Night life in Montreal is booming "like Big Ben on Armistice Day"—and the playboy pays —and pays—and pays
THE tired businessman who is looking for a headache, a bellylaugh, a bottle of painkiller, a green baize-colored gambling table, a mound of luscious wafer-thin Crêpes Suzettes or a good punch in the schnozzle can lind all of them on the glorious Island of Montreal. He can find them within a seltzer squirt of his downtown hotel room.
Montreal is a bountiful oasis in a land of rationing. Demon rum may be rationed in other sections of the country but there is enough medicinal spirits in Montreal to float the entire Atlantic Fleet up St. Catherine Street. Cigar smokers in other cities may la? haunting streetcar stops, waiting for some fortunate politician to discard a butt, but in Montreal you can buy cigars in handfuls. When a surprised visitor enquires about this apparent anomaly in the national distribution system, the Montrealer merely shrugs his shoulders and looks significantly toward the heavens. It seems that the Island of Montreal is the one section of Canada which hasn’t been blighted by sunspots.
Night life in “The Paris of America” is booming like Big Ben on Armistice Day. From dusk until the milkman starts on his morning rounds the town sputters and fizzes like a Roman candle. Fired
businessmen, expatriates who have fled briefly from the more arid sections of the country, money-heavy warworkers and young men and women of the armed services keep the merry wheels spinning. They range from the plushier nighteries, where it is possible for a party of four to run up a tab of $40 without getting out of a shambling trot, to the innumerable microscopic clubs in the East End where the patrons inhale plebeian beer for relatively modest fees. Generally, though, the customers receive Montreal entertainment at New York prices.
The current boom in night life expenditures dwarfs even the lush days of The Torrid Twenties, when the stock market was on a bender. Experienced entertainment entrepreneurs say that there are two reasons underlying Montreal’s bonanza more people have more money to spend; and Montreal is the only major city in Canada where a person may drink in public to
any extent without running the risk of taking a brisk one-way ride in the Black Maria.
This does not mean that Montreal is an excessively rowdy metropolis, nor does it mean that its residents are confirmed libertines. On the contrary the average Montrealer has enjoyed his liberties for so long that he has little desire to abuse them. The average Montrealer who is abroad after dark in the more genteel sectors is a discriminating diner and a temperate drinker.
The truth of the matter is that the exhilarated guest whom you will see attempting to lead the night club orchestra or lousing up the chorus routines usually is a visiting outlander who is overcome by the sight of an open bar. As one veteran captain waiter phrased it: “The only ones who want to kick holes in the ceiling around here usually come from Toronto or some other place where they can’t get a drink with their meals.”
Night club proprietors scarcely can be classed as moralists, but the Montrealers point out that their own prosperity is no isolated manifestation of war neuroses. The situation in Montreal parallels that in New York, a dozen other American cities and even bomb-battered London.
The pleasures of Montreal are divided into two classes—gustatory and just plain gusty.
The French cooking of the city is ranked with the.
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finest in the world. There are the great j hotels with their excellent cuisine, the I fine restaurants with their elaborate I menus, and the innumerable small epicurean haunts with their specialized dishes and their inevitable, distinctive lurking aroma of onion soup.
Eating, although it is a highly j developed art in Montreal, isn’t necesj sarily an expensive one. For many j years Café Martin and Drury’s English Grill have catered to a discriminating and clamorous clientele and it is j possible to purchase an extremely satisfactory table d'hôte dinner in either of them for as little as $1.15. These restaurants, which are operated by t he former hockey and racing magnate, Leo Dandurand, pride themselves on their cooking and cling jealously to the reserves of their wine list. In Café Martin, for instance, one may obtain fresh caviar for $2 or go as high as $3 j for Poulet Casserole Bourgeoisie which is chicken in casserole to you, Butch, j One may toy with a mess of Frogs’ Legs Meunière and the Crêpes Suzettes, which are unexcelled, cost $1.50, à la ¡ carte. The sauces, which are the prime ingredient of French cooking, cost an I additional 25 cents.
The one large hotel which has conJ tinued to co-ordinate its cuisine and its j night life is, of course, the Mount Royal. In the twenties the Windsor and the Ritz-Carlton also catered to the dilettante set, but gradually the younger members of the community were lured to the Mount Royal by the effete and brassless rhythms of Jack Denny’s Orchestra. Denny drifted on but his youthful a Aficionados continued to haunt the Mount Royal and today it j is still the acknowledged hub of the city’s night life.
For six years now the dinner crowds have been forming up early in the evening at the famous Normandie Roof. Before that the room was known as The Piazza. Victor, the head waiter, has been in charge there since time immemorial and it is said that he knows so many people that he can identify most of them by the sound of their footsteps when his back is turned toward the elevators. When Victor elects to escort one of his favored guests to a ringside table, it is a triumphal procession which, by comparison,would make General de Gaulle’s entrance into Paris look like a small-town carnival. The waiters have been there so long that there is a rumor to the effect that the hotel was built around them.
Dinner on The Normandie Roof is
$2.50 per person. The average drink costs around 65 cents, and on top of j that is the regular cabaret tax of 25% and an additional Provincial Government tax of five per cent. After 10 p.m. there is a cover charge of $1.50 per person. The average check on an ordinary week night runs about $6 per person, depending upon the extent of one’s thirst. The bar closes promptly at midnight, in marked contrast to other night spots.
Peculiarly enough the average check is slightly smaller on Saturday nights but there is a good reason for this. During the week The Roof is frequented by the older members of the community; the businessmen with customers to entertain, the visiting firemen and the experienced, platinumplated spenders. On Saturdays The Roof becomes the playground of the youngsters, whose expenditures necessarily are regulated by the more modest natures of their bank accounts.
The music and the show at The Normandie Roof are neat but not gaudy. Don Turner’s Orchestra owes its long tenure of office there to the fact that its music doesn’t abuse the patrons. Styled for the accompaniment of the more discreet forms of the terpsichorean arts it won’t interrupt t he gent leman who, lulled into a sense of. well-being by Marcel Thomas’ cooking) has reached that stage where lie is telling some enamored debutante of tlie stirring adventures which he experienced while tracking the ibex and the three-toed tree sloth.
The floor show is similarly chaste— no chorus, no master of ceremonies with corn-fed japes. Usually there is a talented ballroom team, the members of which toss each other through the air in a manner which is calculated to give no offense to your maiden aunt. The show generally consists of three acts with a well-known headliner, among whom have heen such luminaries as Carl Brisson, Hildegarde, Jane Pickens and Billy de Wolfe.
The Roof plays to capacity houses every night except Sunday, and on Saturday Victor and his impeccably attired assistants will cram as many as 900 into those pleasant surroundings. The only trifling complaint which anyone has been known to make against The Normandie Roof is that the elevators descend to the sf reet level with such celerity that one has the impression that the stomach and lungs have ht'en left two or three stories higher in the shaft.
f I Milk RE is a notable elasticity in the J. “closing laws.” The two largest and most popular bars in the Mount Royal Hotel and in the Windsor Hotel adhere strictly to a regular schedule, and after closing hours the waiters prove incorruptible when they are urged to procure an illegal libation for some parched wayfarer.
The nighteries apparently set their own rules—the basis of which seems to he, “Don’t close if there’s a good spender in the house.” The formalized night spots are closed on Sunday, but those gay and lawless fellows, the bootleggers, do a flourishing business. They hang out the “welcome” signs and do their best to make their visitors comfortable and unconscious. Incidentally, several of these innumerable illegal dispensaries are much favored by officers of the armed services, even on week nights. ¡ This is explained simply—their tariffs are much more reasonable than those of the night clubs and some of them are operated by genuine “characters,” who regale their patrons with picturesque lies.
Favorite oasis of the out-of-towners I who see'e an exuberantly noisy evening
is El Morocco, a colorful club which features swift-moving entertainment. El Morocco also is the predawn headquarters of the more affluent members of the boxing trade and other robust sporting interests. They say that it cost $100,000 to put El Morocco into operation, and the results of the expenditure indicate that the money was well spent. The décor is worthy of the most pretentious kindred establishments in New York and the lighting is superbly subdued. Sometimes it’s so subdued that you can hardly read the figures on your check without the aid of a pocket torch.
The floor show is big, beautiful and gusty. Inevitably there is an extremely versatile master of ceremonies who keeps things moving helter-skelter and specializes in single entendre humor, which panics everyone with the exception of the occasional dowager who lias strayed in there under the impression that Club El Morocco is a welfare organization, dedicated to the preservation of the culture of the Riffs. The chanteuse of the evening usually is some starlet from New York. The chorus girls are strikingly lovely looking creatures whose presence would enhance the popularity of the place even if they couldn’t dance a step. Many an impressionable young soldier who has experienced the full candle power of their smiles has temporarily forgotten the main provisions of the Atlantic Charter.
El Morocco opens for dinner in the evening and the action continues until 3 a.m. or later. The music of Hal Hartley’s band is very good and it can be heard without the assistance of an ear trumpet. The tariffs???—Well, El Morocco is no place for a junior bank clerk !
All the waiters in Montreal must be brothers. They are grave gentlemen who give the impression that they are mortician’s assistants, wearing rented dinner jackets. There is a rumor that one of them was caught smiling one night, but he was fined $10 by the union and promptly vowed to live a cleaner life. The waiters look so much alike that the night club tourist is likely to have the extremely uncomfortable feeling that the same sterling servitor is following him from club to club.
In the “small-budget” places the waiters have a further disconcerting habit of presenting the bill with each round of drinks. They present the bill with a coldly impassive politeness that brooks no compromise. 11 is considered very poor form to forget the tip with each round of drinks. In fact it is considered such poor form that in some of the rowdier sections the gentleman who exhibits such forgetfulness is likely to receive a slight Michael Finn in the next round of drinks. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Michael Finn is a tasty little potion which will knock the recipient flatter than a flounder.
Regular night club patrons are largely creatures of habit and many of them prefer such bright places as The Esquire Club or The Tic Toc. The latter establishment is the successor to Chez Maurice, of nostalgic fame, and generally is closed during the summer because the thoughtless builders forgot to include air-conditioning equipment. The Esquire, which is operated by Sam Claver, plays to a terrific number of customers and is much favored by the young men and young women of the armed services. The show is noisy, good-natured and paced to appeal to the younger and more strenuous elements. The music is mediocre but the tariff is quite modest.
By and large the music in Montreal is nothing to get inordinately excited’ about. Don Turner at the Mount Royal and Hal Hartley at El Morocco have the most popular bands. The music in the other places is quite adequate but it is unlikely that any radio scouts will be rushing to Montreal to persuade the other bands to appear on the Jack Benny show. The many smaller clubs are operating, naturally, on a restricted budget and, as a consequence, some of the musicians appear singularly undernourished and in need of a good blood transfusion.
The proprietors of Montreal night clubs apparently subscribe to the popular American conception that the dance floor should be approximately the size of the dining-room table in a Kansas farmhouse. Any visitor who ventures into one of those miniature dancing arenas should keep the chin well tucked in and the guard well up. It is possible to sustain some rather nasty wounds unless the patron has had the foresight to equip himself with shin pads.
In many ways the most remarkable place on the Island is The Samovar, which has survived all the vicissitudes of 18 tumultuous years. This amazing record is a tribute to the somewhat overpowering personality of Carol Grauer, a large and impressive gentleman whose fine basso voice can rattle headlights on the automobiles parked outside. Grauer produces a good show on a thin budget of something like $600 per week, and in his genial roaring manner he persuades his customers that t hey should be ashamed of witnessing such excellent entertainment at such shockingly low prices. Grauer must be equipped with mysterious hypnoticpowers because he can introduce The Grogarty Twins, a team of hoofers from nearby Outremont, and convince the audience that they are about to watch Fred and Adele Astaire.
The Samovar is the nocturnal haven of the arty set, and Grauer’s immense acquaintanceship encompasses almost everyone of any consequence in the creative professions of the city. Transient guests often glance slightly askance at regular patrons of the club, some of whom appear to have been occupying the same seats since the place first opened.
Montreal has, in addition, its many dance halls and scores of small “atmosphere places.” The “atmosphere” is provided chiefly by the fact that the ceilings are so low that the cigarette smoke has no means of escape and the customers spend the evening squinting at each other through a fog, which billows only when the gyrations of the performers become particularly vigorous.
The Smaller Bistros
One of the common peculiarities of most of these bistros is that while they eschew a “cover charge,” they have a mysterious checking charge of 18c. per person, which must be paid, cash on the line, before the cage doors are hurled open to admit the guests.
The prices of drinks in the small places are just about as steep as in the more ostentatious clubs—about 85c. per copy, including those taxes. Beer is 42c. a pint. But you’re liable to be snubbed if you ask for it in the larger clubs.
Two feature Negro entertainment and music of the variety that is known in the trade as “gut-bucket.” They are small, illuminated by half a dozen 60-watt bulbs and are approximately as quiet as a shipyard when the riveters are attempting to set a new construction record. The drummers are worthy of attention if only because they beat the drums as if they had been con-
] structed from the skins of their worst ! I enemies.
Farther east a visitor will find places where the floor show runs to stripteuses,
! and one has an interesting and cora! pletely boneless Negro girl who tosses her torso around in an alarming manner which suggests that her convolutions I must have given the automobile manufacturers the idea for “floating drive.”
T here are nasty rumors that some of I the clubs are “fronts” for gambling J establishments. In any event it is more j than possible that anyone who is j properly introduced anti has a good I rating with Dun and Bradstreet can find ample outlet for his gambling proclivities in Montreal. You can take your choicedice, roulette, barbotte, and the horse rooms are open to those who wish to invest in the fortunes of the equines.
The inexhaustible liquor supply in I Montreal’s night clubs is interesting to a visitor. Ostensibly, the liquor has been purchased on permits supplied by the employees of the establishment. Actually, however, anyone with proper : connections in that remarkable city can obtain liquor by the bottle or case without even possessing a permit.
Regardless of how the individual feels about such things in wartime, there is the inescapable fact that the j entertainment business in Montreal is j booming as never before. Hockey j games, wrestling matches, theatres are besieged by eager customers with j money to spend. Restaurants and the j hundreds of taverns are packed. It is j almost impossible to get a seat in the l j bars of the big hotels. F ven Yvon Robert, “the world’s wrestling cham! pion of Montreal,” has gone into the | night club business. He runs several i places, and in a whimsical mood, j common to the members of the wresI fling profession, he opened one of them in the shadow of the Bordeaux Jail.
The thoughtful Montrealers have provided every outlet for the person who insists upon gelling rid of his money. A nocturnal excursion through Montreal can he topped off by taking a ride over Mount Royal in a horsedrawn calèche. This isn’t the speediest form of transportation in the world but that bracing early-morning air will make it easier for the passenger to contemplate his ravaged cheque book (he next day.
It’s more than probable that it is enough to make the boys in France and Italy gag slightly—-but this is part of the “Home Front” in September, 1944.
In Montreal acetylsalieylic acid tablets are sold at the same prices as in ! other Canadian cities.