Inaugurated by Montreal Mayor Camilien Houde in 1928, the Empress Theatre was long considered the absolute jewel amongst the city’s many vaudeville-style theatres. Ornate, richly decorated and exotic, the Empress was impressively luxurious and emblematic of the middle-class aspirations of the ‘Roaring Twenties’. At the time NDG was a choice address for the Francophone and Anglophone white-collar middle-class of Montreal, and the Empress was built to serve upwards of 30,000 residents as a primary source of neighbourhood leisure and entertainment. Located on iconic Sherbrooke Street across from NDG’s main public green space, the Empress was originally a single large hall with a balcony, with seating for 1550 people. Next door, a small hotel was built to accommodate performers. In its early years, the Empress succeeded in providing a diverse array of live performances, including vaudeville and burlesque, in addition to silent and pre-code era films.
The Empress remained a double-bill movie house for more than three decades before being converted into a Las Vegas style dinner-theatre review named the Royal Follies beginning in 1962. The original interior designs by Emannuel Briffa were changed at this time, and the Empress Tea Room shut down.
After three years as the Royal Follies, the building was sold and redeveloped as Cinema V, undergoing its first major renovation. It was divided into two projection rooms, rechristened and the interiors were updated with holes cut into the ceiling for ventilation, in turn leading to the installation of a suspended ceiling. The original marquis was destroyed and replaced with a more modern design, and Cinema V ran for two decades as an adult, then art house and finally as a successful repertory cinema. For this reason, Cinema V and the Empress is well-rooted in the experience of Montreal cinephiles.
Famous Players purchased Cinema V in 1988 and returned the theatre to its original vocation as a first-run movie house. Unfortunately, a major fire in 1992 resulted in considerable damage to the interior. The Empress has remained closed to the public, though still standing, for 24 years.
The City of Montreal took ownership of the Empress in 1999.
Following a public tender for proposals in January of 2012, the borough of Cote-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame-de-Grace gave its support in September of that year to an ‘Empress Theatre revitalization project’ proposed by Cinema NDG.
This nonprofit organization was given the rights to develop a financial plan and conclude an agreement with the City of Montreal to maintain the building.
A statement of heritage value was drafted by Heritage Montreal in October of 2014 given the architectural value of the building lies in its unique aesthetic qualities, themselves emblematic of the fashion popular during the era of the theatre’s construction.
Statement of Heritage Value Concerning the Empress Theatre
The Empress’ heritage value lies first and foremost in its history. The history of cinema in Montreal stretches back one-hundred and twenty years in time and has witnessed the evolution of an evening’s entertainment over that time. The Empress’ story is that of Montreal’s golden age ‘movie palaces’ and reflects the evolution of the film distribution industry over the same period of time. The ownership of the Empress, like other theatres of its era, passed from large chains to independent owners and back again. Its change of vocation, beginning in the 1960s, came with the drop in movie theatre attendance ushered in with the rise of television. The building housed a cabaret from 1962 to 1965, then a repertory cinema, and was then known as Cinema V from 1975 to 1992.
The architectural value of the Empress Theatre lies primarily in its richly decorated and ornate Egyptian Revival facade, reflecting a style popular at the time of the building’s construction. This aesthetic inspired the overall design by Joseph-Alcide Chaussé, the facade work by sculptor Edward Galea and the interior design and decoration by Emmanuel Briffa. The Empress’ architecture is also notable given it was the first Montreal movie theatre to adopt a strict fireproofing standard, in addition to the multifunctional character of the building.
Its location on Sherbrooke Street West across from NDG Park, as well as its form and function within the urban environment, gives the Empress an undeniable heritage value.
Finally, the Empress remains a fixture in the collective memory of the residents of NDG who frequented the establishment in the past, in addition to a source of wonder and mystery for those who never had the chance to go inside.
Source: Patrimoine Montréal