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Théâtre Impérial

Théâtre Impérial

Cinema’s Early Days in Québec City

This grand old façade from days gone by is a reminder that in the early 20th century the public was enthralled at the thought that for mere pennies it could rub shoulders with the stars at the movie theatre. The craze sweeping North America took quick hold in Québec. This grand and luxuriously appointed theatre, originally known as Palais Royal, first opened its doors in 1911. Over time, though, it would have to turn to more than just the silver screen.

A magical invention

Cinema made its appearance in the late 19th century. The first big chain of movie theatres took root in the United States in 1905. For a nickel, anyone could sit in a Nickelodeon theatre with its lavish displays and dream of a different life. The movies were a popular form of entertainment, but originally they were part of variety shows.

The movies come to Québec City

The first films shown in Québec City in 1898 had two very different audiences: well-off anglophones from Upper Town and working-class francophones from Lower Town. On rue Saint-Joseph, the vaudeville shows at the Jacques-Cartier Market were the first to include short silent films. They filled the intermission and helped segue between sketches.

An increasingly popular form of entertainment

Musicians and a narrator provided live accompaniment for these short silent movies. But in the 1920s, barely ten years after Palais Royal had opened, feature films starring the great names of Hollywood had become the norm. The public couldn’t get enough.

And so the movie theatre replaced the variety theatre on rue Saint-Joseph, a street that was made for Hollywood, with its department stores, entertainment venues, and all-round American feel. It was, after all, the city’s most modern street.

Talking pictures

The Impérial was the first to bring the “talkies” to Québec City. Fourteen months after the first entirely talking picture was projected in the United States, the Impérial opened its new state-of-the-art facilities in September 1929.

The building’s current façade dates back to this time—1933 to be precise, since the Impérial had to be rebuilt after a devastating fire. It was a reflection of the dream world movies offered at a time of economic crisis. The theatre was bigger, too, with a capacity of 980.

The two other movie theatres on rue Saint-Joseph were the 800-seat Princesse right around the corner, which had the same owner, and the Pigalle, which used to stand where Théâtre de la Bordée is today, at number 315. The three theatres were the busiest in town.

Decline and rebirth

The Saint-Roch neighbourhood grew poorer, and increasing numbers of residents left for pastures new, leading the Impérial to rethink its programming in order to survive. Relaunched as Midi-Minuit, it showed porn movies in the 1970s and 1980s. The abandoned building was meticulously restored in the mid-1990s and opened again as a concert hall.

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