Montreal’s historic Le 456 Sauna (formerly The Neptune Sauna) closed in November 2011 after 33 years of non-stop service around-the-clock
Bugs explores why a Montreal remount of the campy play Bathhouse: The Musical is a good fit in a notorious city that even global drag icon RuPaul says is absolutely drenched in sex…
By Richard Burnett
There is a famous saying about Montreal: “Good boys and girls go to heaven, bad boys and girls go to Montreal.”
If you think Montreal’s a good-time city today, you should’ve seen her back during her Sin City golden era, when she was home to some of the hottest jazz nightclubs on the planet and a wide-open scene fueled by Prohibition stateside.
So the thirsty came to Montreal from all over the continent: gamblers, racketeers and the world’s most famous entertainers, everybody from Louis Armstrong to Frank Sinatra, who held court at the Chez Paree nightclub. The city ranked behind only New York City and ahead of Chicago on the vaudeville circuit, and even Al Capone opened a club here (it still stands today as the Lion d’Or). There were also the over 100 brothels along Ste-Catherine Street between Bleury and Berri streets, in the historic red-light district.
The city’s unofficial theme song was Irving Berlin’s 1928 Prohibition-era hit Hello Montreal!, and the festivities were presided over by “Mister Montreal,” that city’s beloved seven-time mayor Camillien Houde.
Like they sang in Hello Montreal!, “I’ll make whoop-whoop whoopee night and day!”
“Nightclubs were the kind of world that my folks expected, and they weren’t fussy about me being in that world,” famed Montreal jazz pianist Oliver Jones, who began playing in Café St-Michel in 1944 at the age of 10, told me in 2007. “It was across the street from Rockhead’s [Paradise], which was the first black-owned club in all of Canada. The St-Michel was a little rougher… [I] saw a lot of what I wasn’t supposed to see – girly girls and strippers. But the people there, there was always someone looking out for me.” (cont'd)
Montreal police raid Sauna David, April 23, 1980
“We’d put on five costumes and take off four,” 1940s-era Montreal showgirl Tina Baines Brereton told me back in 1999. “We [black girls] didn’t strip. They had white girls for that. They couldn’t dance as well as us, so they took their clothes off.”
Montreal’s most famous, legendary burlesque dancer was, of course, Minneapolis-born Lili St-Cyr. Lili danced in NYC, Los Angeles, Miami and Vegas, but adored Montreal. And the city – and the rich playboys who flocked there – adored her back.
“Every night in Montreal was like New Year’s Eve in New York!” St-Cyr said in her memoir Ma vie de stripteaseuse.
St-Cyr’s reign as Montreal’s most famous woman would end by 1952, and Montreal’s Sin City days were numbered with the arrival of a crime-busting lawyer named Jean Drapeau, who first became Montreal mayor in 1954.
Until then the cops basically only seriously harassed the gay nightclubs. But with Drapeau in office, all vice was now no longer tolerated.Still, when Canadian gay and lesbian military recruits returned home from World War II knowing they weren’t the only fags and dykes out in the world, dozens of gay bars opened up downtown, notably the Down Beat at 1422 Peel and the debut of legendary female impersonator Armand Monroe — better known then as loudmouth Marilyn Monroe impersonator “La Monroe” — in that bar’s Tropical Room in 1957.
In fact, men were first allowed to dance together in Montreal on the night of August 27, 1958, to mark Armand’s birthday.
When officers raided the Neptune bathhouse in Old Montreal in 1976, my friend Henri Labelle was working as the cashier that night. “[The police] yanked off people’s towels and threw everybody together and took pictures and charged them all with being in a common bawdy house,” Henri told me. “There was a former mayor’s son there, a government minister, a secretary to the Catholic Archbishop and a couple of cops, but they were ushered out the back door while everyone else was thrown in paddy wagons.”
Labelle also wonders who really firebombed the Aquarius bathhouse on Crescent Street in April 1975, when Montreal’s Gay Village was still downtown. Three customers died in the Aquarius fire, and two of them — found burnt to a crisp by the second-floor fire exit — were buried in paupers’ graves because their corpses were never identified or claimed by their families.
So it’s quite appropriate that a new production of Bathhouse: The Musical – originally written by Esther Daack and Tim Evanicki for the Orlando Fringe Festival in 2006 – is being staged in the very city that still has more gay bathhouses than any other city on the planet: Yes, you got it, Montreal.
Bathhouse: The Musical tells the tale of a boy out to find love during his first night out at the tubs. It’s campy, funny and the boys perform half-naked throughout the entire show.
|The cast of Bathhouse|
“Well, Richard, like I cast all of the cutie-pies in all of our productions – on the infamous VSP casting couch with a tape measure!” Davyn cracks. “Seriously though, there is plenty of rock-hard eye candy in this production’s ensemble cast… The majority of the cast and all of the leads are musicians in their own right with diplomas in musical studies, they read music and play instruments, some compose, and are all vocally trained. Dancing (ability to learn) and acting chops were secondary in casting our leads.”
The arrival of AIDS would close bathhouses in NYC and San Francisco in the 1980s – a subject (along with the aforementioned police raids) never broached in this campy musical – but it’s clear the point of Bathhouse: The Musical is to uplift and entertain.
This production will also feature a live band when the cast take the stage for both the French and English versions of the musical at Place des Arts during Montreal’s upcoming Gay Pride festival. Ryall then plans to tour the production.
Before he passed away in 2008, former Montreal cop Normand Chamberland – booted off the vice squad in the 1980s before opening Montreal’s famed gay Bourbon Complex, which back in the day boasted a hotel, wedding chapel and the requisite bathhouse – explained to me why all these years after Montreal’s infamous Sin City heyday, the city still packs ‘em in.
“There are a lot of other famous cities, like Kansas City,” Chamberland told me. “Why not go there instead? Because people still come to Montreal to let the good times roll.”
Bathhouse: The Musical is an official event of Montreal Gay Pride and will run at Montreal’s Cinquième Salle at Place des Arts (175 Ste-Catherine Street West), August 15-17 (in French) and August 18 (in English), at 8:30 p.m. nightly. Admission: $32.50 to $37.50. Click here for more info and tickets.