Trendsetting Variety Shows
The effervescence of Saint-Roch’s cultural life is rivalled only by its rich array of means of expression, especially in the performing arts. The contemporary culture found there may not always be rooted in the district, but in its own way, Saint-Roch has long been a centre for theatre, vaudeville, cabaret, cinema, song, and other performing arts in Québec City. Never a dull moment in Lower Town.
Fun at the theatre
In the late 19th century, Saint-Roch’s working class put in long hours on the job and was eager for some form of entertainment at night. Those who could afford it took in the ever-popular theatre shows at the Champlain Maritime Station, Théâtre des Variétés or Jacques-Cartier Concert Hall. The troupes were mainly from Montréal or France. The fare usually consisted of light comedies, variety shows, or vaudeville—a hodgepodge of routines by magicians, operetta singers, trained animals, or slapstick performers. These three venues were very popular in the early 20th century but the curtain fell on all of them in 1910 and 1911 as a result of fires.
Palais Royal (today’s Imperial Theatre) and Théâtre Crystal (on the site of Théâtre de la Bordée), both located on rue Saint-Joseph, were quick to fill in the gap. In the 1920s live performances ceased, and the theatres became movie houses.
Excitement at the cabarets
The people of Lower Town loved live entertainment and turned to cabarets where standup comics and singers regaled the audience while it drank and dined. Cabaret Rouge, Chez Émile, Baril d’huîtres, and the Château Champlain cabaret were frequented from the 1940s to the 1960s. Many budding stars of the stage made their debuts at these noisy, smoke-filled cabarets—songstress Alys Robi, singer and actor Jean Lapointe of the Jérolas, and Montréal performers such as Denise Filiatrault and Dominique Michel. Chez Gérard, which opened for business in 1948 across from the train station, was an exception. Here, the audience gave French megastars such as Édith Piaf, Gilbert Bécaud, Jacques Brel, and Georges Brassens, as well as Québec performers, their undivided attention. Chez Gérard closed in 1978.
La Tour Concert Hall, with a seating capacity of 500 in a former round-shaped gas storage facility, completed the entertainment slate with boxing and wrestling matches, which were very popular until 1965.
Starting in the 1990s, a series of initiatives and productions drew more and more performers and digital artists to Saint-Roch. Little by little, a rich array of performance art found a place at the various venues. Showcasing modern dance to chamber music, and including jazz, slam, techno, performance, rock, and screenings on buildings, Saint-Roch has clearly become Québec City’s trendiest part of town.