldn't stand in the way of a good story. "I like a bigger truth than accuracy," says Bowser. "I like accuracy of feeling rather than of date or job description."
The show will no doubt add another layer to the legend surrounding the woman known in her time as Montreal's Sweetheart, who described the town as "a magical city for me, the place where my dreams came true." St. Cyr's trial came to a farcical end when the Crown couldn't induce any of its witnesses to say her performance was immoral, and her day in court doesn't seem to have influenced her decision to move on.
The main unnamed character in Bowser and Blue's story is Jean Drapeau, Plante's co-counsel at the Caron inquiry, who followed its damning 1954 report with a winning mayoralty campaign based on a pledge to clean up the mess. For Drapeau, fading clubs such as the Gayety were just one more impediment to a much larger campaign to modernize Montreal. None of that is the stuff of legend – you just have to look around town.
Last Night at the Gayety will be performed April 19 to May 15 at the Centaur Theatre, Montreal; centaurtheatre.com
Scandal! Vice, Crime and Morality in Montreal, 1940 - 1960, an exhibition about Montreal's Sin City heyday, continues at the Centre d'histoire de Montréal through Dec. 30.