“Montreal needs the main”

Par Jessica Murphy le 2 juillet 2009

Surrounding Cabaret Café Cleopatre is a sex store and a nightclub, a vacant lot and sagging, boarded-up buildings with decades of grime ground deep into concrete and stone. On cloudy days the corner looks squalid. Sunny days don’t suit it. 

To get inside, you push through a gaggle of tough-talking strippers on a smoke break and through the music and black lights filtering from their ground floor establishment. 

Up a flight of stairs with one wall covered in framed posters for fetish shows and into a room with gold flourishes, mirrors and a picture of Marilyn on the wall.  

It’s got that look of a bar in the daylight hours, like an aging actress caught with no makeup. 

This room, filled with cheap round tables and a low-lying stage, has been Johnny Zoumboulakis’ second home since he walked in there a month after the close of the 1976 Olympics. 

Now Zoumboulakis, along with fetish event producer Eric Paradis, neo-Burlesque performers from Dead Dolls Cabaret and sundry other people with a bent for slightly saucy art forms have formed a coalition to save the infamous transvestite show-bar from redevelopment plans that will maintain the building’s 114-year-old façade but none of its past. 

“We can’t turn our backs on over 100 years of history,” Zoumboulakis said slowly, in an English still coloured by his Greek accent. “Montreal needs the Main, even with its imperfections.”

The coalition’s argument isn’t over whether the corner needs redevelopment - it’s over who’s allowed to take part. 

“We don’t want to stop progress,” the barman-turned-owner said. “We want to promote it and if possible, be part of it.” 

The neo-Roman building, built in 1895, gained notoriety in the 50s and 60s as Cafe Canasta - a hotbed of violence, crime and sleaze with a wild cabaret nightlife. 

Now, the Societe de development Angus wants to tear down the building - along with the neighbouring Montreal Pool Room and a dismal cut-rate electronics store - for the Quadrilatere St-Laurent project, a 12-storey, 300,000 square-foot Hydro Quebec tower that would extend between Clark Street and St-Laurent Boulevard and from Ste-Catherine Street to the Monument National. 

The non-profit organization, which is also developing the 2-22 project next door, is backed by, among others, the municipal and provincial governments, fellow non-profit developers Faubourg St-Laurent, the directors of the Monument National, the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, Equipe Spectra and Tourisme Montreal. The building, designed by architect Paul Andreu, who’s resume includes the Beijing Opera House and the Institut de tourisme et d’hotellerie du Quebec on St-Denis Street, is a large curving glass office tower rising above the three-storey facades of the historic buildings being preserved as entranceways to stores and restaurants that will occupy street level. 

“We knew from the beginning we were on a symbolic corner,” said SDA president, Christian Yaccarini. But “Hydro-Quebec is giving us an extraordinary opportunity. At some point you have to compromise. It’s too bad, but you have to.” 

His backers say the Quadrilatere would be the boost the intersection needs to lift it from its current state of squalor where only skeletons of its previous vitality remain.

Critics decry a “banalisation” of the area and “facadism.” 

Université de Montreal architecture professor Jacques Lachapelle fears the project will kill a certain kind of urban life that the boulevard’s buildings once fostered. He’s wary of the proposed project’s scale and its chances of promoting the development of small-scale and intimate restaurants, bars and businesses that define the length of the Main. 

“I’m not the only one who says it’s an important boulevard,” he said. “The federal government recognizes it as an historical site in itself. It’s part of the history not only of Montreal, but the nation.” 

For Paradis, whose Club Sin fetish weekends attract international models, performers and aficionados, it’s not about design, it’s about art and respect. He compares the disregard with which they’ve been treated by the city, and to a lesser extent, the developer, to a slap in the face.  

“They never inquired: ‘Is there still life behind the facade?’” he said, citing the hundreds of fashion, theatre and drag performances held at the Cabaret each year.

Neo-burlesque performers Felicity Fuckhardt and Velma Candyass from the Dead Dolls Cabaret are examples of a counterculture art movement that still remain part of the city’s cultural fabric. Decked out in red and black corsets, killer knee-high bondage heels and abundant eye-glitter sparkling under the fluorescent lights of the hotel board room, the performers argued their case at one of Montreal’s public consultation hearings on the project. 

In a presentation that ranged from the history and politics of vaudeville and burlesque to the stage requirements specific to cabaret performances that require direct interaction with the audience, they laid out a host of reasons Montreal’s oldest show-bar should be spared. 

Despite the Dead Dolls’ racy performance (it requires an establishment with adult entertainment zoning), the performers say burlesque is a celebration of joyful female sexuality that may be erotic but is never cheap.

In fact, burlesque has seen a resurgence in the past decade, including Montreal’s Blue Light Burlesque troop, who cut their teeth at Café Cleopatre and have been featured in Chatelaine, Elle Quebec and the Ottawa Citizen. 

“It’s not just the shimmy shake,” Fuckhardt, née Amy Hudston, said of the vaudeville art. “But a little glitz and glam.” 

Zoumboulakis offers artists affordable rates and lets performers rehearse for free, she added. 

“Most of our budget goes into rhinestones,” Hudston quipped. “We don’t have the money to be able to plop down $500 a night.” 

Theatre du Nouveau Monde director Lorraine Pintal, who is a cheerleader for the SDA project, doesn’t disagree with the Dead Dolls or Paradis. She lauds the talent and art being produced by some at Cafe Cleopatre and hopes the city and the SDA will find them a new place to perform. 

But she’s unequivocal about the corner’s need of a facelift.

“It’s too bad (Paradis’) art is tied to an area that’s slated for redevelopment,” she said, adding that she would like to see the city relax its current moratorium on zoning for adult entertainment -  the main stumbling block in any relocation plans for the performers at the cabaret – to allow for the creation of a similar space.

Yaccarini claims he’s willing to help find a place for the artists nearby, something the SDA has done for other organizations including co-op alternative art space Katacombes.

He says Zoumboulakis has shown savvy by using emerging artists as the face of the fight against expropriation. 

 

He estimates the revenue they bring Zoumboulakis, who’s been offered $2.5 million from the SDA, is only a small percentage of the profit made on VLTs and the ground floor strip club. 

 “Will we stop a project for a strip club?” he asked. “I hope that’s not where Montreal is at.” 

Yaccarini fears the project has become a political hot potato smack in the centre of a heated municipal election, something that could jeopardize the project that counts on a tight schedule. (Hydro Quebec’s current lease ends in 2012 and so ground needs to be broken by this coming January.) Delays, he said, would kill the project. 

Montreal’s public consultation office will table its report in mid-July and by early fall, the city’s executive committee will hand down the final decision. 

When asked whether Zoumboulakis thought Café Cleopatre would still be there in five years, he smiled. 

“Only the city of Montreal - and God - can tell us,” he said. 

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