Articles

MONTREAL'S BARGAIN NIGHT OUT

KEN JOHNSTONE November 15 1951
Articles

MONTREAL'S BARGAIN NIGHT OUT

KEN JOHNSTONE November 15 1951

MONTREAL'S BARGAIN NIGHT OUT

Articles

fast and clever floor show built around the most fetching chorus line in the country has made the Bellevue Casino into Canada'~

KEN JOHNSTONE

THE MOST successful night club in Canada is a swarming neon-spangled barn of a place called the Bellevue Casino which has consistently managed to choke its main floor and balcony with seven hundred customers, night in and night out, since it opened in downtown Montreal two and a half years ago.

The Bellevue is a phenomenon in the city’s night life. It has little claim to personality, yet among Montreal’s two dozen first-class night clubs and seventy second-floor bistros it is the only one that can boast a Saturday night line-up to rival the movie queues. People actually stand out in the weather for the privilege of eventually sharing a tiny table with strangers to enjoy an hour’s fastpaced entertainment, quafT a couple of beers and get out.

The Bellevue’s success lies in the fact that it presents the best floor show in town for the lowest average tab. The management admits the average patron leaves behind about a dollar and eighty cents. The admission price is fifty cents first half of the week, one dollar the rest of the time. That means you can take your girl out for an evening at a night club for well under five dollars if you choose the Bellevue. In its first year of operation almost half a million people went through its twin glass doors, paying close to a million and a half dollars to Harry Holmok, the bull-headed Hungarian proprietor who thought it all up.

Holmok is the active partner in a two-man ownership, and two wise decisions he made early in the game have paid handsome dividends. One was to keep t he prices down to bargain levels. The other was to hire Natalia and George Komarov to produce the floor shows.

The Komarovs are experts at the fast-paced noisy kind of show that Holmok likes. They met each other while fleeing

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est money-maker. Yet a guy can give his girl a big time out in Harry Holmok's brassy bonanza for under five dollars

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the Bolshevik revolution (“Was loff at first look”), produced the show at the Folies Bergère in Paris for ten years then came to America. Their French Casino show at the Chicago World’s Fair was so good that rivals threw stink ! bombs at the performers. This failed ! i to deter them. “I take perfume around j to the girls, tell them keep working,” : Natalie recalls. They worked for Earl Carroll and the Shuberts in New York, ; then from 1940 at the rip-roaring Latin Quarter on Broadway. It was here that ! Holmok found them. They now pro| duce thirteen shows a year for him and two for the Latin Quarter, commuting 1 between the two cities in a 1951 Mercury convertible which Natalie drives I at a steady eighty mph.

The Komarovs put the same loving j care into a floor show as Benvenuto I I Cellini put into his engraved salt celj lars. With them it is an art that manages to transcend the tired rou! tines familiar to most night - club ! patrons all over the continent. Usually j North American programs call for just j a couple of fast rehearsals by the chorus | line and a musical run-over with the orchestra. But the Komarovs tolerate ! no such nonsense.

The girls in the handsome Bellevue j chorus really earn their money by doing j ; routines that emerge from the fertile mind and long experience of Mme. j Komarova. The routines aren’t easy, j Usually they are around a theme: Old i Vienna, Spanish, Hawaiian, Gaîté Parisienne, Carmen—whatever the Komarovs may have dreamed up between productions, which run for four weeks. All acts are made to fit this theme. Frequently name acts find their favorite routines scrapped because they ; don’t fit in.

In addition to the three or four big j acts which are booked the Komarovs ! hire two or three singers and two or three dancers, who “dress” the proj duction at the right moments with their wares. As for that familiar North American standby, the master of cerej monies, often he isn’t seen at all, but j makes his announcements from a back; stage mike. Talking comedians are j rare at the Bellevue; they slow down j the show. Sight acts—like tumblers, dancers, acrobats, or musical novelty actsusually fill up the bill.

Between productions the Komarovs scout New York for talent. A new show opens every fourth Thursday. On the Sunday before the Komarovs come to town. The captain of the chorus line is briefed on the theme of the new ! show and the chorus of eight goes into rehearsal, from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. each I day. The singers and the specialty dancers work with them. By about Tuesday the name acts are worked in ; and Thursday afternoon sees the dress j rehearsal.

The dress rehearsal is sometimes better than the show. George Komarov !

; sits at a ringside table, with a clock, j I a notebook and a couple of chocolate !

I bars. He runs back and forth from ,

I time to time, conferring with band: leader Bix Belair. Madame stands down front, nervously watching, then I interrupting to clear up confusions in the newly learned routines. The cap j tain of the line moves like a wellj trained sheep dog with her flock. The i lights are set and reset. Fred Hickey, who handles the big carbon arc light j at the back of the hall, comes in for a lot of direction from Madame, most ; of it incomprehensible to everyone but Hickey: “Heekee! Are you white or

! peenk? Is peenk, is lousy peenk. Always the same old teeng.” And a I fatalistic shrug. But when the show

goes on that night the lights, which add up to twenty-eight thousand watts, work like a dream.

No one is spared by the high-strung Madame. George Komarov, seated at his table and deep in musical arrangements, gets the call from Madame on the stage:

“Komarov!”

“What you want?”

“Come here, I want!”

And when George wishes to catch her ear, he calls, gently, “Natasha.” She pays no attention, so he thunders: “Komarova!” She still pays no atten-

tion whatever to him, so he gives up.

The first show goes on at 10 p.m., and on Thursday nights Madame watches from the balcony, muttering, “Is lousy, is lousy” all through the show, and Komarov makes copious notes. As soon as the first show is over the birdlike Madame disappears from her seat to go backstage and make the necessary corrections. It is rare indeed that the second show doesn’t run smooth as silk.

It was in April 1949 that the Komarovs opened the first show at the Bellevue with the venerable Joe (I

Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now) Howard and his cake-walk, a chorus of eight smartly clad good-looking hoofers, two beauteous and curvaceous show girls in diaphanous costumes, and a loud, fast - moving, cleverly paced hour’s show that sent curious customers away raving about the new joint on Ontario Street.

The new joint was worth the rave. Holmok had converted the old downstairs café into a lounge, installed a Dixieland band headed up by trumpeter Russ Meredith. Upstairs he had ripped out the old ballroom and called

in artist Jean Hébert to do his flowering best with the décor, which now blossoms with huge tulips, pansies, roses, and all manner of strange garden growths. A large raised stage, backed by Bix Belair and his band at one end of the huge room, still left plenty of space for the tiny tables which Holmok had installed. But just to make sure he built a balcony on the third floor to take another double row of tables, making a total of a hundred and twenty tables on both floors. A bar was installed on each floor at the end opposite the bandstand, and a third bar was built downstairs in the lounge.

With a staff of ninety-seven—including twenty-six waiters, eight busboys, five captains and a headwaiter—Hoi mok was ready to do big business. And he did, from the start. Overnight, the Bellevue Casino became the biggest thing in Montreal’s night life. It piled up a first-year’s gross of one million, four hundred thousand dollars and soon stood unchallenged as the biggest, most successful night club in Canada and one of the most successful in America.

How does the cheapest spot in town turn out the best show in town? Mathematics proved how it is possible. The weekly budget for a Bellevue Casino show ranges between six thousand and ten thousand dollars, depending on the cost of the big acts. The club presents two shows nightly, three on Saturdays. At capacity, the admission amounts to exactly nine thousand dollars a week. If the Bellevue does capacity all week it pays for the expensive stage production out of admission prices. The house profit comes from the sale of food and liquor at the tables—though individual checks are small they run up to a very respectable sum when you multiply them by the huge turnover: fourteen hundred

people on week nights, and twenty-one hundred on Saturdays.

Thus the Bellevue Casino proceeds on its highly successful way. with rarely an empty table, even on Mondays. Within its first eighteen months the original investment of eighty thousand dollars had been repaid.

Holmok’s success with the Bellevue was watched with envious eyes by his rivals, and at least one other club tried a similar policy: the Folies Bergère,

which closed within the year with a loss of about fifty thousand dollars. It had no Komarovs, and no Harry Holmok.

Holmok, who came up the hard way, likes to think that a buck goes farther in his bistro than in any other. Together with his silent partner, Jean Brossard, who also owns about twenty taverns and grills, and the newly built Hotel Lapointe in St. Jérôme, Holmok pilots the affairs of the club, assisted by his soft-spoken manager, Joe Krassler.

But the Bellevue is mainly Holmok’s baby. He dreamed about it years ago when he was working for a contractor, installing stairs and railings and dance floors in other night clubs. It was then that he was bitten with the ambition to own “the biggest damn club in Canada.”

He was born in 1898 in a little village in Hungary, the son of a builder. He didn’t get very far in school because he was drafted into the army at sixteen, fighting with great impartiality, first against the Russians (in the Hungarian army) and then against the Germans (in the Rumanian army). He got pretty tired of being a soldier, particularly in the Rumanian army: “A

private in the Hungarian army was smarter than a general in the Rumanian army,” he says. He wore his Austrian and Hungarian medals in the Rumanian army for two years before his superiors noticed them and made him take them off.

“It was the poorest army I ever saw,” he recalls, “two and a half years without pay and without boots.” But after spending seven years between the two armies, Holmok found himself with a great yearning for another clime.

Meanwhile he had learned to speak Hungarian, Rumanian, English, French, German, Russian, Czechoslovakian, and Yiddish.

At twenty-four he arrived on these shores, a hulking powerful man with a great willingness to work at anything that kept him out of the Rumanian army. He went up into the bush to earn the money for the tools of his builder’s trade and managed to come back to Montreal with seven hundred dollars. He recalls the venture with pride. “I could eat five steaks for breakfast and two pounds of bacon at noon,” he boasts. “No women, no whisky—you had to save money. Anybody sick, let him go into the bush for five months. He’ll come back cured.”

In Montreal Holmok the builder began to get contracts for night-club installations. In Europe he had been fascinated by show business, had even taught ballroom dancing between army stints. Slim dancer legs still taper from his barrel-like body. Rut until 1934 the only taste Harry had of the footlights were those he installed in night clubs on St. Catherine, St. Denis, St. Lawrence and the other downtown thoroughfares of Montreal. Then one day in 1934 he was called in to make some alterations for an ailing club called L’Oeuvre. The management couldn’t raise the money to pay Harry’s bill, so he suddenly found himself a night-club proprietor.

He quickly bloomed into an astute operator of low-priced clubs in Montreal’s east end. He opened a second, the Bellevue Grill, in 1938. Beer and cheap entertainment was his guiding policy. Beer was forty cents a quart and there was no admission charge. “That’s where I learned the psychology of mass appeal,” he says. “Give them their money’s worth.”

He purchased the site of the present Bellevue Casino for a low thirty-six thousand dollars but it was not until 1949 that he got his opportunity to try out his theory on a real mass basis.

Holmok leaves the glad handing at the Bellevue to his club greeter, a good - looking former dancer named Ralph Siegall who knows everybody worth knowing and can single out important people and make sure they get seated, even if it is at a table with two other couples.

Which is just as well, for Holmok would likely leave them waiting in line. He has cultivated a dumb brush-off look that serves to intimidate moochers. He tells younger business associates: “Look dumb, then nobody

expects anything from you.” Also, one look at his two hundred pounds, his oversize head, curly close-cropped hair, large forehead, short nose and heavy shoulders usually makes any forceful patron think twice about tangling with him.

Holmok’s simulated dumbness in no way affects his business sense or his understanding of how to keep a club going at capacity. When the spiraling cost of living squeezed night - club patrons and business began to fall off other club owners cut down their budgets; Harry increased his. Some weeks he spent as much as ten thousand dollars to include name acts like Will Mahoney, Joe Howard, the Arnout Brothers, the Calgary Brothers, Esco Larue, the Yacopis, the Debonairs.

Holmok lives in Dorval, a suburb of Montreal, with his wife Ida, whom he met at a picnic in 1926; a spaniel, Nickie; a collie, Lucky; and a canary. They have no children.

Except for his garish ties he dresses conservatively in quiet single-breasted and double-breasted business suits. He likes fishing, skiing and swimming but gets little time for them. He drinks rye moderately.

In spite of an outward gruffness Holmok is well-liked as a boss. When the chorus line changes every six months the old line is always given a big party and presents. Birthdays in the show are always celebrated at his expense with champagne, birthday cake and presents. Unlike other operators he does not ask the line to mix

with the customers to stimulate trade, nor will he permit any fraternization between the line and the regular staff. The girls get eighty dollars a week (the scale is sixty) and the captain gets a hundred dollars. In two years six of the girls in the line married customers.

Partly because its active owner radiates about as much warmth as a dead cod, partly because the nature of the Bellevue’s operation might be likened to that of a groceteria as compared with the corner-store intimacy of smaller clubs, there is little charm or personality to the Holmok emporium of

entertainment. Most people come in just before showtime, and get out as soon as the show is over. The nightclub crowd comes to see the show and then goes over to Chez Paree or some more exotic spot to do its serious drinking. And t hat is okay with Harry. If he has to choose between class and mass, he prefers mass.

Deep down in his mind Harry Holmok is sure he knows how to keep his Bellevue blooming for ever: “Fifty

cents to get in, fifty cents for a beer, and the best show in town. Where can they beat that?” ★