Saturday, February 20, 2016
Laurier Palace Theatre Fire
Sometimes only a tragedy can effect changes which benefit society. The early part of the twentieth century saw no uniform building standards in the public structures of Montreal. Not until 1927 was this noticed to be a danger to the lives of the citizens who dwelt in the province. On January 9, eight hundred children aged five to fifteen were attending a movie at the Laurier Palace Theatre. All of them sat in the balcony enthralled by the comedy 'Get Em Young'. Under the floorboards a cigarette lay smoldering. In an instant it flared into a big fire. An usher tried to extinguish the flames unsuccessfully while calling to the children not to panic, but they became hysterical anyway. They fled from the balcony trying to get down the stairs to safety but as the doors opened inward, the great crush of small bodies pushing out kept the exits tightly shut. Children were trampled to death as more and more of them reached the doors in their haste to get out. The smoke choked and blinded the kids and more panic ensued. Although fire station number thirteen stood just across the street, they did not arrive soon enough to divert the tragedy. Many children had already been crushed underneath the feet of other kids when the firemen came. The men chopped holes beneath the stairs and walls, dragging children to safety. Many had already expired from asphyxiation and being crushed. One fireman, Adelard Boisseau, discovered his six-year old son's body when he entered the building. Later, at the morgue, he found two more of his children. This place became filled with distraught parents throughout the evening. Many parents were questioned as to whether their child had been accompanied by an adult or someone who could have calmed them. The answer was usually no. Immediately the Catholic Church exerted their great influence. Priests, who had always worried about the safety of people's souls called for changes as the shocking story hit the news. On January 11, the city held church services for all the victims. There were 78 dead children in all, most of them French-Canadian. The funeral procession was attended by 50,000 people. Mayor Moderic Martin issued condolences to the families from his office and the Montreal Theatre Managers' association began collected money for the families of the dead. They set their goal at $10,000, which would be $120,000 in today's money. The co-archbishop of Montreal railed from the pulpit, preaching that cinemas were unhealthy for children. It weakened the lungs, he said, and gave children sinful ideas which led to immorality. He demanded the moving picture theatres be closed to children. A few months later a judge recommended that everyone under sixteen be barred from public cinemas. More importantly, building codes were also changed. Now all safety doors had to open outward. In 1967, the ban on children at the cinema was lifted. Forty years of safe movie viewing plus the decline of influence of the Catholic Church made people stand up for children again visiting the theatres. Laws were modified with movies labeled as 18 and over, 14 and over and general admission. All this happened at the same time as Expo '67 when Montreal was opening itself to the world. Even though some of the survivors still lived, older folks now who could remember the smoke, heat and panic of that night, the majority of Montrealers were convinced that their children could now sit safely in a cinema and thrill to cartoons and comedies like other kids around the world.