Cartoon from Montreal Star, November 22, 1907, illustrating the problem of women’s hats in the theatres of the day.

Published in the Montreal Gazette, Saturday, May 19, 2012.

One of the favourite pursuits of refined, affluent Montrealers during the Edwardian period was attending the theatre. To see, and be seen, were always part and parcel of daily life within the Golden Square Mile.

Fortunately, there was an abundance of city playhouses to choose from in the first decade of the twentieth century. Old favourites like the Theatre Français on St. Catherine Street East (where Sarah Bernhardt performed in 1905) had been around since 1884. Today that same edifice is home to the Club Metropolis. Elsewhere on St. Catherine Street, four new theatres, opened during the   Edwardian era: Bennett’s, the Gaiety, the Ouimetoscope, and the Princess, the latter opening in October of 1908 at a cost of $300,000. The first two were on the same block adjacent to one another, together within a stone’s throw of Colonial House Department Store (today, The Bay). Both the Princess and Bennett’s were long after demolished.

Perhaps, however, the most important performance venue in the city at the time was Her Majesty’s Theatre on Guy Street, immediately north of St. Catherine. Officially inaugurated on November 7, 1898, with a presentation of the musical comedy ‘The Ballet Girl’, the striking structure could accommodate some 1700 patrons. Over its 65 – year history, the popular playhouse was the site of various orchestral concerts, recitals, plays, and operas. It was initially the property of the West End Theatre Company.

During the Edwardian era (when the venue was known as HIS Majesty’s), the theatre became embroiled in a couple of controversies. The first occurred in the autumn of 1908.

At the time, the McGill University had taken to holding a ‘Theatre Night’ at His Majesty’s. The event was always a boisterous affair with freshman and sophomore students in particular ‘acting out’ in the upper two galleries of the playhouse. Management, always anxious to terminate the happening as quickly    as possible, did everything in their power to calm the undergraduates in deference to the other paying customers.

That particular night, “Miss Hook of Holland” – an English musical comedy – was presented. The Montreal Star reported: “The theatre was decorated with McGill colors, banners and flags, the fringe of freshmen who hung over the top most gallery railing indulging in all sorts of pranks that kept those below them amused if somewhat uneasy”.

During the performance, confetti and white beans were tossed from the balconies on those below. After the production, the tomfoolery carried on into the streets where the students marched eastward on St. Catherine back to the university campus. Near Christ Church Cathedral, fearing damage to private property, the police confronted students in a particularly violent fashion, later necessitating a full civic enquiry into the evening’s events, both within and without the theatre.

The other ‘cause célèbre’ in which His Majesty’s Theatre became embroiled was of a totally different nature. It was also not limited to the Guy Street playhouse.

Simply put, in Edwardian times, many women, ever conscious of fashion, had taken to wearing large, stylish, and flamboyant hats to the theatre, including His Majesty’s. Upon entering the hall, some women chose to remove their headdress or to sit in the back rows so as not to impede the view of many theatregoers. Some, however, refused to do either and maintained a stoic indifference to the problems they were creating for others.

The question reached a culmination in the autumn of 1907 when a Miss Robertine Barry was detained by a police officer for her refusal to remove her colourful and modish headgear. While Barry was eventually exonerated of all charges, the issue would just seemingly not go away.

Mr. W. A. Edwards, general manager of the ‘J.B. Sparrow Theatrical and Amusement Co.’ and owner in 1907 of His Majesty’s (along with several other important city entertainment venues), commented on the state of affairs: “There is no doubt that there is no law to govern the case except the common law of good taste and consideration for one’s neighbours. If a woman is once seated in the theatre and then refuses to remove her hat, we are powerless to do anything”. (Montreal Star, November 21, 1907) Police Magistrate Camille Piché essentially made the same argument in a judgment rendered with regard to the Barry case.

As ladies’ hats became even larger, the whole question became even more contentious in the last two years of the Edwardian period. Like everything else, however, styles slowly changed and the troublesome phenomenon that so plagued His Majesty’s and other Montreal theatres eventually faded away.

His Majesty’s Theatre closed in 1963 after providing nearly 65 years of uninterrupted entertainment to Montrealers of all ages. The historic building was demolished that same year.

(published in the Montreal Gazette, Saturday, May 19, 2012)

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