Culture | The Empress may or may not strike back

Kaj Huddart investigates the continuing question of and NDG landmark's future

In a city of many abandoned buildings, the Empress Theatre is unique. A grand five story structure that faces Sherbrooke in Notre-Dame-de-Grace (NDG), just west of the Décarie expressway, the Empress is both aesthetically and historically intriguing. The faux-grey-stone façade of this former theatre and cinema is adorned with numerous Egyptian motifs: pharaohs, goddesses, hieroglyphs, and winged deities. The effect is gaudy, bizarre, and impressive all at once.

The theatre’s appearance, a little out of place in the NDG neighbourhood, can be explained by its origin. It was built in 1927, when Egyptian pastiche was very popular. Tutankhamen’s tomb had been discovered five years prior, and it captivated the world with the Pharaoh’s burial mask and spectacular treasure trove. The images and symbols in the Pharaoh’s tomb were co-opted by the Art Deco style of the day, and found their way onto the front of theatres across North America. Hollywood still has one; there’s one in Boise, Idaho; and another in Park City, Utah, which is a favorite of the Sundance Film Festival. The Empress Theatre is the last Egyptian-style movie palace remaining in Canada.

For much of the twentieth century, the Empress enlivened the stretch of Sherbrooke west of Décarie with live performances and movies. The area now houses little more than the small venues of a handful of cafes and bars.

From 1927 to the 1960s, the Empress showed silent movies, vaudeville, and films. Then, in 1962, it reopened as a supper club called “The Royal Follies” that featured a “bacchanalian” atmosphere. This was not to last, however, as the Empress was re-inaugurated in 1968 as the “Home of the Blue Movies”: “Blue Movie” is an old-fashioned term for porn. Having descended several rungs on the perceived cultural ladder, it soon regained some of its old respectability when it became Cinema V, an art-house and repertory affair remembered fondly by many local residents. That ended in 1989, when Cinema V became a Famous Players franchise, intending to show a more mainstream catalog. Unfortunately, a fire gutted the theatre after a year, and the Empress was abandoned.

Twenty years after the fire, little has physically changed at the Empress – it remains in disrepair. While numerous community groups have attempted to organize a restoration of the burnt-out structure, all these efforts have failed due to a lack of funding and political support. The most recent attempts were spearheaded by The Empress Cultural Centre (ECC), which consists primarily of interested community members. The group has partnered with big-time developers Phil and Anthony O’Brien – the founders of real-estate company Devencore – and Talia Dorsey, a young architect who recently established her own practice after working at Rem Koolhaas’ Office of Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam.

The ECC originally accepted a sixty year lease on the Empress, with the intention of developing the building on behalf of the community. However, citing the lack of progress on the part of community groups, the city of Montreal decided to unequivocally revoke the lease in August 2011, and the ECC, which had formerly occupied a small room on the main floor of the Empress, was effectively evicted. The ECC claims that they “outlined a proposal” for the Empress to borough mayor Michael Applebaum, who rejected it, despite the involvement of the O’Briens – a significant private sector partner.

According to Paul Scriver, a representative for the ECC, their goal is to “revitalize Sherbrooke Street by developing the theatre for multiple users”. Their plan proposes a symbiotic relationship between the businesses and cultural activities that would coexist in their model for the redeveloped theatre. One key element would be an “accessible, high quality restaurant” with street-front presence. However, the ECC has not yet made public exactly “who the specific partners would be”, said Scriver.

When asked by The Daily, the city administration claimed that only a vague outline of the ECC’s plan was ever shown to the municipality. Stéphane Plante, director of the local borough, told The Daily that the city removed the ECC’s lease in order to allow other possible developers to submit a plan. The ECC, the borough administration, and the Montreal Gazette have all mentioned the interest of another party, rumoured to consist of the developers of the Beaubien cinema in Rosemont, and local film producer Kevin Tierney. The Daily has been unable to contact this group, reportedly operating under the moniker Cinéma NDG. This group would theoretically compete against the ECC for the right to develop the Empress theatre. Paul Scriver mentioned that the ECC has tried to reach out to Cinéma NDG, but that any hope of collaboration “hasn’t worked out yet”.

Plante explained that the city plans to declare an Appelle de Projet Publique: a ninety-day period during which the city will accept proposals to develop the structure. A seven-person jury, composed of both community members and experts, will judge the proposals. Plante noted that the city would prioritize a cultural vocation for the Empress, but that any project must be financially self-supporting, and expect no help from the city government. Furthermore, Plante expressed doubt that the Empress can be supported by cultural activities alone.  So far, only Cinéma NDG and the ECC have expressed interest in responding to the Appelle de Projet Publique.

It remains to be seen exactly when the ECC and Cinéma NDG will submit their proposals to the city.  Plante claimed that the Appelle will take place in 2012 – and, with these developments, this year may mark a new beginning for the historic NDG landmark.