By: Dick Nieuwendyk – mtltimes.ca
On January 1, 1906, opened the Ouimetoscope at the corner of St. Catherine and Montcalm Streets, in Montreal, the first theatre in the world dedicated exclusively to the showing of movies.
Fascinated with the film industry, and having been a representative for Edison for Eastern Canada, he decided to launch his own Ouimet Film Exchange to distribute and show films, including his own. He modified a kinetoscope that he had bought from Edison to improve its luminosity, he improved the mechanismfor advancing film, and added a second shutter to reduce the optical glitch or “flickers” seen in the early movies. He called his new invention the Ouimetoscope, which allowed him to project films on a larger screen than was possible before modification without loosing picture quality. During the Canadian general election in 1904, he used his improved kinetoscope to project the election returns onto a white sheet tacked to the front wall of the Montreal newspaper Le Patrie.
In 1904 Ouimet invested his life savings of $75, into converting an abandoned tavern/cabaret on St. Catherine St. into a 500-seat nickelodeon with a small screen. The theatre was an instant success, keeping its 500 seats filled at every showing. That same year, aiming to compete with Ouimet, Georges Gauvreau built his Nationoscope, a 600 seat movie theatre at the corner of St. Andrew and St. Catherine streets. Feeling challenged and facing fierce competition, Mr. Ouimet decided to demolish his small theatre and in its place construct what at the time would be the largest movie house in the world, a 1200 seat theatre with plush seating and air conditioning, a rarity at the time, making it one of the first movie palaces. He called it the Ouimetoscope. Two shows a day were given with admission ranging from ten to thirty cents allowing even the working class men and woman to attend. And alreadyin 1906, smoking was forbidden in the theater. Ouimet was committed to a quality experience for his patrons, and would only hire the best musicians to accompany the silent films. The theatre was so successful that others soon opened across Quebec. By 1910, there were over 100 theatres in the province, with about 40 in Montreal alone.
Showing local productions, news movies, French and translated American movies, the theatre would stay open for eighteen years until, in 1922, financial difficulties forced Ouimet to sell the Ouimetoscope. Mr. Ouimet left for the USA and the Ouimetoscope became Le Canadien but was renamed the Ouimetoscope in 1980 when it became a repertoire cinema which lasted until 1992. Léo-Ernest Ouimet returned to Montreal in the early 1930s. He retired from the movie industry in 1935, and took a job as a store manager for the Quebec Liquor Commission.
Leo-Ernest Ouimet died on March 2nd, 1972, at the age of 94. A plaque honouring Léo-Ernest Ouimet and his theatre affixed on the outside wall is all that remains of the building’s important place in cinematic history.
Today, the ground floor facing Ste-Catherine St. maintains its commercial function while the upper floors and the ground floor facing Montcalm Street took on a new residential vocation with 18 condos units on 3 floors. Each condo is named in honour of one of the cinema greats of the last century to recall the history of the building, which also incorporates some architectural and decorative elements that recall its past.
Source: Cinema Treasures / the Canadian Encyclopedia / Jon C. Hopwood, author