This Week in History


The Golden Age of Theatres

For the week of Monday November 19, 2012

On November 20, 1993, the Outremont and Rialto theatres, both located in Montréal, were designated sites of national historic significance. These two lavish theatres, with a seating capacity of over 1,000 people, were built during the golden age of theatres, from 1915-30.

Canada’s first movie theatre, the Ouimetoscope, opened its doors in Montréal in 1907. Many others followed, all of which were called “scopes.” Their façades were sometimes gaudy, made from inexpensive materials. Starting in 1915, these “scopes” were replaced by more sophisticated luxury theatres, designed by renowned architects and decorators. These venues were built for the audience’s comfort and, through their refined decor, sought to attract a new clientele. Many of the luxury theatres built during that time, including the Rialto and the Outremont, still exist in Montréal to this day.

Rialto Theatre
© Jean Gagnon, 2011
The Rialto Theatre was built in Montréal’s Mile End in 1923-24. Designed by architect Joseph-Raoul Gariépy, it has a long façade that draws much of its inspiration from the Opéra de Paris. Its auditorium is characterized by a plush Baroque-inspired decor, with tones of red and gold: the balconies are draped in satin, the walls are adorned with masks symbolizing comedy and tragedy, and the room is illuminated by a stained glass window. When the theatre first opened, it featured Hollywood films. Over the years, it expanded its repertoire to include Greek films, variety shows and art house movies.

Opened in 1929 in the heart of Outremont, the Outremont Theatre was conceptualized by architect René Charbonneau. It is one of the first examples of Art deco-style cinema architecture in Canada. The building’s exterior is rather sober, combining classical elements and modern materials (such as artificial stone). In contrast, the interior abounds with sophisticated embellishments, including painted murals, intricate woodwork, mosaics, marble finishes and stained glass. Today, the Outremont Theatre screens variety shows and films.

Outremont Theatre
© Parks Canada / Nathalie Clerk / 1993
Despite their vastly different styles, the interiors of both theatres were designed by Emmanuel Briffa, a prolific and versatile artist. Born in Malta in 1875, Briffa studied in Rome before immigrating to Canada, where he decorated some sixty theatres. He died in 1955.

The Rialto Theatre and the Outremont Theatre, both well maintained, were designated national historic sites in 1993. They evoke an especially prolific era in Canadian cinema architecture. Because he was an outstanding designer of theatre decor between 1920 and 1955, Emmanuel Briffa was designated a person of national significance in 2007. Briffa also decorated the interior of the Granada Theatre, a national historic site in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

For more information about these theatres, read the pages on Rialto Theatre and Outremont Theatre in the Canadian Register of Historic Places.

To learn more about the history of Canada’s theatres, read the articles The Granada, A Theatre of Dreams, The Last Two-storey Theatre, "The Show Place of Toronto", "The Grand Old Lady of Granville Street", A Gem of a Theatre, Something for Everyone, Take a Bow, There's No Business Like Show Business, Tutus at Eaton Auditorium and Downtown Gala Held for Vogue Theatre in the This Week in History archives.

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